Could the “Swedish model” of sustainable forest management be part of the solution for forestry in other parts of the world? This is the final question posed in the video above, which was first presented by Sweden at the Rio+20 conference last June.
The Swedish forest story spans 100 years of policy development, multiple and changing forest management objectives, and the perceptions of stakeholders. It is certainly a story well-worth telling. I also recognise my own roots – Swedish foresters are brought up with certain perspectives on how forests should be managed. At this point, however, I want to share some thoughts about the messages in the video, having engaged much longer with international forestry issues than those in Sweden.
First, I appreciate the focus and key message on multiple objectives in forestry. True, the first four minutes are entirely about increasing timber production by restoring degraded forest landscapes and intensifying forest management. But in the last 20 years, as a result of a push from the environmental movement, a new forest policy and legislation was developed (Forest Act 1993) to ensure the environment and forest production became equal goals. In the second half of the video, other objectives are highlighted – from recreation and non-wood products, to the opportunities forestry provides for the bio-based economy.
For an international audience, I would probably emphasise the multiple objectives even more. One is left with an impression that Swedish forestry is about exactly two things – maximising sustainable and commercial timber production, and maximising forest biodiversity. The public debate has become somewhat polarised, and other objectives – particularly socio-economic ones – have become less visible. A report from a leading Swedish NGO claims that the Swedish model has led to considerable loss of biodiversity, illustrated by many graphic examples. However, the report also illustrates the polarised debate — with no references to forestry objectives other than timber production and conservation of biodiversity.
My second thought is about the broader development picture, and the people depending on forests and land. The picture from a hundred years ago was not only one of a degraded forest landscape, but also of poor farmers and forest workers seeking out a living from the land. The success story of increasing forest resources is also the story of rural people migrating away to find better opportunities in cities or overseas.
Along these lines, most of today’s 300,000 forest smallholders in Sweden live far away from their forest and are not significantly dependant on them from an economic point of view. Such transitions seem to be common in some economies that are currently emerging, and this can be an important part of contemporary understanding about forestry and agriculture development.
As said already, the video spends some time illustrating the conflict between commercial forestry and nature conservation. One reflection is to what extent this conflict resembles, for example, the expansion of planted forests that we see in many parts of the tropical world today? There are certainly similarities. Particularly in the 1960s through the 1980s, huge areas of Swedish forests were logged, the soil turned over and monoculture stands of faster growing tree varieties, sometimes exotic, were planted.
But there are also differences. The ecological setting of a Swedish forest is less diverse than, say, a tropical rainforest. Planted forests of native species can, under boreal conditions and if managed appropriately and abiding to current policies, be relatively close to a “natural” condition. While we should, therefore, be very careful when comparing the situations from an ecological perspective, there may be a reason to compare notes over the policy context, and particularly how policies that support multiple goals can be developed and applied.
So can the “Swedish model” be a solution for forestry elsewhere? It can certainly contribute to the debate. The long-term perspective in policy development and the gradual inclusion of multiple objectives are very relevant, although I also think the “Swedish model” could benefit from experiences elsewhere. It gives an important historical perspective but it is too much about the trees and too little about the people. A well-known quote from the late Jack Westoby, author of The purpose of forests, says that “Forestry is not about trees, it is about people. And it is only about trees insofar as it serves the needs of people.”
Now, that is also a model!