‘Never have I seen so few old trees around’: What’s happening to Sweden’s forests?

'Never have I seen so few old trees around': What's happening to Sweden's forests?
A forest in northern Sweden. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
Sweden's natural forests, and those who are dependent on them, have come under high pressure in recent years. Does intensive forestry endanger the livelihood of the indigenous Sámi, as well as biodiversity and the climate? Freelance journalist Anne-Grietje Franssen investigates.

When Sami representative Lars Anders Baer called me from a rare spot with network coverage in Nikalo early one morning in February, it was 27C below zero – or 27C, as the local population would simply state, since the below zero part was obvious enough.

“Right now the temperature is as it should be,” he said. Soon he’d be out on the fjäll, gathering his reindeer, and cut off from any mode of communication with the outside world.

It was one of those days that Baer could wear his gálssot, traditional Sami trousers made of reindeer hide. “The weather nowadays is often too wet for this type of clothing,” he said. “Last December was the warmest December on record. Our reindeer often suffer from pneumonia these days.”

Climate change could be the tipping point for their flocks, Baer said. He is the chairman of the reindeer herding district Luokta-Mávas.

Yet global warming is only one of many challenges the Sami face.

Photo: Malin Moberg/AP

The Sami, the indigenous people of Finnoscandia who predominantly live in the vast, mountainous tracts around the Arctic circle, sounded the alarm late last year: the region that since time immemorial has been designated as grazing land for their reindeer is steadily being eaten away at – no longer primarily by their animals but, as numerous Sami have warned, by the state-owned forestry company Sveaskog.

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Sveaskog, Sweden’s main forest owner and Europe’s largest forest company, also operates in Sápmi, the cross-border region historically tied to the Sami people. It is land the indigenous community has inhabited, and across which their reindeer have been migrating, for thousands of years.

The zones identified for Sveaskog’s felling activities include parts of the last remaining natural forests in the Sami reindeer herding district in the province of Norrbotten. The state-owned company intends to log in an area of around 700 hectares in Luokta-Mávas – an equivalent of a 1,000 football fields – according to Baer, of which they only agreed on 200 hectares. (These 700 hectares, Sveaskog reacted, are still subject to dialogue. “Parts where we can reach an agreement would be subject to careful planning and large areas would be retained.”)

Already 95 percent of Sveaskog’s holdings is on reindeer grazing land, Baer says. “If these forests are to be clear-cut, this is yet another colonial act of us being erased from the history books.”

Since the mid-1900s, lichen-rich forest areas in Sweden – lichen being a resource necessary for the reindeer’s survival – have decreased by a staggering 71 percent, as shown by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Its decrease has several causes, one of which being that the organism is outcompeted on land with dense vegetation, but another major cause is logging. Meanwhile, Sveaskog writes on its website that it works hard to “protect the reindeer’s food”.

Lichen, also known as reindeer moss, is an organism that needs a very carefully managed forest. Conventional forestry, in which entire areas are clear-cut and replaced with plantation trees, generally results in the disappearance of this nutrition for decennia to come. These pine tree plantations tend to be too dense, moreover, for the reindeer to pass through during their migration from their summer pastures to their winter land and vice versa.

It becomes increasingly arduous for the Sami and their reindeer to find small pockets of natural woodland in the ocean of monoculture that the Swedish forest landscape has become.

Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Today, around 70 percent of Sweden’s surface is made up of woodland of which only about a quarter is natural forest, the remainder being kulturskog, cultivated forests. The state-owned forestry company manages 3.1 million hectares of productive forest, adding up to 14 percent of Sweden’s woodland.

Last year, Sveaskog had the dubious honour of winning the Swedish Greenwashing Prize, awarded to “societal actors who, through misleading environmental messages, have tried to give themselves an excessively green image”, according to its initiator Friends of the Earth Sweden.

“Sveaskog strives to appear as a forest ranger instead of a deforestator. But the fact that so many voted for the company shows that they cannot hide behind green websites and words. Too many have seen Sveaskog’s forestry in practice, where economic interests repeatedly take precedence over nature conservation, care for biodiversity and climate considerations,” said Friends of the Earth’s chairman Mikael Sundström in a public statement.

Forestry is a prominent and profitable Swedish industry, with Sweden being the world’s third largest exporter of paper, pulp and sawn wood products. Around 15-20 percent of the country’s exported goods, or just over 145 billion kronor, consists of products generated by the sector’s activities.

Sveaskog receives its main objectives from the government, which has decided that the company should focus on “both society’s interests and a good economy”. But what exactly does that mean? On the financial side of things, Sveaskog receives the – very concrete – assignment to generate 1 billion kronor for the state’s treasury on a yearly basis. In terms of society’s interests, however, the government’s targets are not as well-defined and remain open to individual judgment.

Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

“Nature isn’t a resource to be ground down and to become a figure in the state budget” representatives of Sweden’s (co-governing) Green Party wrote in an op-ed for the magazine Etc. “Sveaskog needs a new ownership directive in which the public good has priority over profits.”

Januariavtalet, the January Agreement that was signed in early 2019 by four parties in parliament – an agreement needed for the reappointment of Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven as Prime Minister – included the proviso that the state should be a “forerunner in sustainable forestry” and show, with its politics, an “exceptional consideration for nature”.

Meanwhile, the number of reindeer in Luokta-Mávas has fallen from 10,000 to 7,000, with the remaining flocks scrambling for grazing land. The situation has become especially strenuous since authorities agreed on drawing up new borders between Sami villages, resulting in Luokta-Mávas losing grazing rights to an adjacent Norwegian Sami village.

“We have nowhere left to go,” Baer said. The reindeer herders in his district need to supply their herds with extra nutrition, especially in spring, when food is hard to come by. It has forced several herders out of business. “These days we have to compete in the modern market economy and witness the exploitation of our land.”

Sveaskog’s forest policy director, biologist Olof Johansson, told me that Sveaskog is aware of the importance – and scarcity – of lichen and admits that their logging methods have at times been “quite rough”. “There’s a need for us to adjust and do a mixture of things. We have to set aside areas for the sake of tree lichens, but we also have to manage forests in such ways that the amount of lichens is sustained or even promoted. These are things we could do better and better, through active management, and in dialogue with the Sami villages,” he said.

The Swedish Forestry Act requires landowners to consult with the local population before they proceed to log in a certain region. Although an agreement is, self-evidently, the most desirable outcome, it is not required; the final decision lies with the proprietor. Sveaskog can, as such, overrule protests from the Sami. “We could, yes, but we don’t want to,” Johansson said. “In this situation we’ve chosen to go back to the drawing table, since we’re not reaching any consensus.” The exact felling locations in the region will be reconsidered and rediscussed, but the Sami are not convinced; it’s only a matter of time, they think, before the forestry company comes marching in.

A clearcut forest. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Sveaskog has to navigate difficult terrain, senior biologist Hasse Berglund at the Swedish environmental protection agency Naturvårdsverket said. “The state orders them to make a fixed amount of money, while also saying: you have to play the good guy. It’s a tricky position for Sveaskog to be in.”

Baer, too, regarded the state as the main culprit. “The government is well aware of us having the right to protect our ancestral land, but our lives don’t seem to carry the same worth as money.”

The reindeer herders prefer to settle the matter outside court, but they will file a lawsuit “if left with no other choice”, Baer said. Going to court is both costly and risky – taking on the forestry industry, with its affiliates in parliament, is no small feat.

“Forestry is still the backbone of Swedish society,” Baer told me. The sector has allies both in the labour movement and the political centre with its traditionally agrarian constituency.

“The entire system is one that is hard to negotiate with. Sveaskog has to inform us of their plans, but thereafter they can pretty much do whatever they want.”

Baer interprets this system as an outgrowth of colonisation: the Sami’s legal status is unclear and open for interpretation. How, for example, to weigh private property rights against reindeer grazing rights?

The sustenance and development of the Sami people and their culture is supposed to be supported under Sweden’s constitutional law, according to Marie Hagsgård, expert on the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples and member of the EU’s Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

The Swedish Forest Agency Skogsstyrelsen, the national authority in charge of forest-related issues, is meant to aid the Sami people in maintaining and developing their culture of reindeer husbandry, as determined in Skogsvårdslagen, or the Swedish Forestry Law. “When two opposing interests are to be weighed against each other, as in this instance of forestry versus reindeer husbandry, the Swedish Supreme Court has pointed out that the Sami people’s interest to maintain its culture shall be given special weight,” Hagsgård declared.

But more often than not, this special weight fails to outweigh economic profit.

A Sami delegation in the year 1900. Photo: Scanpix/TT

Sweden has been internationally criticised for its refusal to ratify ILO:169, the International Labour Organisation’s convention on the rights of indigenous peoples. The provisions of this convention are “based on respect for the cultures and ways of life of indigenous and tribal peoples and aims at overcoming discriminatory practices affecting these peoples and enabling them to participate in decision-making that affects their lives”.

Neighbouring countries Norway and Denmark ratified ILO:169 years ago, as have most countries in Central and South America like Brazil and Costa Rica – yet Sweden lags behind. This appears to be both a cause of as well as caused by a parliamentary discord on the degree of influence the Sami people should have over the natural resources in Sápmi.

“In situations where the Sami’s interests as an indigenous people oppose other important interests, as for example the mining industry, solutions are rarely simple,” was the telltale answer of the liberal-conservative party the Moderates in a 2018 survey dealing with the ILO convention.

Yet it’s not indigenous rights only that are at stake here in the Swedish forests. The reindeer’s shrinking habitat runs parallel to the loss of endangered species and the destruction of an immense natural carbon sink.

Lina Burnelius, project leader and international coordinator at Skydda Skogen, or Protect the Forest Sweden, who visited the Luokta-Mávas district late last year, said that Sveaskog’s logging plans equal enormous amounts of greenhouse gases and a further decline of biodiversity. “Words cannot begin to explain the bedrock of life and the size of carbon stocks that these forests contain. They must be protected, not clear-cut.”

The Swedish forestry sector’s annual emissions add up to 80-85 million tonnes alone, greater than all of Sweden’s other emissions including international air travel combined, Burnelius said. (These figures, however, are debated, with official Swedish reporting claiming that the management of Swedish forests contribute to carbon mitigation because for example of the plantation of new trees).

Forestry. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

“The Swedish forestry model equals triple climate trouble. For one, you have the CO2-emissions from the clearcuts. Secondly, there are the emissions resulting from the production and usage of biofuels, cardboard and paper. And, thirdly: a loss of biodiversity leads to a reduced resilience to climate change.”

Undermining biodiversity is, according to Burnelius, like “slowly committing suicide”, because “these ecosystems are our best allies in countering climate change”.

Official reporting for the EU Habitats Directive, composed by Naturvårdsverket, states that “only about 40 percent of the species [in Sweden], and 20 percent of the habitat types have a favourable conservation status. In many cases, the trend is … negative, meaning that the condition continues to deteriorate.” 14 of 15 forest biotopes in Sweden, the report states, lack this favourable conservation status and over 90 percent of all forests in Sweden have thus far been affected by forestry.

As recently as last summer, Sveaskog was chided for the planned felling of a forest carrying “high natural value”. The area in the Arjeplog municipality also served as a grazing area for the Maskaure Sami district. The forestry company was called out for a “serious digression” by an audit firm working on behalf of FSC, the certification programme claiming to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests.

In this woodland called Lill-Skarja, covering an area of 39 hectares, a so-called “natural value inventory” had found more than 20 threatened species. The audit firm depicted the forest consequently as a “woodland key habitat”, which prohibits clear-cutting, according to FSC’s statutes.

How is it even possible that Sveaskog is allowed to move its activities to such high conversation value forests in the first place?

Sveaskog’s forest policy director Johansson explained that Sweden has a long history of mapping and monitoring its forests, working with both a long-term and a shorter-term agenda. “We’re not starting from scratch,” he told me, “but already have an outline of when and where to fell. Within these parameters we then try to identify high-value conservation areas that need to be set aside.”

The system is quite sophisticated, Johansson continued, with computer programmes designating the locations for production. “After having selected certain areas for logging we make another, more detailed field assessment, identifying the areas that are suitable to fell in and those that should be left alone.” According to Johansson, Sveaskog has the ambition to set aside 20 percent of forest land for conservation purposes.

Forestry work. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that all remaining high conservation value forest is thereby detected and protected, as the example of Lill-Skarja shows.

Though all locations where Sveaskog plans to log have to be filed to and approved by the forest agency Skogsstyrelsen, as Johansson told me, this bureaucratic measure fails to guarantee the preservation of key biotopes.

Naturvårdsverket’s Berglund explained that governmental institutions apply few strict rules. “Sveaskog and other actors are essentially free to clear-cut natural forests. The state relies on forest owners to operate more responsibly than the rule of law prescribes.”

The government, Berglund explained, wants to interfere as little as possible with competition, rendering the industry relatively unregulated. Moreover, he added, setting aside forestland as a nature reserve is an expensive affair. The lion’s share of the forest is privately owned and the landowners in question would have to be compensated for their economic loss, in case of conservation.

“The reality is complex,” Sveaskog’s Johansson said. “It’s important to stress that the use of our forests has been going on for hundreds of years. We have a forest landscape that has been influenced by man for a long time.”

But according to land-use expert Burnelius the issue isn’t complex at all. “One cannot both clear-cut natural woodlands and at the same time halt the climate collapse or honour the Paris Agreement. It’s impossible.” She continued: “If Luokta-Mávas’ indigenous people’s rights are respected, Sweden still has a fair chance to live up to the Paris Agreement.”

By protecting indigenous societies, Burnelius said, we bascially protect everyone. “Indigenous people make up around 5 percent of the world population, while being the stewards of around 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.”

According to Burnelius, the science is unambiguous. “We’ll have to transition to an economy that is free of greenhouse gases, not just of fossil fuels. Right now we’re sacrificing our forest to continue business as usual. We’re shifting from one source of carbon to another.”

Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Over 70 percent of all the wood that is extracted from the Swedish forest, Burnelius claimed, ends up in single-use products. “Much of the old-growth forest goes to e-commerce packaging in countries like Germany and the Netherlands. If you assumed that those carton boxes containing your home deliveries are made of recycled material, you assumed wrong.”

We’re literally setting our forests on fire by transforming them into biomass and short-lived products, she argued. “While we admonish other countries for burning down their forest brazenly, we do the same through policy – at a speed and scope that is unparalleled.”

Naturvårdverket’s Berglund thinks the Swedish forestry law is too lax and the market too liberal. “This leniency might have worked had the demand not been extremely high. Then property owners might have been more inclined to set aside high conservation value forest. But once the prices are rising it becomes hard to play the fair forester. The will to act ethically is not as strong as the will to make money.”

The current situation, Berglund said, is not looking good. “We have very little plantation forest left that is old enough to cut down – a situation we know has been in the making for years – so companies divert to forests with high conservation value instead. Which, of course, is problematic, given the scarcity of these old-growth forests. I was travelling around Sweden recently, and never have I seen so few old trees around.”


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  1. Very interesting article and very important to alert your readers of clear-cutting especially in Sami areas.

    Jan-Erik Janson (from New York)

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