What’s a poor timber company to do when their own planning fails to predict a shortage of timber after decades of clear-cuts? Blame someone else of course! And what better scapegoat to pick than indigenous people. This is how Swedish state-owned timber company Sveaskog acts. Rather than admitting their own mismanagement, they blame the Sami people.

Swedish timber companies by law have to discuss with the Sami people before felling forests on land used for reindeer husbandry. The Sami have to agree that, for instance, forests containing beard lichens hanging in the trees which are an important winter feedstock for reindeer may be felled. Beard lichens can be found predominantly in old-growth forests or forests that have passed 100 years in average age of the stand. The older the forest is the larger the amount of beard lichens. Without these lichens, reindeer need to be fed with dry food such as hay and pellets , brought in from long distances.

Reindeer in summer grazing area in the Swedish mountains. Photo: David van der Spoel

Old forests are crucial for biodiversity and the climate

The same forests that provide a winter home to reindeer are also important for native biodiversity, plants, animals and fungi. These forests are extremely important for carbon storage as well. Timber companies, however, are solely interested in turning forests into paper, pulp and biofuel.

Spruce tree with beard lichens, Fulufjällets National Park. Photo: David van der Spoel.

Sveaskog, the entirely state-owned timber company that “owns” a lot of land in northern Sweden, has been very successful at clear-cutting forests. In many places, native trees have been replaced by an exotic species, making the forest less suitable for both reindeers and native wildlife. They push the Sami people to allow clear-cutting old growth forests by repeating the same demands time and time again until the Sami give in. As a result, most of the forests suitable for reindeer husbandry have disappeared. In fact, most of the forests in northern Sweden have disappeared, and there are only plantations too young and therefore illegal to be cut down. The Sami people and native biodiversity are the big losers in Sveaskog’s forest management. However, now the Sami communities have decided they do not want to let the last remnants of old forests containing beard lichens be taken to the paper mills as well.

Sveaskog has been harvesting too much for decades

Rather than managing its assets in sustainable fashion, Sveaskog has harvested way too much forest for a long time. Apparently they had calculated on being able to clear-cut every last tree in northern Sweden. In an openly racist attack they now blame the Sami people who are just trying to safeguard their livelihood, for slowing down timber harvest. Sveaskog have apologized to their “customers” (the paper mills) for unplanned lower harvest in the near future.

Many countries are trying to make up for their imperialistic history, from mistreating indigenous people and stealing resources to outright slavery. In contrast, Sweden continues along the path taken since the early 1800s, marginalizing the Sami people by making reindeer husbandry all but impossible. At the same time, the rich biodiversity of the boreal forests is obliterated by clear-cutting, scarification of the forest floor and planting monocultures of pine, spruce or exotic species. Indeed, Sweden’s forest management is a disgrace.