Indigenous People Are Fighting Finland's Plan to Log Ancient Forests

Clear-cuts could replace reindeer in some of Europe’s last intact boreal forests.
A reindeer bull. (Photo: Hakan Hjort/Getty Images)
Mar 24, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

A bill being fast-tracked through Finland’s parliament could lead to an explosion in fishing, logging, and mining on state-managed waters and lands, which include more than 30,000 square miles of forest.

The legislation is ringing alarm bells beyond Finland’s borders because it treads on the land rights of the indigenous Sámi people of the European Arctic. The Finnish government manages about 90 percent of the country’s northern boreal forest, which is part of the territory the indigenous Sámi people have inhabited for thousands of years.

Finland’s forests are also important habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, as well as a vast carbon storehouse crucial to blunting the worst impacts of climate change.

Sámi food security and cultural survival are threatened by the proposed law, said Tiina Sanila-Aikio, president of Finland’s Sámi Parliament, because traditional hunting, fishing, gathering, and reindeer herding all depend on keeping broad swaths of the old-growth boreal forest intact.

“Forestry is one, tourism is the second one, mining—all would increase under the act,” said Sanila-Aikio. “These things would affect reindeer herding to the point that it’s not economically possible,” wiping out a crucial cultural touchstone and source of food and income.

“It would be a very big loss to our people, because it maintains so much” of the indigenous culture, she said.

RELATED: Fatal Thaw: The Sámi Fight to Preserve an Ancient Culture as the Arctic Warms

The Finnish Sámi Parliament and all 13 indigenous reindeer herding cooperatives in Finland have come out against the legislation.

The Saami Council, a nongovernmental organization that represents Sámi across Scandinavia, termed the bill “an unprecedented land grab [that] threatens the last old-growth forests of Finnish Lapland and the Sámi home area.”

The center-right coalition government of Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, which supports the bill, is aware of Sámi concerns but has not acted on them, Sanila-Aikio said.

“The national government is pushing, very aggressively, legislation that will take away the both land base and the capacity of the Sámi, the checks and balances of indigenous culture,” said Finnish geographer Tero Mustonen.

Mustonen is the founder of an indigenous land rights group, Snowchange Cooperative, which has advised some Sámi on the restoration of fisheries and other natural resources in their traditional territory, as well as adaptation to climate change.

“We are witnessing a handful of politicians pushing through legislation that will significantly weaken the Sámi communities,” he added. “That’s something you are not supposed to be able to do in Europe.”

Finland is the most heavily forested country in the European Union, with more than 75 percent of its 131,000 square miles covered in woodlands. Metsähallitus, Finland’s national forest and parks agency, manages about a third of the forestland and about 5.4 million acres of inland waters.

These forests and waters are attractive targets for a country still digging out of the 2008 global financial crisis. Finland’s 2015 GDP of $231 billion was 7 percent lower than in 2007, while the unemployment rate is currently around 9.5 percent, according to the BBC, compared with 6.2 percent at the start of 2008.

Forces ranging from the offshoring of forestry jobs to the collapse of the country’s high-tech sector—the Finnish mobile phone firm Nokia saw its stock price plunge from almost $40 a share in late 2007 to under $2 in mid-2012; it has since hovered between $5 and $8 a share—have led pundits to wonder out loud whether Finland could become the Eurozone’s next Greece.

Sipilä won office last year on promises to bring a free market–oriented approach to reviving the Finnish economy, according to Bloomberg News, including wage cuts and fewer national holidays. He sees Finland’s forests as part of a nascent “bio-economy,” Bloomberg reported in April, and aims for the forest-product sector, such as pulp and paper mills, to generate 100,000 jobs by 2025.

The current forest management bill would help accomplish this by shifting some of Metsähallitus’ forest and water management activities into a joint stock company, according to Risto Sulkava, the president of the board of the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation.

The move would mean “part of the information will not be available because it is considered [a] trade secret,” beyond the reach of federal transparency and public participation laws, Sulkava said in an e-mail.

It would prioritize activities like lake-bed gravel mining, logging, and tourist fishing over conservation-oriented “nature areas,” according to Sulkava. “We have more than 2,000 endangered species; many of them live in these areas,” he added. “More euros out of the nature areas means more endangered species.”

Other projects the law would faciliate include a long-sought rail connection from southern Finland to the Norwegian port city of Kirkenes, on the Barents Sea, which would link the country to growing shipping traffic across the increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean.

“It is imperative, in this period of rapid climate change in the Arctic, that these northern ecosystems are preserved intact,” said Jesus Garzon, a prominent Spanish conservationist, in an open letter to the prime minister on Tuesday.

Since 1992, Garzon has led an effort to restore traditional seasonal migrations of sheep and cattle to Spain’s herders, a practice called “transhumance” that is aligned with traditional Sámi reindeer herding.

“The new Forestry Act needs to include clauses that provide a protective zone and mechanisms to ensure that does not undermine the opportunities to practice and foster Sámi culture,” Garzon said.

He also noted that Finland’s old-growth boreal forests are the warm-weather habitat of “many hundreds of thousands of cranes, geese, lapwings, and millions of other small birds from Finland [that winter] in Spain from October to March.”

The boreal forest, which stretches around the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere, is the largest land-based ecosystem in the world, and accounts for about a third of all forests.

Logging and other development of boreal forests diminishes their capacity to store carbon and nurture biodiversity, said forest ecologist Brian Milakovsky, a consultant for the World Wildlife Fund.

“Even selective logging can’t ever completely emulate natural ecosystems. We need portions of the landscape that are subjected to natural disturbance regimes, without our meddling,” Milakovsky said. Finland's forest ecosystems are already grappling with the aftereffects of intensive logging, he added. “The Finns have a pretty significant list of species that are pretty threatened, because they are associated with forests with an old structure, including dead trees.”

Logging “might not turn the forest into a source of carbon, but a lot of the science shows you’re better off leaving the old-growth forest alone if you want it to maximize carbon storage,” he added. “While managed forest, even a boreal forest, is not by any means an ecological wasteland, we can’t ever really regenerate the functions and values of intact forests.”

This article has been updated to reflect the following change:

Correction March 25, 2016: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect number for indigenous reindeer herding cooperatives in Finland. Of 56 herding cooperatives nationwide, 13 are Sámi-owned.