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A Green Veneer: Sweden’s Forestry Industry Gets Low Marks Despite Reputation

By Erik Hoffner

A recent reporting assignment concerning Sweden’s forest industry took me from Stockholm to areas far to the north and west, where the country’s forestry model, trumpeted as the most sustainable forest cutting system in the world, was on full display.

Earlier this year the Swedish Forest Agency revealed a study showing that over a third of all the recent cutting activities (37 percent!) violated the tenets of the official forestry model by prioritizing production over conservation. I wanted to see the logging for myself, avoiding any kind of official tour and instead traveling on my own, also meeting activists who watchdog the industry, along the way.

 

Clearcuts like this at the site of a formerly old and biologically rich forest make conservationists like Olli Manninen cringe. Photo by Erik Hoffner.

 

Restrictive federal regulations on logging were replaced in 1993 by an act requiring that every logging operation balance production with conservation, allowing companies to police themselves and operate under the act’s “freedom with responsibility” framework.

That this model does not work is perhaps not surprising: voluntary programs like it rarely do, no matter what country you’re from. But this was Sweden, I thought. If anyone can do it, they can. In the capital city, I had watched long lines of bike commuters sharing equal space on the roads with sleek buses – even in driving rain – which are powered by gas synthesized from garbage. I even enjoyed the use of both recycling and composting bins in my hotel room.

But trees are Sweden’s most valuable natural resource beside iron ore, and paired with a long Scandinavian tradition of utilizing the forest, logging is therefore widespread and accounts for an important slice of the economy.

 

A typical clearcut in Sweden removes up to 95% of the trees, leaving behind little but deep tire ruts. Photo by Erik Hoffner.

 

Even if its model does not function according to plan, could Sweden’s forestry still be sustainable, though? No activists I met would say so, but surprisingly, neither would officials with the government or the industry. They all agreed with NGOs like Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and biologists like Ulf Swensson, who told me he was terrified and ashamed by the pace of the cutting, saying instead that no, their industry is not sustainable, but is rather “heading that way.”

What I witnessed personally was widespread clearcutting — up to 95 percent of the trees (and sometimes even their stumps) removed from a typical plot for lumber, paper, and fuel — and heavy equipment damage to formerly wild forests, which are often replanted with long rows of single species of trees.

The replacement of natural forests with tree farms is a disaster for biodiversity. That’s clear, and the country’s list of threatened and endangered species correspondingly rises steadily.

The hopeful upside is that citizens are increasingly acting on the widespread sentiment that conservation is more important than industry, and are training each other to become biodiversity sleuths, nosing out forest tracts that are key to biodiversity by identifying rare species and alerting authorities and forestry companies alike before the harvesters crank up. I spent a few days with one of these teams and I never ate so many wild blueberries in my life.

 

Forest campaigners have trained themselves to identify rare species of plants, fungi, lichens, and animals inhabiting forests slated for cutting, and can sometimes halt logging company plans with such evidence. Photo by Erik Hoffner.

 

Still, the activists I spoke with implored me to be very wary of forest products originating in their country, even those certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council, whom they accuse of greenwash. “Species will go extinct to make these companies money. They’re stealing our heritage, our nature. It’ll be gone in a generation, ” one told me.

It’s true that just because it’s Swedish, the country’s industry should not automatically be given top marks. Rather, it’s countries like Sweden, which can and ought to lead on issues like sustainable forestry, which invite the most scrutiny.

Read Erik Hoffner’s original report: Sweden’s Green Veneer Hides Unsustainable Logging Practices

Erik Hoffner is a freelance photojournalist and Outreach Coordinator for the award-winning magazine, Orion. His work appears in Earth Island Journal, Grist, and The Sun. See more images and a video of the logging in Sweden from his trip here.

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the independent freelance journalist Erik Hoffner, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to respond with their views and comments in the comments section below.

Comments

  1. Hans Djurberg
    Sweden
    April 20, 2012, 7:05 am

    I do not wish to extend this debate any further but for readers of this comment section who are not familiar with the conditions in Sweden, I would like to state the facts once again:

    The 20% I refer to in my comment are the official numbers provided by the Swedish Forest Agency and the Swedish National Forest Inventory – not by the Forest Industry Federation.
    Out of 28,3 million hectares of forest land in Sweden (using international definitions of forests according to FAO) 6,6% is legally protected in national parks, nature reserves, biotope protection areas and conservation agreements, 14% is legally protected as unproductive forest land (no harvesting allowed by law).
    In addition to this, land owners have set aside more than 1 million ha in voluntary allocations.

  2. Charlotte
    February 9, 2012, 3:07 pm

    Not just that – all the trees that are planted in Sweden have been treated with pesticiedes and are genetically modified! So it has not much value left. And the industrie only plant monoculture, not diversity. It´s a disaster.

  3. Charlotte
    February 9, 2012, 3:02 pm

    Hans Djurberg, “Using FAO definitions Sweden has already protected more than 20 %,”. 20% of what? Not the real old forest which is the most precious and valuable trees. It´s more just 1% left.

  4. Evgenia Chirikova
    Moscow, Russia
    February 7, 2012, 10:32 am

    Few years ago we were sure (here, in Russia) that Western Europe had the best environment protection ever been. Our first disappointment was the decision of French giant Vinci to take part in the obviously durty Mosow-St.Petersburg motorway project . Then new facts appeared, and this is one of them. I can understand why paysants in Africa often destroy nature – they are often starving, badly needing food and fuel. But I see no excuse for countries like Sweden or France. Surely, you create a very bad pattern of relationships with the nature – for all the rest of the world.

  5. Daniel Rutschman
    Sweden
    February 2, 2012, 10:07 am

    Hans Djurberg is appearently discontent with this article. Not surprising, as he is employed by SCA, the largest forest company in Sweden. If you carefully read his comment, you will see that he is refering to reports published by the industry itself, not scientific reports (which there are plenty of, but all with a totally different conclusion).

    The numbers Hans state in his comment are either quite irrelevant when discussing issues of bio-diversity, or just plainly put there to confuse the readers.

    For example, Mr Djurberg claims that: “Using international FAO definitions, the total area of forest set aside for conservation on the landscape level adds up to more than 20%.” According to the Swedish EPA though, even if Sweden adopted the “international” FAO definition, it would leave Sweden at a level of protected forests at about 5-6%. In a desperate attempt to reach the demanded sustainable 20%-level of protection, Djurberg and the rest of the forest industry is throwing in areas which have little or no importance to the 2100 threatened forest species in Sweden (i.e. low-productive areas like marshes and high-altitude wooded areas). In addition, the majority of these low-productive areas (constituting most of the sugested 20%) do not even have formal protection. Trees may still be harvested, while large clear-cuttings are not allowed.

    Regarding tree retention, a recent study from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences places Sweden at 2nd to last of all examined countries when it comes to nature consideration on logging sites.

    You can read an official reports about Swedens progress towards achieving our environmental objectives here: http://www.miljomal.se/-Global-meny-/In-English/

    Daniel Rutschman, Sweden

  6. Daniel Rutschman
    Jokkmokk, Sweden
    February 1, 2012, 3:03 pm

    Hans Djurberg is appearently discontent with this article. Not surprising, as he is employed by SCA, the largest forest company in Sweden. If you carefully read his comment, you will see that he is refering to reports published by the industry itself, not scientific reports (which there are plenty of, but all with a totally different conclusion).

    The numbers Hans state in his comment are either quite irrelevant when discussing issues of bio-diversity, or just plainly put there to confuse the readers.

    For example, Mr Djurberg claims that: “Using international FAO definitions, the total area of forest set aside for conservation on the landscape level adds up to more than 20%.” According to the Swedish EPA though, even if Sweden adopted the “international” FAO definition, it would leave Sweden at a level of protected forests at about 5-6%. In a desperate attempt to reach the demanded sustainable 20%-level of protection, Djurberg and the rest of the forest industry is throwing in areas which have little or no importance to the 2100 threatened forest species in Sweden (i.e. low-productive areas like marshes and high-altitude wooded areas). In addition, the majority of these low-productive areas (constituting most of the sugested 20%) do not even have formal protection. Trees may still be harvested, while large clear-cuttings are not allowed.

    Regarding tree retention, a recent study from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences places Sweden at 2nd to last of all examined countries when it comes to nature consideration on logging sites.

    You can read an official reports about Swedens progress towards achieving our environmental objectives here: http://www.miljomal.se/-Global-meny-/In-English/

  7. Erik J
    Sweden
    January 26, 2012, 7:07 pm

    Hans Djurberg works for the forest industry (SCA), and is thus as biased as one could possibly be. Swedish forest industry spends enormous amounts of money on propaganda (which also happens to be Djurbergs field of work). This propaganda of course says that all is fine in the Swedish forests. Not once do they mention that there is a biodiversity crisis in our forests, and that the main cause is habitat loss due to ongoing, massive industrial clear cutting of natural forests. So of course Mr Djurberg is uncomfortable with this article, since it brings light on something that the industry has been trying to cover up for the last few decades. The figures and arguments in his comment are either distorting facts or just irrelevant. Doesn’t it also seem quite desperate to quote publications from the industry itself to prove that the same industry is innocent? Sweden is not reaching its environmental objectives in the forests – that is an undeniable fact. For example, read a short and relevant report here: – http://miljomal.nu/Environmental-Objectives-Portal/12-Sustainable-Forests/Will-the-objective-be-achieved/

  8. Hans Djurberg
    Sweden
    January 24, 2012, 5:05 am

    I was interviewed by the author during his visit in Sweden, as one of the representatives of the industry. The article presents a biased view of Swedish forestry embracing the perspective of environmental NGOs and forest conservationists. The author has deliberately used arbitrary statements from industry and government representatives to support opinions presented by the NGOs, without objective and impartial scrutiny, and by ignoring critical input from stakeholders. In addition, several of the interviewees feel gravely misrepresented, including me, as citations are either incorrect or taken out of context.

    Consequently, many highly relevant facts about Swedish forestry are either missing or erroneous, e.g. the level of tree retention in Swedish forestry and the success or failure of the Swedish forestry model:

    The tree retention on a clearcut may be 5% but this number does not include areas set-aside in the preceding landscape management planning. On average, an additional 7-8% of the productive forest land is set aside by certified landowners. Using international FAO definitions, the total area of forest set aside for conservation on the landscape level adds up to more than 20%. Reference: Living Forests, Swedish Forest Industries Federation.

    Using FAO definitions Sweden has already protected more than 20 %, not including voluntary allocations. Reference: Living Forests, Swedish Forest Industries Federation.

    According to the Swedish National Forest Inventory, 5 out of 6 political objectives sustainable forests had excellent results, and 1 out of 6 showed mediocre results. These objectives were reported in 2010 using 1998 as the base year. Reference: Living Forests, Swedish Forest Industries Federation.

    The inventory conducted by the Swedish Forest Agency, which is referenced in the article as 37% of final fellings being disapproved by the authorities, has been declared unsatisfactory by the Agency itself, due poor quality of data.

    Hans Djurberg
    Sweden

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  11. Dag Fredriksson
    Sweden
    January 7, 2012, 8:52 am

    That´s the way it is here in Sweden. The worst cases you see because of the size are really from the big forestry companies, both private and state-owned. Changing this devastation of the forests is not easy (quite an understatement). Saving all valuable forest, biologically, eco system service wise and socially is essential is the first demand. Secondly ban clearcutting and using continous cover forestry. A small start….

  12. Gary Dwyer
    Lyndonville Vermont USA
    January 2, 2012, 10:06 am

    I am a third generation loggeer who has cut wood sustainably for the past thirty years.Only to see these efforts of good forestry take a back seat to courprate greed.We need to send a message that our future is not for sale.

  13. Jason Rutledge
    Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia
    December 29, 2011, 7:58 am

    “Greenwashing” by the biggest “green certification” system is exactly why we have developed “Draftwood” Community Certification approach. Check out http://www.fscwatch.org Thanks to Nat. Geo. for telling this important story to the world. ~ Jason Rutledge

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