When the 24-year-old Marc Palahí came to Joensuu in 1998, it was love at first sight. Palahí, who was born in Barcelona and spent the summers of his childhood in the Pyrenees, is not shy about enthusing over the best parts of his beloved city – nature and forests, great educational opportunities and safety. He also has a family in Joensuu, and his children speak the North Karelian dialect fluently.

Marc Palahí, the Director of the European Forest Institute (EFI), loves to talk about forests. His birthplace in Catalonia is also surrounded by forest.

– The change during the last one hundred years has been considerable. Only about 10 percent of the area of Catalonia used to have forest. Now the number is 60. People have left the rural areas and moved to cities – it is the same development as here in Finland. The agricultural areas have become naturally forested.

Summers in the Pyrenees

As a young man, Palahí spent his childhood summers helping out his uncle in the Pyrenees. The uncle was a tradesman who traded wood, wool and grains. Palahí was interested in agriculture and forest economics and began studying agriculture in Barcelona. Then the direction of his life took shape in the Erasmus exchange.

– I had two choices: Uppsala or Joensuu. I chose Joensuu because of EFI.

Soon he had a master’s degree and was out of money. Professor Liisa Toivonen (formerly Tahvanainen) came to his aid. She hired Palahí for a summer job in making measurements for energy willows. They were studying the possibility of raising some varieties of the willow for bioenergy production. Palahí got a doctorate in Joensuu in 2002.

Wedding in St. Petersburg!

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the young Irina Prokofieva moved to Finland with her family. In 1998, Prokofieva and Palahí met in Joensuu. The couple had their wedding in St. Petersburg, after which they lived in Barcelona for ten years. Palahí went to Barcelona to establish the first regional office of EFI which was opened in 2007. In addition to Barcelona, EFI now has offices in Bonn, Bordeaux, Brussels and Kuala Lumpur.

Working in EFI

In 2013, Palahí and his family returned to Joensuu. He worked as the Deputy Director of EFI for only two years before he became the Director of EFI in January 2015.

– We try to change the world using science; we combine science and politics. Our economy has always been based on fossil fuels. Now we need a new way of thinking – not only renewable energy, but renewable materials in general. Researched facts are needed to support political decisions. Forests are at the centre of everything, Palahí summarises.

Palahí is renowned for his skill as a negotiator and a true networker. It is a matter of skill that EFI, led by Palahí, has begun to build broad international connections with world media, for example, and to create shared forums for encounters among young researchers, business leaders and a new generation of influencers in economics.

– The world is round, and Joensuu is at the heart of things. Dynamically, through discussion.

Life in Joensuu

When the Palahí and Prokofieva family returned to Finland in 2013, the number of returnees was already five. The children, aged 11, 8 and 5, speak fluent Finnish and the rich North Karelian dialect, according to their father. His wife, who works as the consultant of a Catalonian research institute, has also learned Finnish. Palahí admits that he does not speak the language, even if the Finnish identity and many cultural habits are already part of him.

– I love the forest and nature. My hobby is cross-country biking. Winter swimming a few times a week is also a good way to clear up your brain and thoughts. Naturally, I am a member of the Joensuun Jääkarhut winter swimming society!

What also tipped the scales in favour of choosing Joensuu as the family’s place of residence was high-quality education.

– Good education is a priority for me. Finland invests greatly in education. It is the most efficient way to cherish democracy – everybody has a chance to get an education and is provided a sound basis for life here.

Text: Sirkka-Liisa Aaltonen/Viestintä-Ässä, Photo: Jarno Artika