2023 IJ4EU Impact Award Honourable Mention: Peat Pressure

ECPMF

04 April 2023

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The “Peat Pressure: Industrial Peat Extraction in Enforcement Firing Line” investigation by Irish investigative organisation Noteworthy and Latvian news outlet TVNET exposed the unregulated and illegal extraction of peat. Peatlands are crucial ecosystems for rare plants and species, clean and filter water, and mitigate flooding. However, decades of industrial-scale peat extraction to feed the horticultural industry have led to the degradation of peatlands in Europe, making Ireland and Latvia’s remaining pristine peatlands even more valuable.

 

The investigation found that the two leading multi-million euro horticultural peat companies in Ireland, Harte Peat and Klasmann-Deilmann, had extracted peat without permission and in breach of EU environmental law, without any state action. In Latvia, the peat industry is a cornerstone of the economy, but there are regulatory oversight gaps, and state authorities have no real understanding of how much peat is being extracted every year or its environmental and climate impacts.

 

The investigation had a big impact on the political debate on the future direction of the horticultural peat industry in Ireland. The findings led to the withdrawal of a bill that would have greatly loosened regulations. Noteworthy’s findings were repeatedly cited by politicians during the debates. TVNET’s reporting was the first of its kind in Latvia and generated debate about the balance between economic and environmental interests.

 

Ahead of the 2023 IJ4EU Impact Award Ceremony, we spoke to Juris Jurāns – investigative journalist at TVNET – about the investigation. Read more about the project here.

Peat Pressure

What drew the initial interest in conducting an investigation on peat?

It was sparked by my colleague with whom we did the investigation, Niall Sargent. The main reason he contacted us in general is that Latvia is one of the leading exporters of peat in the world. So he asked, “Do you know anything about peat business?” and I responded “actually no, I don’t think anyone knows a lot about this business except for the people who are in it”. So when he contacted me, I figured I should look into it. When I started doing some reading and research, it turned out no one has actually ever bothered to do a deep dive. There were just some articles about some companies, but no one has done anything bigger. And I thought: this sounds and looks like fun. So let’s do it.

 

How different was it from your previous investigations? What were the new obstacles that you had to overcome?

The biggest obstacle was science in general. There’s a lot of science behind peat, a lot of biology, with which I’m not really familiar. I had to do a lot of reading and self-education . For example, I had never even thought that peatlands are really important for storing carbon dioxide. It was a whole new world for me.

 

I was a pioneer basically in this area in Latvia, so not a lot of information was available. Not a lot of people had actually thought about the things I was asking them and few had answers. I had to look hard for some people who are actually familiar. We have a lot of experts on peat and biology, but they mostly do just scientific research about it and not much else. My main question was: how much peat is there? Well, no one actually knows! 

 

How did your experience in Latvia compare with Niall’s in Ireland?

Well, the main similarities are in the bureaucracy. Niall and I kept laughing about it. It’s actually really frustrating. But when you talk with your colleagues, then you can laugh about it. So yeah, we were talking with Niall a lot about how these things are the same in all places. 

 

The difference is in the legislation and regulation. For example, in Ireland it’s actually illegal to extract the peat but a lot of companies still do it regardless. My colleague had a broader scope of investigation, while the legislation in Ireland was not very clear-cut. Conversely, in Latvia legislation exists but is relatively unknown and not widely followed. These were the primary differences between our experiences. It was difficult to discuss these issues with my colleague because we faced different legal challenges.

 

Which country’s legislation do you believe is more transparent and accessible for investigative journalists: Ireland or Latvia?

I would say Latvia because, as I understand from my colleague, there were more difficulties in accessing information in Ireland. It’s possible that this was due to someone trying to cover up certain details, making my colleague’s work more challenging.

 

Have you seen any positive impact on the industry since the publication of the project?

The European Environmental Agency has started to investigate companies. There have also been discussions about increasing pressure on the peat business and enacting clearer regulations, with a possible ban on peat extraction by 2030. While the impact may not be immediately visible, it’s heartening to see that these issues are being discussed and addressed. 

 

How do you feel about the impact of your work?

As a journalist, it’s satisfying to see that my work is making a difference. While I pursue stories that interest me personally, it’s a good feeling to know that my work is contributing to positive change. It’s rewarding to see that my work is being noticed and making a difference, even if I can’t judge whether it’s for the better. Ultimately, I’m just doing what I love, and any positive impact is an added bonus.

You can watch a full recording of the 2023 IJ4EU Impact Award Ceremony below.

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