Stoyan Nenov/Reuters
Sami reindeer herder, Nils Mathis, follows a herd of reindeer on his ATV on the Finnmark Plateau in Norway, June 16, 2018. The semi-nomadic Sami live across Finland and Norway, managing reindeer herds that feed on forest lichen.

In Finland, Sami people protect native land against logging

In the northern forests of Finland, the semi-nomadic Sami people's way of life is under threat. Under a draft revision of Finland's main forestry certification program, logging could increase by 30%, shrinking the forests that the Sami depend on for reindeer grazing. 

Sami reindeer herders have been taking their animals to graze on the lichen of Finland’s northerly forests for hundreds of years, but community leaders say their way of life is being threatened by a potential increase in logging.

Logging could rise by more than 30% if a draft revision of Finland’s main forestry certification program is approved, the ELY environmental protection department has said, and unprotected forest in Sami areas might not be exempt.

“If it’s not against PEFC requirements up there, forests could be cut in Sami areas, the same way as in other parts of Finland,” said Auvo Kaivola, secretary general of Finland’s Program for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification (PEFC).

The revision was proposed after some Finnish regions exceeded a sustainability target set by the PEFC, which covers 90% of the Nordic country’s forests.

Under the draft rule, which would be in place for at least five years, logging levels would be decided by comparing tree fells and new growth.

Mr. Kaivola said that while logging could increase, “it’s good to keep in mind that the growth in Finnish forests is getting bigger every year too.”

Saplings can grow to sequester as much carbon as logged trees over several decades – but many scientists dispute that the carbon balance in the interim is “neutral,” especially when the logged trees are burned for bioenergy.

Finland needs to expand its carbon sink if it is to meet a target of climate neutrality by 2035.

While some forests in Sami areas are strictly protected, a logging increase in the order of 30% would be “devastating” for Indigenous communities, said Jan Saijets, an activist and former member of the Finnish Sami parliament.

“Samis are already pushed up against the wall,” he said. “If forestry intensity is increased that much it would end the livelihoods of a lot of reindeer herders.”

Finland’s government says Sami cultural rights are legally protected, and Agriculture Minister Jari Leppa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation there were “no plans to increase logging in the Sami area.”

“No clear-cuts have been made in the Sami region state lands for decades,” he said in emailed comments, referring to the logging practice of clearing all the trees from a given area.

‘Hard competition’ 

The Sami are a semi-nomadic people who trace their Arctic lineage back thousands of years. Most of the remaining 80,000 or so Sami remain in Norway, with no more than 10,000 in Finland.

Many have had to take jobs outside reindeer herding since the 1970s, but the activity still provides community jobs for slaughterers, calf markers, and market vendors.

“[Without forests] the traditional way of life of following the herd [...] is not financially viable,” said Elle Merete Omma, a member of the Sami Council, a pan-Scandinavian organization.

She cited the costs of feed and fodder needed for stationary reindeer farms – sometimes exacerbated by climate change – and the risk of heightened conflict as herders compete for grazing areas.

“It becomes a hard competition for the remaining land,” she said.

Disputes have erupted when Sami resistance to logging in one area has displaced tree felling to smaller Sami territories elsewhere.

One squabble that raged over a 770-square mile area several years ago was only resolved when the larger Sami group agreed to slaughter much of its herd.

Historically, forced urbanization and the entry of women into the labor market often followed the disappearance of reindeer herds, removing a platform for teaching Sami language, customs, and traditional knowledge, Ms. Omma said.

Mr. Saijets described the process as “cultural genocide.”

“We are not able to keep our culture alive when all our environments are destroyed bit by bit,” he said.

‘We will disappear’

Forestry is a pillar of Finland’s economy, making up a fifth of its export revenues and industrial production in 2018, and generating 23.4 billion euros.

About 10% of the country’s forests are strictly protected – mostly in Sami areas – but the nationwide area covered by older forests has fallen sharply, according to figures cited by the ELY.

Forest areas more than 140-years-old shrank by more than half between 1952 and 2011, it says.

Petra Biret Magga Vars, a reindeer herder from the Sami village of Vuotso, said that while trees still lined the roads in her region, “behind them there is nothing.”

“It’s like a stage background in a theater,” she said by phone.

The draft revision to the forestry program comes as Metsa Group, one of Finland’s largest forest companies, plans to open a large “bioproduct” sawmill in Kemi in the north of the country – putting Sami and environmental campaigners on alert.

“There’s a worry of increased demand for northern wood [that] could be unsustainable,” a senior government official said on condition of anonymity. “I think the environmentalists are right to be worried.”

Local protests have had some effect. In Sweden last year, plans to log 1,700 acres of ancestral Sami land – almost 1,000 football fields worth – were put on ice after a campaign highlighted by Vogue magazine and Greta Thunberg.

The plan has not been scrapped altogether but Sami groups are preparing a possible court case, collecting examples of rare flora and fauna species in the woodlands and documenting archaeological remains.

“Our entire lives depend on these forests,” said Sofia Jannok, a Sami singer and climate activist who led the campaign.

“There is no room for further logging. ... We will disappear as a people.” 

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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