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Swaths of clear-cut land border a Czech trail named for a Canadian family

Vsetín, Czech Republic – A wealthy shoemaking family with Czech roots has bolstered its image in Toronto with a museum, but its lands in Central Europe tell a story of environmental degradation.

The first thing many visitors notice about the Bečva River valley is the beauty of the trees. In this small Czech town 25 kilometers from the Slovak border, in a culturally unique area known as Moravian Wallachia, you can walk past towering paneláks and quaint cabins alike within the space of a few blocks, then be in the Western Carpathian Mountains a short walk away. 

It is therefore easy to see why hiking, running and cycling through the heavily tree-laden mountain sides that surround the valley is a weekend passion for both residents and travelers. The Zlín Region, of which the town of Vsetín and the surrounding Moravian Wallachia area are a part, includes more than 7,500 kilometers of hiking trails and cycling routes, according to the region’s tourist portal. 

If you come at the right time of year, the visual appeal of the mountainside trees will be joined by the pleasant scent of dozens of wood stoves in small houses, sending smoke into the air, perhaps joined by the taste of some kyselica soup, a local delicacy.

But the Wallachian trees are useful for more than scenery and firewood. Part of a global business empire that has at various times spanned from Czech lands to Brazil, India, Kenya, Toronto and beyond, many of the ubiquitous coniferous trees – usually spruce – are planted in neat, monoculture rows that are regularly clearcut to feed the fortunes of the Baťa family, whose profits now go mostly to their home base in Canada. The family also maintains smaller plantations of beech, fir, larch and maple trees.

“Studies have shown that in Canada, clearcutting is lowering the average age of forest stands, reducing the forest’s ability to store carbon and destroying habitat for species that rely on more mature forests,” says Jennifer Skene, a policy manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says that a common argument by loggers – that clearcutting simulates the beneficial impacts of forest fires – is encouraging a misperception. 

“Forests impacted by fires can still be considered “primary” forests, which have unique, irreplaceable characteristics that are lost once the forest is clearcut,” Skene says. 

Clearcutting is largely banned in the Czech Republic’s former Czechoslovak partner, Slovakia, according to a report on the topic from the European Parliament’s Green party, but it’s still common in Czechia, with 75% of the country’s logging harvested via the practice, according to the Greens.

As owners of approximately 2,834 ha. in the region, according to a family website, the Batas, who have deep roots as industrial shoemakers in the Zlín Region, are members of an exclusive club of large Czech landholders.

Much of the family, which is heavily involved in the shoemaking industry and has a shoe museum named after it in Toronto, moved to Canada after Czechoslovakia’s transition to communist rule following World War II. A 2018 Globe and Mail obituary of matriarch Sonja Bata – spelled varyingly with or without an apostrophe before the last “a,” depending on the country in which the family is mentioned – described a business active in more than 70 countries, with revenues of over $3 billion per year. The Bata lumber holdings in Wallachia are centered around the towns of Valašské Meziříčí and Vsetín.

The Czech logging industry of which the Batas are a part has found a strange ally in recent years – the effects of a bark beetle that has been partially responsible for a predicted 27% drop in Czech roundwood production in 2022, according to a 2021 UN report – citing the beetle as a reason to continue large clearcuts, even as nearby countries like Italy, Switzerland and Slovenia have banned the practice. 

The Czech industry lobbying group Association of Municipal and Private Forest Owners (SVOL), of which the Bata lumber holding is a member, was described by a different 2021 UN report as having “great potential to influence crucial decisions,” with the organization playing an outsized role in “formulation of forestry policy and advocating for respect of property rights.” 

Started in 1992 as an association that only allowed communities and towns to join, it has since 1998 increasingly been used as a vehicle for commercial landowners to make their voices heard, according to the report. Miroslav Kutal, of the Czech ecological advocacy group Hnutí DUHA, says that forest owners in the country “like the status quo and opposed all suggestions to ban clear-cutting in the past.”

While there is no direct evidence suggesting that the Bata family itself has been directly involved in lobbying for laws that help its interests at the expense of local environments or smaller competitors, exerting pressure on politicians would not be outside the realm of what the family has done in the past.

Logs are shipped via railcar in Choceň, Czech Republic, on 9 August, 2022. Photo by Patrick Maynard.

In a 1974 Saturday Night piece headlined “Canadians, Too, Can Act Like Economic Imperialists” and cited in Canadian Foreign Policy Institute fellow Yves Engler’s book Canada in Africa, Steve Landon described a Bata operation in the Global South. 

“Bata seems to be undercutting decentralized rural development in Kenya, to be blocking African advance in other areas, and to be throwing its weight around politically – all at a handsome profit,” Landon wrote. 

Engler adds that the company applied pressure to the newly independent Kenyan government in order to squeeze out “indigenous footwear producers, all while increasing imports of plastic and machinery, which came at the expense of local materials (leather) and employment.” He continues that the Bata operations drained money and opportunity from African operators, sending the profits instead to the company’s head office in Toronto.

This author attempted over the course of more than 6 months to get responses to questions about their overseas operations via more than a dozen emails and phone calls to the Bata museum, Bata Shoe Company and the Bata forest company in Vsetín. Starting on September 12, multiple emails came back saying that it would take time to answer the detailed written questions sent, but ultimately, no replies to the questions were given.

Along with clearcutting, the practice of using monocultures, which are common on Bata lands, can also hold risk, according to Hana Skokanova, an ecology researcher at the Silva Tarouca Research Institute in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-largest city, though there are sometimes benefits.

“[Czech loggers] found out that if you plant trees of one species and one age, it’s easier to manage than if you had several species,” she says, noting that spruce grows on a faster harvest cycle – about 80 years per tree – than, for example, beech, which takes around 120 years per cycle. 

Still, she says, monoculture plantations are “more inclined toward any calamity. What we experience here right now is this bark beetle calamity. Since [the spruce plantations] are just one species; if you have a pest for that species, the whole forest is just… gone.”

She says that spruce and fir monocultures can acidify soil, that many logging companies in the Czech Republic are beginning to re-examine their use of monocultures and move toward more diverse plantations, and that wildlife management is also a challenge, with deer often eating the seedlings that are planted after clearcuts. Meanwhile, however, mixed forests can sometimes see one species hogging resources, preventing the growth of competitors. “It’s not black and white,” she says.

Skene, of the NRDC, is less unresolved in her feelings toward monocultures, calling them “ecological wastelands that bear little resemblance to natural forests.”

Stumps are visible on a denuded hillside at a clearcut site alongside the Bata Education Trail on 10 August, 2022, in an area near Vsetín, Czech Republic. Photo by Patrick Maynard.

“They have greatly reduced overall biodiversity, are impaired in their ability to provide ecosystem services like water filtration, and store less carbon,” she states. 

Monoculturalism aside, there is little debate about whether the majority of the Bata land in Wallachia is beautiful. A walk along the Bata Education Trail, which follows Červenka creek to the east of Vsetín, is filled with stunning views, showing off the forest plantations the area is known for. The hills, too, are often breathtaking. It’s easy to see why the Czech composer Leoš Janáček loved the region.

But if a wanderer goes far enough, they begin to see occasional holes in the landscape – places where trees used to be and may soon again grow, but where groups of stumps currently dominate, thanks to clearcutting. Kafkadesk has verified via in-person inspection the presence and denuded nature of sites that appear as clearcuts on satellite imagery of the Bata Education Trail. 

The Canadian Bata family’s website advertising the assets of the forest touts PEFC certification as evidence of the operation’s sustainability. Groups including Greenpeace, the NRDC and the Rainforest Action Network have called the certification an industry-sponsored greenwashing scheme that does not prevent clearcutting in most jurisdictions.

According to Michal Bíl, a former employee of the Czech Geological Survey who has published academic research on the geography of Vsetín, sudden changes in forest land use may impact more than just the ecology of the area, going so far as to damage the hills themselves. 

“This is the same for any forest globally,” Bíl states. “Hillside erosion usually occurs along the man-made forest roads (unpaved) and along cleared paths in forests (when vegetation cover is interrupted).” 

That reshaping of the land is of special interest for residents of Wallachia, where heavy rains sometimes cause landslides and hillside erosion on unstable slopes – most notably in 1997, when precipitation caused “more than 500 localities of activated slope failures” in the Vsetín area, according to an academic paper on the topic that Bíl co-authored. 

If members of the Canadian Bata family decide to stem erosion and die-offs by using more sustainable forestry on their Czech lands and want to search for local advice on how to make their seedlings live longer lives, local tourism literature suggests that they won’t need to look far for inspiration. 

The managers of the nearby Razula primeval forest oversee the health of some trees that are more than 300 years old, according to the tourism materials. 

The oldest yew tree in Wallachia goes beyond even that mark. Growing in the center of the village of Zubří since the Thirty Years War at the beginning of the 17th century, according to materials from the tourism group Valašsko Moje, it has never been cut down. 

Most timber plantings in the region are, for now, not so lucky. 

By Patrick Maynard

Patrick Maynard’s staff and freelance reporting has appeared in more than a dozen publications, including VICE, The Independent and The Baltimore Sun. He lives in Germany and reported this project from Vsetín, Czechia. You can follow him on Mastodon or Twitter.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions of this publication.

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