By Víctor L. Bacchetta
What if our forest policy was guided by the principle of protecting the country's biodiversity and natural ecosystem, if monocultures with transgenics and exotic species were banned, if maximum limits were set for plantation areas? What if pesticides were kept to a minimum and standards of use were enforced? For some, these seem to be radical measures but after all, from another angle, it would be no more than imitating some good things already experienced by the Finnish people.
The parallelism many times suggested between these two countries silences key points of their respective development models: in reality, neither the ecosystem nor the historical and political characteristics of land distribution and forestry in both countries have points of comparison.
The Finns undoubtedly know forests: their territory is part of the region covered by the Boreal Forest or Taiga, as the Siberian forest is called, which is located in the Northern Hemisphere between latitudes 50º and 60º North, where winters are long and cold. The Boreal Forest is relatively homogeneous: its characteristic way of life is conifers, especially firs (Abies), pinabetes (Picea) and pines (Pinus). And lichens and mosses are also an important component. Throughout the region there are swamps where Sphagnum, sedges, orchids and heather can be found.
The soils typical of this area, the podzols, are highly acidic, with a black, organic surface horizon. Low temperatures inhibit bacterial and fungal action, the decomposition rate is slow and the litter layer is quite deep. Precipitation is distributed throughout the year, with a large accumulation of snow in the winter.
There are virtually no shrubs or grasses, as the trees do not allow sunlight to enter; but when light comes, these levels develop well. The ground cover is dominated by mosses and lichens. The early stages of succession feature deciduous trees and shrubs, which persist along streams.
Species diversity is considerably lower than in temperate deciduous forests. Some boreal forests have only one to three dominant tree species, even in the most highly developed and productive locations. The diversity of conifers, especially Pinaceae, is substantial throughout the area.
Due to its more extreme climate and unsuitable soils for agriculture, this area has been relatively little affected by humans. The main source of destruction is logging, which has been extensive in the South, but forests have remained more or less intact in large areas of the North, both in America and Asia.
With an area of 338,000 square kilometers and 5.3 million inhabitants, Finland has a population density (15.5 inhabitants per km2) similar to that of Uruguay, but its distribution is very different. If you subtract the 10 percent that corresponds to lakes and waterways, 86 percent of the Finnish territory is covered by coniferous trees.
In 2003, the forested lands totaled 26,319,000 hectares, whose ownership was distributed as follows: 52.4 percent belonged to individual owners; 34.7 percent to the State and 7.8 percent to private companies. The large number of individual land owners and the area they occupy is striking.
Regarding the size of rural properties, of a total of 69,517 parcels in 2005, 96 percent were smaller than 100 hectares. About one million individual, family and associate holders, almost one in five inhabitants, own half of Finnish forests. These are passed from one generation to the next and that is why they speak of "family forestry".
The official motto "Finnish forests, owned by Finns" synthesizes this reality, the result of the country's peculiar history, which has gone through two world wars, several military occupations, three agrarian reforms and various land tenure regimes. It is an aspect impossible to ignore when trying to compare.
In this sense, the Uruguayan history is very different. After the defeat of the artiguista agrarian reform, the latifundio was consolidated at the end of the 19th century. A century later, thanks to the application of a forestry law designed to promote the establishment in the country of transnational economic groups, the concentration and foreignization of land ownership grow without limits.
Despite the extensive use of its forests and plantations, Finnish forestry relies on native tree species. No exotic species have been introduced and reforestation is carried out by natural means for the most part. According to official sources, only 25 percent of Finnish forests have been reforested with seedlings and seeds.
In other words, in Finland the eucalyptus plantations of Australian origin are not known. "The aim (of using native trees) is to ensure the production of high-quality raw material and, at the same time, to maintain the biological diversity in Finnish forests and suitable conditions for different uses of the forest," explains the government.
Finnish citizens can freely access the fields and forests, and pick berries and mushrooms, regardless of the rights of the land owner. This traditional right, known as "everyone's right", is part of the national identity and has contributed to developing attitudes in favor of nature conservation.
However, the region's indigenous peoples, the Sami, have had to fight alone to preserve their traditional way of life and stop logging in the forests where they keep their reindeer herds. Most of the wood harvested from Sami areas by the Metsähallitus company goes to Stora Enso's pulp mills.
In order to prevent water pollution, in Finland the use of chemicals in underground aquifer basins is prohibited and buffer strips are established on the margins of lakes, springs and waterways. The use of pesticides in agriculture is moderate and organic agriculture is reaching 7 percent of the agricultural land in the country.
Finally, having suffered severe restrictions at various times in the past, Finland does not neglect food safety. The percentages of national production in 2005 with respect to consumption were: 102 percent cereals; 106 percent liquid dairy; 129 percent fat dairy; 119 percent eggs, 116 percent pork, 89 percent beef, and 78 percent sugar.
Finnish forestry and forest production account for 8 percent of GDP and forest products for 30 percent of the country's exports. In Finland it is recognized that this is the sector with the greatest environmental impact and they note that current chlorine emissions from pulp and paper mills are one tenth of what they were in the early 1990s.
"Looking at the water quality graphs, there is an improvement from 1982 to 2004, but the contamination in areas near the factories continues", stated Ricardo Carrere on a visit to Finland *. "The air also improved between 1989 and 2004, although significant emissions of sulfur dioxide and odorous sulfur compounds persist," he adds.
But this reduction did not occur spontaneously. It was the environmental struggles of the 1980s and early 1990s that finally forced the industry to limit its polluting emissions and effluents. "Without that pressure from below, the national legislation would not have been effective," says Esa Konttinen **, a scholar of the subject.
In the last decade, Finnish or Finnish-based forestry companies have undergone a process of concentration and internationalization. These firms expanded their operations to Europe and other continents, at the same time that they associated and merged with new investors and groups in the world market, thus becoming transnational companies.
In June 2005, four companies in the sector reported that they were investing in South America, China and India, and that they would not install new factories in Finland or Europe. South America is not considered an important market for paper consumption, but it is considered as a pulp production area for export.
Neither the forestry concept applied today in Uruguay, nor the forestry policies recommended by the "experts" of the international financial institutions, nor the exploitation strategy of the transnational companies in the sector, correspond to environmental preservation and sustainability.
The huge monoculture large estates with exotic species such as eucalyptus and pine, treated with chemicals that eliminate numerous species from the natural ecosystem, with methods and machinery that also affect the soil and the original water sources, are the flat and simple expression of a new kind of predatory colonial plunder.
What we have to deal with here in Uruguay is not with Finland as a country, nor with its society, but with transnational companies of Finnish origin that, like any others, are governed by very defined and clear rules dictated by the ongoing capitalist economic globalization .
It is also clear that, as these companies pay taxes and make contributions in their countries of origin, their governments strongly support them. The positions of the Finnish government follow the rule: it defends Botnia whenever it can and, when it does not suit it to do so, it claims that it is a private company and that it does not interfere in its decisions.
But, what if our forestry policy was guided by the principle of protecting the country's biodiversity and natural ecosystem, if monocultures with transgenics and exotic species were prohibited, if maximum limits were set on plantation areas? What if pesticides were kept to a minimum and standards of use were enforced?
For some, these seem to be radical measures but after all, from another angle, it would be no more than imitating some good things already experienced by the Finnish people. What if we were a little more Finnish and a little less Uruguayan?
* "On the trail of cellulose in Finland. The other side of the coin", by Ricardo Carrere, Grupo Guayubira, Montevideo, June 2005.
** Konttinen, Esa & Jarmo Kortelainen (2001). "What were the factors that forced pulp and paper mills in Finland to stop polluting the lakes and rivers". In Char Miller (ed), Water and the Environment Since 1945: Global Perspectives. History in Dispute 7. St. James Press, New York.