When the last of the Russian troops pulled out of Estonia in 1994, for many their departure was bittersweet. While most Estonians were eager to join the Western world and reestablish cultural ties with Finland and other Nordic countries, the country’s transition from communism to capitalism was hindered by poverty, cultural barriers, and dilapidated infrastructure. Today, however, Estonia appears to be coming into its own. The country has joined the EU, ranks 30th in the world on the Human Development Index, and has one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe.
Estonia now has the autonomy to decide how it is going to allocate its resources, and how it wants to shape its identity on the international stage. Central to this decision is one notable parting gift left by the country’s Soviet occupiers: trees.
Trees are “one of the few positive things inherited from the age of Soviet domination,” said Linda-Mari Väli, founder of Helping Estonia’s Forests, a conservation-oriented citizens’ initiative. While Estonia is historically a tree-dense country, by the early 20th century much of its forestland had been converted to farms. Under Soviet rule, however, private landownership, and private farms, were abandoned for large collectives. By the time Estonia gained independence, the forest had reclaimed much of its former territory.
The country now has over 50 percent tree cover, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland analyzed through Global Forest Watch. Of its forests, assessments by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) pegs 90 percent as “naturally regenerated” and 3 percent old-growth. It is the fourth most forested country in Europe, and ranks eighth on the 2016 Environmental Performance Index.