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

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.

A forest in northern Sweden.
A forest in northern Sweden. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Article first published in June 2021.

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 [2020] 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.

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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Member comments

  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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Meet the foreigners moving to northern Sweden to turn industry green

Sweden's government believes 100,000 new inhabitants will have to move to the country's two northernmost regions to launch a series of ambitious green industrial projects. The Local met four foreigners who have made the move.

Meet the foreigners moving to northern Sweden to turn industry green
Hugo and Mariana Pires will move to Luleå in January. Photo: Hugo Pires

The vast quantities of cheap, renewable electricity available in Norrbotten and Västerbotten, Sweden’s two most northerly counties, are spurring the development of some of the world’s most ambitious green industrial projects. 

Northvolt, the battery gigafactory in the city of Skellefteå, is currently racing to produce its first battery by the end of this year, with the first battery line expected to be up and running in the spring. It is hiring continuously, and when the factory is complete, it will have 4,000 employees.  

Construction is expected to start on H2GreenSteel, an industrial-scale green steel plant in Boden, as soon as next year. The Spanish fertiliser company Fertiberia is setting up a green ammonia project, also in Boden.

Meanwhile, miners LKAB and steel-makers SSAB are together setting up HYBRIT, a green sponge iron demonstration plant, in Gällivare, after which LKAB plans to invest 400 billion Swedish kronor up until 2040 to switch all of its production from iron ore pellets to carbon-free sponge iron. 


All of these projects will require skilled workers. Peter Larsson, the engineer appointed by Sweden’s government to coordinate the green industrial shift in northern Sweden, estimates that the projects will increase the population in Norrbotten and Västerbotten by 100,000 people. This includes workers at supplier companies, in the public sector, in businesses like shops and restaurants, and their children. 

Hugo Pires, 42, a Portuguese mining engineer, will move to Luleå full-time with his wife Mariana, 31, this January. He has just spent October and November in Norrbotten preparing to set up the Talga Group’s graphite mine in Vittangi, an hour’s drive outside Kiruna.

Talga has also built a pilot battery anode plant in Luleå, and plans to use the high-quality graphite mined at Vittangi to supply Europe’s growing battery industry. And with Northvolt in nearby Skellefteå, it will potentially have a major local customer. 

“As a human being, I feel a responsibility to be part of the solution,” Pires says of his drive to move from Portugal. “Humanity needs these green projects. It’s a question of, ‘do we keep spoiling our planet and leaving the worst world for our children or do we do it right?'” 

Life in northern Sweden is very different from at home in Lisbon, where social life can go on until late into the night. “Restaurants close really early,” he laughs. “But then life there is adapted to that. It’s normal for people to work from 7am to 4pm.  Life is adapted to the light here.” 

But both he and Mariana, a computer programmer, think Luleå, with its position on the wide Lule River and next door archipelago, is a beautiful city, and they enjoy the outdoor life. “It’s easier to be healthy in Sweden, that’s for sure, and my wife and I both love winter sports.”

Liliana Celedon, an environmental engineer, has moved to Skellefteå because she wants to help in the green transformation. Photo: Private

Liliana Celedon, 28, came to Sweden from Mexico partly to be with her Swedish husband and partly to do a Master’s in Sustainable Engineering at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. In May, she left Stockholm to take a job as a site service controller at Northvolt. “We had our relationship for years with him in Sweden and me in Mexico, so this is pretty much normal,” she smiles.  

For Liliana, Northvolt offered the chance to put what she had learned in her Master’s into practice. “I’m very, very driven to contribute in any way to a sustainable future, and it’s a young company, and I like talented people,” she says of her decision to move north.  

For a woman from Monterrey, where the metropolitan area has over five million people, Skellefteå’s 73,000 population seems small. But at the same time, the access to nature, with hiking in summer and winter sports in the winter, appeals to her adventurous side. 

“I like to try new things that are very different to those in the environment where I was born and raised,” she says. “I’ve been exploring a lot of the outdoor lifestyle because, in Mexico, that’s not what I’m used to.” 

This summer she went hiking in the forests and swimming along Skellefteå’s long Baltic coast, and this winter she is looking forward to skiing and cross-country skiing.

Mox Murugan outside HYBRIT, the fossil-free steel joint venture between SSAB, LKAB, and the power company Vattenfall. Photo: Private

Mox Murugan’s move to Luleå in 2013 predates the start of its green industrial boom, but the former Sydney stockbroker is playing a significant role in bringing green investment to the region. As the investment manager in charge of hydrogen projects for Invest in Norrbotten, he recently helped bring Fertiberia to the region. He is a bullish advocate of the region’s prospects as a hydrogen superpower. 

Mox came to Norrbotten to be with his wife Ann, a Luleå local who moved to Sydney to do a Master’s in Sustainable Development back in 2001. He has come to appreciate what the city has to offer. 

“I’ve always considered myself an urban guy. I used to live in a skyscraper overlooking the city of Sydney on the 41st floor. I never imagined I’d be living close to the Arctic Circle,” he says.

“There’s such beauty here. When I’ve brought people here from Germany, we go into the forest on a winter’s day when there’s a blanket of snow everywhere.

“It’s the silence. The closest I can come is many years ago, when I worked for IBM and tested the new computers they built, in the world’s quietest room. That’s the kind of silence you get when you go into the forest here. Everyone just says, ‘Wow, I never realised how quiet the world can be’. And to me, there’s a beauty in that.” 


Alistair Coley was drawn to Northvolt by the company’s green mission. Photo: Private

Alistair Coley, 25, a cell production engineer, was already working at Nissan’s battery factory in Sunderland when he took the job at Northvolt. For him, the draw was Northvolt’s ambition to be the greenest battery factory in the world.

Northvolt says it will use 100 percent renewable energy in its production, aims to use recycled materials for half of the battery content by 2030, and is careful about sourcing materials responsibly. 

“Their media and publications are sort of inspiring,” he says. “Other companies think they should get a pat on the back just for just providing batteries for electric cars, but there’s so much more than that. Northvolt’s really trying to act sustainably from the energy perspective, and that’s important to me. It wasn’t about joining any battery business to make money, it was about coming here to make a difference.”

Both he and his fiancee Claudia had been looking for an adventure abroad, with Alistair looking at battery factories in Germany and the US. But they both felt the draw of Sweden. 

“I think it was just how close they are to nature and the expanse of the landscapes. Do you see how beautiful it is? Wherever you drive, it’s just lakes as far as you can go, and I think it’s just amazing.” 

Claudia has already got a job helping new Northvolt recruits move to the city, and they’re now installed, along with their two Labradoodles, in a small wooden house by Skellefteå’s ski track.