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Forestland extract

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Issue number: 2024:1


from Forestland. An Investigation.

by Lisa Röstlund

introduced and translated by Anna Paterson

Does commercial forestry damage forests, water supplies, wildlife, and human well-being? By now, the huge forestry companies based in northern Europe and Russia are trying hard to find persuasive answers. Until recently, they have stuck to simple arguments, as in ‘Trees are good, right? We replant all the time. Look at our eco-style products – timber, biofuels, stuff like that.’ But factual objections are piling up, even to the notion that all trees are good trees. European legislators take the complex outcomes of disrupting eco-systems more seriously, partly in response to changing public attitudes. People who live in, or from forests are not just upset, but often furious. As a campaigner, quoted in Forestland, puts it: ‘We complain that Bolsonaro is wrecking the Amazon. And then we go and do exactly the same thing. Kill the last forests, the ones we had promised to save.’ 

Lisa Röstlund, an experienced, award-winning journalist, has spent years investigating the concerns about modern forest management as well as the dire predictions for the future. She has focused on Sweden, but not exclusively. The many lines of thought and inquiry in her largest, most complicated, and politically charged story all come together in Forestland. The account is thorough, incisive, and wide-ranging in both tone and subject. The narrative is very readable and always coherent, despite the disparate material – official reports and pronouncements, scientific and financial data, hundreds of interviews. The thirty-two chapter titles in the contents list are telling. This is just a small selection: How it began. Protests against the state-managed forestryBalm for the soul. How people feel about forestsUnwanted knowledge. When scientific data support the ‘wrong’ conclusionThe alarm call that had to be silenced. A secret report on threatened forests – ‘There’s a f*cking war on – it’s about the future.’ Acute crises that overlap and overshadow each other.

This is a literary magazine, and some readers will be critical of the idea that journalism, however well-intended, might rate as literature. I think that Forestland qualifies, and in several genres – for instance, as nature writing, memoir and social/political satire. Arguing by precedents is tempting (Orwell? Hemingway? Etc.), but it is more relevant that Lisa Röstlund is a very good writer with a genuine feeling for nature and a sharp eye for injustice.

Forestland was awarded the prize for the Best Book of the Year 2022 by the Swedish Association of Investigative Journalism – FGJ – because it: ‘... exposed a morbid underground system that connects large [international] corporations, government agencies and politicians and allows ruthless exploitation of [northern European] forests.’

In 2023, Lisa Röstlund received the Ludvig Nordström prize for journalism for Forestland.

Lisa Röstlund in ecru sweatshirt in front of dark wall
Lisa Röstlund. Photo: Gabriel Liljevall.


from Forestland. An Investigation.


I was a journalist on the daily Dagens Nyheter when, in the winter of 2020, a request came in: could we report on the massive forest felling that was taking place in the interior of Norrland, the country’s northernmost region? We did, and what we published at the time cast a first, faint light on the deep conflicts within the forestry industry, in Sweden and elsewhere.

The response was massive. A large number of sources got in touch with a variety of concerns, which sent me off in many directions, and were documented in sixty long articles. Piece by piece, we came to understand more of a system with world-wide implications. But I felt a need for a more coherent picture; writing this book was my way of achieving it. Throughout, I have carried on with the investigation.  

The bulk of Forestland consists of previously unpublished material. The core narrative is based on a very large collection of both public and secret documents, data analyses and interviews with 248 individuals. Most people were secure enough about coming out in the open (though their names are not always given), but others wanted their identity to be kept under wraps. Some held senior positions in departments of state or were employed in the forestry industry. Others worried that assisting me would ruin their social relationships – that they would be ostracised for stepping out of line. Everyone who accepted our assurances of source protection, and faced up to personal fears, has contributed to spreading light into murky corners that we might have missed.

The huge Swedish forest industry is financially and environmentally significant on an international scale. During the one and a half years of my investigation, my views on the environment and the physical landscape – as well as my mental image of Sweden – have all changed.


Protests against the state’s forestry practices.

One of my first memories. How old was I? Four, maybe five. Looking up from my bed of fir branches, I follow the fading glow of a spark as it rises from the fire. The sky is black up there, between the swaying tops of firs and pines. The tip of my nose is cold but the rest of me is warm inside the sleeping bag. Dad has rigged up shelter, a tarpaulin stretched between tree trunks and kept upright by slender willow boughs. I drift off into sleep. The darkness is full of rustling, creaking, sparking sounds.

I was a solitary child, because there were so few children in my neighbourhood, a northern village. I mostly played on my own, rambling across the pine moors. In spindly writing, I noted that ‘My Best Friends are Emy and Alfred’ – a pair of siblings who lived in the forest farm where they were born in 1900 and in 1904. I would walk over to see them. Emy offered me hard lemon sweets from a copper jar that was often crawling with tiny black ants. I sucked the sweet and listened to the wood crackle in the kitchen stove.

At home, dad put wistful folk songs on the record player and sang ‘The Charcoal Maker’s Lament’ as my bedtime tune. He taught me how great it is to fall asleep outside just as the animals of the night wake up. And how to create an intoxicating scent by rubbing the stems of bog myrtle and wild rosemary between my fingers.

When I finally got some friends of my own age, I took them exploring in the forest. As time went by, I speculated about finding a future job to do with forests.

I fancied becoming some sort of biologist but, as ever, kept digging and graduated in chemistry at Stockholm university – only for a series of random events to turn me into a journalist. Seventeen years later, I am still a journalist. I have reported on Lundin Oil, right-wing extremist groups, the sex lives of the Swedes, oppressive honour codes, child pornography, Russian harbour trades and consultants at Stockholm’s leading hospital, the Karolinska.

It never occurred to me that the ever-present forest could be one of my subjects. Not until now.

Someone sent an email to the editor of Dagens Nyheter. Could a reporter please check this out? The sender wants us to visit Norrbotten county. You southerners won’t believe your eyes, he insists. ‘All the old forest is disappearing.’

At the time, I had only a vague idea of a possible story: clear-felling is a known cause of local aggravation. But I was also aware of the worldwide loss of species, on a devastating scale, over a very short time span and at an accelerating pace. Like everyone else, except the most determined deniers, I accepted that climate change is real, and that the scientific consensus points to an acutely threatening crisis. What hadn’t dawned on me was that current Swedish forest management has potentially serious consequences.

Sweden is covered in forests – over two-thirds of the landmass, according to the Office for National Statistics – and income from exploiting the ‘standing timber’ has contributed a great deal to the country’s welfare state. Now, when it is becoming clear that forestry is raising difficult questions, one outcome is a series of deep, infected, and widening rifts at many levels of society.

How do we define ‘forest’? What do we mean by ‘forest ownership’ – that is, who should have the right to decide about a forest’s potential and how it is used? The most critical issues are raised by fateful questions about our planet’s future climate and the survival of its living species. The world’s forests are key habitats, but to ask the question ‘What must we do to sustain them?’ is to rub salt into open wounds.

When this investigation began, I hadn’t yet taken onboard the extent to which Sweden’s forest policy has been reshaped with the aim of making the country an international winner in the ‘net zero’ race. Also, I had failed to grasp how willingly the state tolerates industrial practices that are proscribed in EU legislation.

The noxious tone of the policy debate surprised me, as did the discovery that the ‘real’ decision makers are linked by covert networks and exert their influence by covert means. I had no idea that universities and institutes had been bullied into sacking highly regarded scientists for publishing data that annoyed industry bosses. Or that the bitter rows between old neighbours about local forestry practices could lead to personal physical threats.

So, it was with no premonitions of stepping onto heavily mined ground that I phoned Lars Malmström, whose email had alerted our news editor to a possible forest story.

Lars lives with his wife Kaisu in a hamlet on an island in the middle of River Muonio. For the last 30 years, they have run a small eco-tourist enterprise. Recently, Lars joined a group of local people who are furious about the logging in their region. They argue that the forestry industry is ruining their lives, their livelihoods, and the very existence of all other forest-dependent species.         

The news editor and I agree: this could be an interesting story.

My mobile signals ‘Welcome to Finland’. The photographer and I have arrived at a camping site only a few kilometres from the Finnish border. Small houses are embedded in compact darkness, but glow red when lit by the headlamps of our rented car.

The snow creaks under our feet as we walk to the reception. Kaisu has set out a supper for us on one of the sturdy pine tables in the canteen: china pots with cooked Arctic char from the river and cep mushrooms picked on the island.

A local man joins us, another protester, but he settles down at one of the nearby tables and listens while his friend’s deep, melodic voice states their case. Lars is a good speaker, using changes in volume, stress and pause length in ways that would suit a public orator, even though his audience consists of his wife, two reporters and one silent, supportive listener.

‘Visitors from France and Japan are shocked. Has there been a war on here? they ask when they see the bare, cratered ground worked over by the harvesters and excavators. The forest floor is turned upside-down.’

The tourist industry has a pet phrase for the high-altitude forests in northernmost Scandinavia: ‘Europe’s last wilderness.’ Now, when Lars guides visitors along the old hiking trails, they traverse enormous, clear-felled sites alternating with straight rows of identical pine saplings.

But Lars is also very keen that we listen to what our silent companion has to say: ‘You could write a book about our Henrik Sevä!’

Henrik opens his mouth with obvious reluctance and mumbles something – I can’t make out what. The covid pandemic is in full swing, but we have both tested negative and feel it’s safe to move closer.

He used to be chairman of the Sámi settlement of Muonio and took part in international projects to promote collaboration between indigenous peoples in the Arctic. This led to an invitation from Canada to help the Inuit recover traditional skills of looking after reindeer, and show them how to tame the last remaining free herd. Henrik accepted and spent several years living on his own in the taiga. Then, love came his way. By the time Henrik and his Canadian wife moved to his old country, he had been away from Sweden for 17 years. He is back home now, but not quite settled. His wife confirms this later, adding that he never says much about his feelings, but she knows. We are about to learn why he is so uneasy.

The next day, we meet him at his timber-built home. He has given up reindeer herding and instead offers sledge rides behind dog teams to the tourists. Inside a very large kennel, twenty-seven Siberian huskies are barking and leaping with excitement at our arrival.

Soon, we are back in the car. After driving about twenty kilometres south along a narrow road, we stop at a sign welcoming us to one of the Sveaskog nature parks. Sveaskog, which is state-owned, is always keen to market itself as an eco-friendly forestry company, with all the best practices in place.

Katarina Sevä, Henrik’s niece, is waiting for us, and we are invited to admire the view of the Sveaskog landscape. The ‘Welcome’-sign stands in a clear-felled area so huge we can’t see where it ends.

Extensive logging was done for years, while Henrik was in Canada. He has lost his bearings now. ‘I still can’t believe it’s true,’ he says. Where the ancient forest used to be, the ground is rough, bare-scraped. A handful of tall tree stumps and a few birches are scattered on land that looks barren under its light covering of snow.

Katarina Sevä and her husband are reindeer herders, but exploitation has decimated the region’s old forest to such an extent that the animals can no longer feed themselves during the winter. Their main food source – reindeer lichen – becomes encased in a layer of ice when the weather turns cold after a period of snowmelt, and their muzzles can’t get through it. Reindeer hooves are not made for scraping through hard-frozen ground. Fast, unpredictable temperature changes have become more common as the global climate warms.

The beard lichens hanging from tree branches used to be an alternative in hard times. But to establish itself, beard lichens need so-called continuous cover forests, which may well have been logged but not subjected to modern methods of harvesting and harrowing with ground clearing machinery. By now, areas of continuous cover are small and ringed by clearings. Some of them have been turned into what the Sámi call ‘tree plantations’. The reindeer must search over enormous distances to find food. Some of them starve and their splendid antlers suffer; others simply disappear. Herding the animals demands ever longer runs on snowmobiles and scooters.

The Seväs bought and refurbished a closed-down village school, built with red-painted timber. The photographer and I are invited in. Their older daughter, fifteen-year-old Silva-Marja, sits quietly at the kitchen table. Anne-Ina, her six-year-old sister, is jumping about, the sequined unicorn on her t-shirt glittering in the lamplight. Anna-Ina adores unicorns just as much as her magical haergi, a castrated reindeer bull calf with unusual black-and-white facial markings. He was picked as Anne-Ina’s own baby reindeer.

The sisters agree that they will probably be looking after reindeer when they’re older, but their parents are worried. Recently, with heavy hearts, they had to give up on the Sámi way of living with nature, and buy in expensive fodder pellets, delivered by lorries from Finland. Katarina looks at her daughters. What if the future landscape will no longer sustain free-roaming reindeer herds? The family have been herders for hundreds of years.

Our host, Lars Malmström, wants to show us something before we leave Muonio.

‘Something terrible,’ he tells us.

We ride in his four-wheel drive pickup truck that can cope with the icy, steep forest tracks up a mountainside where stretches of ripped-up ground retain patches of snow. Once a winter oasis for the reindeer, with profuse growths of beard lichen, the tracks are now lined with felled trunks of mature pines. The cut surfaces show tightly packed tree rings. Malmström contracted a specialist to carry out ring counts: the average was 300 rings. Three hundred years. The pines were proud trees in the late 18th century, the time of the Enlightenment.

This is a harsh, boreal setting, a taiga, where trees become rarer until the tundra takes over.

‘We complain that Bolsonaro is wrecking the Amazon,’ Lars Malmström says. ‘And then we go and do exactly the same thing. Kill the last forests, the ones we had promised to save.’ 

No official permission is required to fell trees at the mountainous treeline, but the landowner must submit a ‘notification to fell’ to the Forest Agency, the government body responsible for forestry management and regulation. If there is no response in six weeks, felling can go ahead.

Research carried out by Dr Per Sandström at the agricultural university in Uppsala shows that 70% of all forest with lichen growth disappeared between 1970 and the present. Sandström concluded that there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest between the lichen’s need of a stable environment and a fairly open canopy and, on the other hand, the industry’s insistence on systematic logging and dense, dark plantations.

Lars Malmström reads from a copy of the felling notification: it states piously that the harvesters would operate only on frozen ground to prevent harm to the forest floor. He points to the deep tyre tracks across the mountainside.

‘They didn’t keep their bloody promises. Drove before the frosts. Look at it. The whole place is ruined.’ 

He has reported the incident to the police. I contact the public prosecutor, but he says that the case is closed ‘due to lack of evidence.’ The landowner is a southerner, who has sold off the standing timber. I contact him, but he won’t talk to me either.

After the journey up the mountain, we spend six hours going southwards on a twisting road deep in slushy snow. Mostly, it passes through tree plantations. Our goal is the Sámi settlement of Luokta-Mávas, which has taken the lead in a regional protest supported by 29 Sámi administrations. Luokta-Mávas is strung out over a 400-kilometre-long strip along the bank of River Pite.

Upset by state-owned Sveaskog’s felling policy, the Sámi clubbed together and agreed on an angry protest article for a national evening paper. All reindeer owners tell the same story, over and over again: the new plantations fragment the old forests, the animals starve, and the herders have to buy in winter feed.

We visit their ancestral winter campsites. There are no traces of habitation.

‘Those who went before us knew how to live without scarring the land. They taught us how to and we want to pass on the knowledge to our children.’

The threatened lichen species are not the only forest-dependent organisms at risk. Of 5,000 species associated with northern forests, some 2,000 have been found here. Many are already in decline and, in the long term, many more will be added to the red list, according to current research on biological diversity.

Luokta-Mávas took the herders’ case against Sveaskog to a tribunal, which ruled that the company should temporarily halt its plans for over 715 hectares, equivalent to a thousand football pitches. On the map, earmarked areas seem vanishingly small in the context of the reindeer grazing range. It is first when already cleared and replanted land is superimposed on the felling map that the effect is obvious: the contested forests look like pearls spaced out on a string – they are ‘the last breathing spaces.’

We settle down among the snow drifts in the middle of a high pine moor, due to be felled by Sveaskog. Nila Jannok has heated his coffeepot on the fire and serves us in beakers carved from birchwood. He ponders the company’s assertion that its plan affects only a small fraction of the landscape.

‘You might try to use that argument after knifing someone in the heart: the blade only went in a tiny bit, just a few centimetres.’

Back in in the newspaper headquarters, I phone Sveaskog’s press contact. Could they arrange for me and the photographer to do a video interview with the director of forest policy at company headquarters? They consult, and the answer is: Not in the head office, no. The director must be filmed in the forest, if at all.

It is explained to me that the presentation of the executive team is crucial. They speak for the company and face criticism from the Sámi as well as from scientists who complain that felling on this scale is unsustainable. The interview will take place in a rustic-style conference centre, part of a nature reserve in suburban Stockholm. The policy director wants a backdrop of pines.

I bring my laptop to show images of Sveaskog’s enormous clear-cut areas in reindeer grazing grounds and ask if the company board agrees that this looks like sustainable forestry. I am told that Sveaskog’s forestry policies benefit the climate and biodiversity, but that the Sámi are of course perfectly entitled to state their case. His company take these views totally seriously.

‘We must all work through these issues together,’ he adds.

The drizzle has been seeping into the keyboard and ruined it. I travel back to the office and hand the computer in to be fixed.

My report on forest management in Norrbotten is published. That same evening, the big news is that Sveaskog’s CEO, Hannele Arvonen, had been sacked. The official announcement explains that Ms Arvonen is leaving her post with immediate effect. No explanation, other than that the company has ‘radical new plans for the future.’ 


What is ‘a forest’, really?

A few days have passed. On the paper’s website, there are a lot of agitated comments under the Norrbotten reportage. Most readers are shocked that a state-owned company has been so ruthless. But others think it typical of the media to go in hard, regardless. A forest owner says that the protesters behave like ‘the green Taliban’. One of his allies speculates that a fossil fuel corporation probably pays environmentalists to cause trouble for the forestry industry.

I prepare new lines of questioning for a follow-up interview with Sveaskog, but more comments come in and demand attention: forest owners, environmentalists and quite a few scientists urge me not only to carry on, but to research a wide range of problems affecting forests, and commercial forestry in particular. It is becoming clear to me that I have barely scratched the surface of a complex, conflict-ridden sector, with not just national but also international implications. 

To get a grip on the present state of Europe’s forests, I look for more information and find several EU reports that bode ill.  

The world’s forests are homes to vast range of species, which add up to almost 90% of all land-living organisms. Older forests are consistently more biodiverse and, notably, in inverse proportion to the extent of human interference.

Healthy forests help to balance climate-driven environmental changes. In the first place, growing trees capture atmospheric carbon dioxide and serve as ‘carbon sinks.’ But, as the climate heats, the forests are exposed to ever greater disturbances: fires and drought, storms, rising sea levels causing infiltration of salty water and new variants of parasites and pathogens – all of which in turn reduces the carbon sink function. This explains why it is more important than ever to manage forests in ways that support their resilience.

Three-quarters of current European forests are made up of trees of the same age, which means that the land has been replanted after clear-felling. Generally, such forests are not in good shape: they are more vulnerable to drought, insects, fungi, and high winds. It follows that their ‘protective capacity’ is reduced. EU’s environmental agency has graded national forests, and the result is not encouraging[1]. The boreal forests, which include the northern Scandinavian conifer belt, are at particular risk: on the variable ‘conservation status’ more than 90 % are ‘inadequate’ or ‘bad’. Only about 5 % have ‘favourable conservation status’.

  • 1: ETC/BD Technical paper 4/2021: Forest & biodiversity in Europe, an overview. Publ.: 12 Dec 2022

Skogslandet – en granskning

Bokförlaget Forum, 2022, 300 pages

Rights: Martin Ransgart, Bokförlaget Forum

We are grateful to Bokförlaget Forum and to Lisa Röstlund for granting permission to publish this translated extract.

Awarded the prize for the Best Book of the Year 2022 by the Swedish Association of Investigative Journalism.

Lisa Röstlund is an investigative reporter who has conducted a number of high-profile investigations into a range of issues in Sweden.

Dr Anna Paterson trained in medicine (Lund, Sweden) and neuroscience (London). She became a writer and an award-winning translator after retiring. Her translations from the Germanic languages into English (30 books to date) have been published in UK, the USA and Australia. Anna’s own writing has focused on the relationship between literature and politics, including a book about Scottish culture and environmental policy. Her most recent book-length translation is Carl Linnaeus. The Man Who Ordered the World by Gunnar Broberg (Swedish biography). Princeton University Press. (UK & US 2023).