I recently did an assignment for Yale Environment 360 reporting on Sweden’s forestry industry. I was excited to see the country, where “my people” are from, and which is regarded as the greenest in the world. For these reasons I already felt proud, but my purpose there would turn out to give me pause.
The trip made it clear that the country’s forestry model, which Sweden likes to say is the most sustainable forestry system in the world, does not work. Federal regulations on logging were replaced in 1993 by an act requiring that every logging operation balance production with conservation, allowing companies to be their own bosses and operate under a “freedom with responsibility” framework.
Earlier this summer the Swedish Forest Agency revealed that over a third of all the recent cutting activities, 37%, violated the tenets of the model by prioritizing production over conservation. That is perhaps not surprising: voluntary programs like this rarely work, no matter what country you’re from.
Swedes identify strongly with nature and polls show that they prioritize conservation and recreation over logging by a long shot. However, there’s a big disconnect between sentiment and action and between the built and natural environments, exacerbated by the great distance between the country’s main population centers in the south and the logging tracts of the north.
One sunny afternoon in Stockholm I asked Dr. Ulf Swenson about this. We sat on a bench outside his lab at the Swedish Museum of Natural History where he works as a senior research scientist and had a buoyant conversation, but his face clouded when the talk turned to the logging in the north. A recent visit there left him “terrified by how little forest was left.”
That’s a pity, because this is where most of the country’s oldest and richest natural forests are, and where much of Europe’s biodiversity calls home. In order to meet their production goals, though, forestry companies are pushing aggressively into these areas and the loss of biodiversity is increasing. Perhaps the Swedes’ high level of trust in each other, which has been extended to these companies via the forestry model, is being betrayed when it comes to the trees.
While there I also joined an excursion of “biodiversity hunters,” folks with varying biology backgrounds from Ph.D.s to students, who search for rare species of plants and animals whose presence can keep forestlands from being logged. Several of them were from Helsinki, interestingly. They told me that they’d given up on preventing the loss of Finland’s forests and instead work here, where there is still a chance to save a significant portion of the region’s natural boreal forests and intact biodiversity.
I go into much more detail on the specific problems in the Yale piece (which was subsequently picked up by National Geographic), which is also resplendent with damning quotes not only from conservationists but also logging company reps and official sources, one of which is a high official in the country’s version of the EPA, who calls the Swedish forestry model hopelessly naïve.
But you’ll perhaps get an even better feel for the issues and the landscape by watching this quick video interview with two conservationists in the northern county of Jamtland, and from the images I’ve collected on my website:
It was great to see where my people come from, even if it was to break a rather unpleasant story. But it’s a huge question: if the so-called greenest country in the world can’t do forestry sustainably, who can?
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. He is also an editorial board member of Terrain.org.