How Are You, Finnish Forest?
Forests have played a major role in connecting Finns with nature. You can see it in the paintings, hear it in the songs and read it in the literature. Also, Finland’s economy has based itself on the wood industry for decades. Many of us were born in cities where the wood mills’ silhouettes rose high in the sky and the smell of boiling pulp filled the air every once in a while. At school, we read about the majestic forests covering our land and learned how this green gold provided us with great natural resources.
Within 50 years, wood industry has changed Finnish forests’ biodiversity, their age structure, cultural heritage and the way we see and talk about forests. In addition to their biological and cultural value, forests are now playing an important role in tackling global climate change and in building up our country’s bio economy. In the future, nature tourism, services and natural products could offer a more sustainable option for the mass forest industry.
Biodiversity at stake
When travelling from one city to another as a child with my family, from the car window I observed how the endless lines of trees grew on the sides of the highways. Back then that forest was real forest to me. Only lately have I learned to question what I considered a forest. Having read articles on forestry and the state of the Finnish forests, I stopped to think; how often do we Finns actually get to see or go to a real forest?
One Swedish forest advocate stated that the forests we usually see are more like plantations. It is true that the forests and the forestland have been modified and cultivated throughout the years in Finland, but the style and the efficiency with what it’s done nowadays, is something totally different. Since the introduction of mass forestry, the way trees are being cultivated resembles the way crops are farmed. These tree crops, or plantations, are based on the idea that a certain type of tree provides the best crop in some specific environment, regardless of whether the tree would naturally grow there or not. After the trees have reached a certain age, they are logged. Forestry prefers trees of the same age and with minimal type variations.
In Finland, forests are often clearcut, leaving no trees in the area with the exception of the few left for “sustaining the diversity”. In many respects, this is the ultimate way to destroy everything else the forest could have offered; hiking, camping, foraging opportunities and relaxing. However, the wood industry has a different story to tell. For example, Stora Enso explains how clearcutting imitates nature’s own changes caused by forest fires, storms, and insects. The result of loggings, nevertheless, often is a homogenous forestry forest where different forest types, sceneries and areas are conspicuously absent. According to Suomen luonnonsuojeluliitto, nearly 70% of Finnish forest types are endangered. Plants, animals, insects, natural water systems such as springs, marshlands and forest ponds as well as whole biotopes, are all affected by the way wood industry modifies the land. Wild blueberry twigs, to give just one example, suffer severely from clearcutting.
In addition to their decreased biodiversity, over time, forests have witnessed a huge change in their cultural landscapes. The gradual shift from small, often co-existing cattle and crop farming to specialized mass production of meat and grain significantly influenced the cultural sceneries and species. Farm animals no longer graze in the forests and the development that chained the rivers, ditched the swamps and logged the trees changed the dynamics and aesthetics of the countryside.
Carbon sink or bio economy forerunner
As trees grow, they absorb carbon. What happens to this carbon after the tree is logged depends on what the wood is used for. Environmental NGO's and representatives of the bio economy all seem to speak for positive ends, but achieved by different means. Conservationists want to sustain nature’s biodiversity and keep the carbon dioxide in the forests. People in the field of bio economy, on the other hand, aim to make Finland the leading country in bio economy with wood-based products and innovations, stating that Finland has far more forest capacity to be used than many believe.
Due to the Paris agreement, most of the countries in Europe agreed to cut their carbon emissions by the year 2030. The goal is clear – we should keep global warming strictly under 2 degrees, but the actions to pursue the agreement as well as the means of measuring the carbon emissions differ from one country to another. Finland has been criticised for not meeting the required actions to reach the goal of the Paris agreement.
According to Bioeconomy.fi, a website run by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland, 80% of the renewable energy produced in Finland is based on wood mass. But can Finland afford to log trees to meet energy production needs in a sustainable way? To me, it seems that Finland is trying to take a short cut here.
Burning wood to replace fossil fuels is far from using wood in a sustainable way. In addition to the emissions caused by burning wood, a logged forest area can keep on releasing carbon dioxide for as long as twenty years after logging is completed. Unlike forest soil and marshlands, old forests function as carbon storages and carbon sinks that absorb carbon from the air.
Careful consideration should be given to increasing wood-based energy production, especially if it’s done in a way that doesn’t follow sustainable criteria. Sustainable, wood-based renewable energy means that the energy has been produced from the wood industry’s by-products such as bark and wood chips, instead of logging any trees for the sole purpose of energy production. Instead of increasing loggings, Finland should bravely invest in enhancing the energy efficiency of the old buildings and in the construction of new, energy efficient ones, low emission renewable energy production and smart traffic solutions. Most importantly, the state needs to support more sustainable living on the individual level, starting from the political decisions made by the government, cities and municipals.
Forests and our nature connection
For many Finns, the forest is the place to calm down, to feel connected to nature and to enjoy its natural resources; herbs, berries, mushrooms, landscapes, fresh air and hiking routes. The true meaning and value of the nearby forest becomes clear at the very latest when one sees the trees being logged and shipped away and the ground rummaged. Reading stories collected in the book Metsänhoidollisia toimenpiteitä (forest management in English) about people who had grown deeply attached to their forest homes and had later faced the wood industry’s ruthless intervention, is heart breaking. On many occasions, people described how they felt the forest had lost its soul. The connection people once had with nature was literally gone altogether as many logging areas became unreachable by foot due to the rummaging of the area.
What has happened to our nature connection? How has the forest industry’s voice lead us astray by telling people that aging forests are a bad thing? Forests won’t die, they will change at their own pace – when old trees die, they turn into growing substances for other species. Forests will renew themselves; they don’t need us human beings to fickle with their natural system. The only time forests needs us, is if we’ve already completely destroyed it. For the sake our forest homes, we need to give up on the idea that we can and need to control everything.
Discourses, how we speak and what kinds of power relations are embedded in our language use, shape our view of the world. Moreover, these discourses determine what we get used to and what we accept, what we keep normal or in a natural state. What we pursue from forests and what we see as its value, depends on what our personal story behind our nature connection is; what values we’ve attached to it and the way we speak about it.
The future of our forests
The use of forests, like all natural resources, should be sustainable on three different axis; ecological, social and economic. In the Finland’s plan for a more carbon neutral society by the year 2045, the emphasis is on the sustainable use of natural resources and nature services. Tourism, culture and health and well-being businesses are all included in the state’s plan as leading eco-system services. These can be seen as having potential to be more sustainable ways of profiting from our forests and supporting the sustaining of our carbon sinks, the forests, when compared to increasing loggings by the wood industry.
Most businesses that are based on seasonal natural products, folk traditions, nature tourism and nature connection value diverse and healthy nature. For example, cultivating wild herbs and vegetables that are naturally adapted to our soil and climate is a way of performing sustainable and ecological farming. The growing natural products industry will also need more certified foragers and gatherers. The growing demand for natural products has the potential to create jobs all around Finland from cities to sparsely populated areas. Nature tourism also has plenty to offer. Reviving old folk traditions helps to invigorate tourism in rural areas and creates new urban experiences for locals as well. Traditional cultural destinations, national parks and other nature gems serve to attract people to travel in their home country instead of always going abroad. In addition, tourists from all over the world come to Finland in increasing numbers due to our pure and rather untouched nature, where everyman’s rights make unique experiences in the Finnish nature possible.
By teaching sustainable use of nature and its products and by getting more people excited about what forests have to offer, we can increase the number of natural products and services businesses all around Finland. More funding and research should be aimed at developing these industries, so they could offer a competitive and more sustainable option to mass forestry. Innovation and curiosity is needed to dismantle old unsustainable structures in the society.
Sources and more information:
EKO energy https://www.edullistasahkoa.fi/metsavoima/
Kovalainen, R. and Seppo, S. (2009) Metsänhoidollisia toimenpiteitä. Die Keure: Hiilinielut tuotanto ja Miellotar.
Suomen luonnonsuojeluliitto https://www.sll.fi/mita-me-teemme/metsat/luonnonmukainen-metsanhoito
Stora Enso https://www.storaensometsa.fi/metsasanasto/avohakkuu/?utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.fi%2F
Tuormaa, I. (2017) Enemmän puuta, vähemmän luontoa. Suomen Luonto, June 8, p.64-73.
Text: Aino Huotari
Photos: Aino Huotari, Pauliina Toivanen