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  • Writer's picturePippa Hackett

Connecting Communities with Peatlands Project

My speech to open the conference, 25.05.24:

Good morning everyone. It’s great to be here in Athlone, in the heart of the Midlands to mark the end of the Connecting Communities with Peatlands Project. 

 

When I first heard about the event, aside from being flattered to be invited to speak, I really was delighted to hear that a gathering like this was being organised to mark the project’s conclusion.

 

It’s great that those involved can have the opportunity to look back and celebrate everything the project has achieved, and also that we can share the lessons learned over the course of the project.  

 

Because while projects will come and go, and ideas evolve, some pilots grow and some are let go, ultimately people are at the heart of them all. 

 

This particular project has come to an end, but the people and the groups at its heart will keep going. They’ll keep working for and championing their communities, and there is great opportunity to take the learnings from this project into the future.

 

So in that sense, while the Connecting Communities with Peatlands project is at an end, I hope its impact and the benefits the participating groups have taken from it - through workshops, training, knowledge sharing and so much more - will be long lasting. 

 

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We have a number of excellent speakers this morning, and then two exciting panels. 

 

In the first panel today, you will hear from community groups who participated and benefited from this Project, and those groups will share their collective experience and learnings, and tell us how that has impacted their particular peatland projects.

 

These community groups are absolutely critical for positive public engagement with peatlands, and they do invaluable work in highlighting the wonderful natural treasure we have here in the Midlands of Ireland. There is so much history and heritage, so much natural wonder, so much flora and fauna and recreational opportunity in these amazing landscapes. 

 

And a real marker of whether we’ll have made a success of the Just Transition, here in the Midlands in particular, in my mind, will be whether we can bring about a shift, a transition, in the public perception of peatlands…  

 

…when the first thing that comes to mind is no longer what was lost, or their use for peat extraction; but instead we think of the thousands of years of carbon stored, the amazing plants and their medicinal properties, the incredible bird life, the recreational possibilities, and the potential beyond. 

 

The groups here today are the evangelists and the foot soldiers in bringing about that connection in local communities with their peatlands - this is about people and place - so it’s going to be really interesting to hear how they’ve got on over the past couple of years, and how the Connecting Communities with Peatlands Project helped them to kick on to the next level in their work. 

 

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The second panel will be equally important, where you will hear views on the Challenges and Opportunities of Just Transition thus far, and the lessons that can be learned.

 

Just last month, I was keynote speaker at a major international conference on the Just Transformation. I was doing a bit of reading around it in advance, as it was a concept I wasn’t too familiar with, and I came across a quote from former President, Mary Robinson, talking about the first time she had encountered the idea of the Just Transformation, and it resonated with me. 

 

Mrs Robinson said at the time: 

 

I like this expression, because holistic, comprehensive, just transitions will drive societal transformation that will benefit the wellbeing of all people. A truly just transition will not be just a transition – it should tackle the inequalities and injustices caused by, and exacerbated by, the climate crisis and lead us to a better future.”

 

My own sense of one of the key differences between a Just Transition and a Just Transformation is the sense of hope, positivity and opportunity that is inherent in the idea of transforming societies for the better.  


We have rightly recognised here in Ireland and across the EU, and indeed further afield, the importance of bringing communities with us when we have been talking about the Just Transition.  

 

For me though, living in the heart of the Midlands, in Co Offaly, the sense of many people on the ground is that inherent idea that a transition is a transition away from something that people know and love, that has been part and parcel of their lives, and those generations before them. And with that, unfortunately, comes a sense of loss. 

 

In the Midlands, the just transition we are trying to bring about, is the transition away from industrial extraction of peat for energy. This industry was a huge employer for the region, and with it came an enormous sense of pride, with generations of families and communities working in good, decent jobs. 

 

So there is a human connection there too, that cultural affinity, that deep sense of meaning. And the natural reaction for many, when told that we need to transition away from all of that, is that sense of loss.  

 

To give another example, if we say that we need to ensure a just transition for farmers, farmers will rightly ask: “To What?” Because many are quite content with where they are and what they are doing at the present time, and I know as a farmer myself that our way of life means an awful lot to us. 

 

The challenge in front of us is to help people visualise what the concept of a Just Transition (or maybe that should be a Just Transformation) looks like for their communities. Because it really should be transformational, a metamorphosis of sorts – like a caterpillar into a butterfly – something that comes with a sense of progression, of growth, of enhancement, something we can all get behind, and something we all want to see happen. 

 

But people need more than ethereal concepts, they need to be able to picture what that will mean in practice, and more importantly, to plan for it. 

 

Unfortunately, being frank, I think everyone here today would agree that we haven’t yet achieved a widespread sense of that in the Midlands.  But the green shoots are there, there are pockets of positivity and proactivity, and those green shoots are coming from the groups represented in this room here today.

 

I do genuinely believe that what we are trying to communicate in the Midlands of Ireland, in the transition away from the era of industrial peat extraction for energy, to a clean, green energy revolution and bioeconomy sector, will transform our region for the better. 

 

And in my view a really key part of that just transformation here in the Midlands will be a transformation not necessarily to anything new, but rather a transformation in how we view and connect with the peatlands that have been in our communities this entire time. 

 

And again, the groups that participated in the Connecting Communities with Peatlands Project are doing inspiring work in generating that engagement and connection with our peatlands; in bringing about that transformation in what we see when we look out at the bog.

 

An integral part of achieving Just Transformation in the midlands will be when our children look out across a peatland, and they don’t just see a former peat extraction site…

 

…that instead they’ll look with pride on an extraordinary ecosystem, rich in plants, flowers, birdlife, or a community amenity with recreational opportunities, but crucially at its core, they will see something that represents a source of new and future-proofed livelihoods, to be enjoyed and appreciated for generations to come. 

 

So thank you all for being here today, thank you for all that you do, and I look forward to hearing from our speakers over the course of the morning. 

 

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