Lauluväljaku, the Singing Fields, is a forest park in the village of Märjamaa, Estonia. The pines and spruces are hardly noticed by those rushing down the busy highway from the capital, Tallinn, to the resort town of Pärnu. However, for the residents of Märjamaa, this green haven and the outdoor theatre it hides are a vital part of their community life. The forest shields their homes from the noise and pollution of the motorway, and it shelters them from the damage caused by the raging winds of the harsh Estonian winter. Meanwhile, the stage and festival grounds nestled against the trees host events that range from pop concerts to choral singing, from fairs to folk dancing.

Now Lauluväljaku is under threat of logging by Stora Enso, the Finnish government-owned giant of the global wood products industry. Stora has been aided by friendly decisions of the Estonian Environmental Board – a body that seems more interested in helping destroy the forests it manages than protecting the nation’s trees, biodiversity or climate. A dedicated group of local activists are doing everything they can to save Lauluväljaku, with law student Tiina Georg leading the charge.

Märjamaa singing stage in the forest park

Law student uses legal training to defend the Singing Fields
Tiina Georg is 26 years old and studies law at the University of Tartu. Her grandparents live in Märjamaa, just 800m from Lauluväljaku, and she has fond memories of visits to the theatre and family walks through the forest park. Already a volunteer with Estonia Forest Aid, the news that her childhood idyll was at risk of destruction spurred her into action. “I thought it was an injustice, and you just have to stand up to that,” she says.

Tiina launched the local campaign to save Lauluväljaku while studying for a Masters in law at the University of Tartu. “One of the reasons I started studying law is to help the weaker party,” Tiina tells us, “and it’s so sad to say it, but the environment often is the weaker party.” Her studies have certainly come in useful for the fight. “I did not know much about environmental and administrative law when we started, but I was learning about them at university and directly applying that to the case. And I’ve found that there are so many experienced and talented people out there doing these kinds of cases. It’s been pretty amazing! Now I can see that the problem is not always the law itself, but the way it’s been applied. The government and its agencies interpret the law in a biased way, perhaps because of pressure from industry.”

The twists and turns of a complex legal battle
The Estonian Environmental Board, who grant logging permits on behalf of the government, initially gave Stora Enso permission to cut 5.7 hectares, almost all of the town’s forest, back in October 2019. However, this decision was not publicised to the local community. The residents of Marjämaa only discovered the impending destruction of their park as spring 2020 approached. Local woman Mari Laanesaar noticed a tiny sign attached to a tree in the forest, which had been difficult to notice until that moment because of the winter darkness.

Lauluväljaku forest path in the snow

Supported by Tiina and Estonian Forest Aid, Mari filed a challenge to the permits in the courts, arguing that the forest has been designated as a green recreation space by Märjamaa Council for 20 years and plays a vital role in protecting the village from wind, pollution and noise. However, Stora Enso and the Environmental Board argued that the deadline for challenges had passed and that Mari was not directly affected enough as an individual to appeal the permits. Although the Court refused to hear Mari’s challenge, with no discussion of the arguments, Tiina and Mari refused to give up. The forest defenders gathered funds to appeal the decision to the Estonian Supreme Court, which accepted the case — only to discover that the Environmental Board and Stora Enso had agreed to cancel the initial logging permits and issue new ones for the very same plans. The Supreme Court therefore refused to judge the validity of the case against the permits, but did give the activists a victory of sorts, proclaiming that all future logging permits in Estonia must be properly publicised to the affected parties to give them sufficient time to launch a legal complaint.

So now the residents of Märjamaa find themselves back at the beginning of their legal battle, re-filing their complaint against new permits that would allow Stora Enso to clearcut most of Lauluväljaku and destroy their treasured forest. This time, though, they have more help. For this new case, Mari has been joined by other members of her family as private complainants, including Tiina’s grandparents, and four other forest protection groups have joined the case to protect the park.

The case was re-filed on 30 December. If they are successful, the case would establish important legal precedents that limit exploitation of forests in Estonia by foreign companies like Stora Enso and strengthen individuals’ legal right to a clean and healthy environment. The case could thus make it easier for communities and NGOs to protect forests across Estonia, where vital woodland has been decimated by industrial logging.

Though Lauluväljaku is but a small forest, Tiina notes its value. “It’s a Christmas miracle that so many people and organisations have come to the rescue of this lovely forest park. I’m so proud that Lauluväljaku is becoming a symbol of the struggle to save the pieces of nature that are still left in this world of climate crisis and mass extinction.”

Marked trees in Lauluväljaku

Stora Enso : Finnish government-owned company with plans to clear the forest
The permit to destroy Lauluväljaku is held by Stora Enso, a huge Finnish forestry company and one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of wood products. They proudly call themselves the ‘renewable materials company,’ claiming to offer a ‘low-carbon alternative to products made from fossil-based or other non-renewable materials.’ Stora Enso is active around the globe, but they are over 15% owned by various government bodies in Estonia’s neighbour Finland. They plan to clearcut much of the forest, totally removing almost all trees, undergrowth and other vegetation.

Stora Enso representatives were present at a meeting with local residents that was hosted by the municipal government when the first case led to increasing anger in Märjamaa. They did not have much sympathy or respect for the importance of the forest. Indeed, a representative of Stora Enso said it would be a crime not to cut the forest down, and that they would invite a choir to celebrate the end of the felling and the planting of new trees which would only restore the forest decades later.

It remains to be seen whether Stora Enso will fight the latest complaint against the new permits, but their business model requires a constant supply of trees for their growing production of paper, pulp and wood pellets for burning in heaters and power stations across Europe.

A small forest with big importance for the community
Lauluväljaku may be small, but like many community forests, it is of huge importance. Local residents would desperately miss the forest, which the local authorities have designated as a park and recreation area for decades. Meanwhile the singing stage and festival grounds that surround it would no longer have their magical setting alongside the trees, and would instead be exposed to the noise and pollution of the highway. Neighbouring houses would suffer the same fate, and would lose their shelter from the winds that whip across the region. Since Estonian forestry rules allow the total removal of trees, with even their stumps ripped out of the soil, the area could be left bleak and barren for years.

The forest is home to other creatures, too, like songbirds, protected woodpeckers and an endangered strain of wood ants who build their nests under the trees. As forests age they become more and more complex, creating habitat that is effectively lost for good when they are clearcut or replaced by sterile plantations. Old forests are also important to protecting against climate change, storing carbon in trees and soils, safely out of the atmosphere. Since 1990, forest carbon uptake in Estonia has been cut in half due to aggressive logging, including for wood pellets that are exported to elsewhere in Europe and burned for “renewable energy.” If Estonia is serious about limiting climate change, it should not even be considering permits for the felling of forests like Lauluväljaku – especially since much of the wood will be burned.

Songthrush sitting on branch in Lauluväljaku

A story like this reminds us that forests are so much more than the sum of their parts. Forests are vibrant wildlife havens that cleanse our atmosphere of pollution and carbon, but they’re also profoundly human spaces. Destroying a forest leaves a community naked and shivering. Estonian law already recognizes the connection that people have to their forests, which is why it requires the Environmental Board to notify communities when their forests will be cut. In a year like this, where so much we love has been lost and where the chance to go outside and breathe is a precious freedom, we have seen just how important that bond is. With their battle to save this small forest, Tiina, Mari and their allies are fighting for an important legal precedent and a fundamental moral principle : recognition of the bond between communities and their forests. As Tiina says, “there’s a good reason why so many people are rallying to the defence of Lauluväljaku. This is about much more than one small park. We’re fighting to make sure the law is on our side, on the side of the people and the environment.”

Photos by Liina Steinberg

Tiina Georg, the young law student in Estonia who’s battling to save the forest of her childhood singing fields

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