Real change rarely comes quickly as we would like – it’s one of the tough lessons of environmental campaigning. But when it eventually does arrive, it can be very, very sweet, like the satisfaction of saving an immense forest in the far north of Europe.
In February 2005, I was in the back of a car in Lapland, Finland, watching an apparently lifeless, monochrome expanse of skinny dark trees and dazzling white snow blur by. “What”, I wondered, “are we doing here, trying to save these young, tiny little trees?” I was part of an international team of Greenpeace activists from all over Europe and beyond who had arrived in Lapland to set up the Forest Rescue Station, a kind of base camp that would put us in a position to help the local Saami reindeer herders protect the forest. If the Finnish government was to have its way, many of these trees were destined to end up as paper pulp for books and magazines across Europe.
I had a lot to learn. It would take me a couple of weeks of immersion in the Lapland wilderness to truly grasp the subtleties of the forest. Due to the short growing season 300km north of the Arctic Circle, the world’s northernmost pine trees grow slowly. The wood here is hard and dense, and the annual growth rings are close together; the “little” trees I had scoffed at were actually hundreds of years old. Days later I was shown a clearcut – an area that has been completely cleared of trees half a century before. The “new growth” pines were barely as high as my waist, despite being decades old; it would presumably take hundreds of years for this area to “return” to anything like its original state. No one really knows.
Herd of Reindeer in Ancient Forest, Northern Lapland. Photo © Greenpeace/Matti Snellman
And that’s where the good news comes in. last week, Matti, Greenpeace’s hard-working forest campaigner in Finland, let us know that following a decade of endeavor, a final victory has been achieved in the campaign to protect old-growth forests in northernmost Finland. Negotiations between the Saami reindeer herders and the Finnish state forestry company Metsahallitus have resulted in a deal to protect 80% of the forests defined as important by both reindeer herders and Greenpeace in 2002.
These areas – all around Inari and the Saami area, add up to 80,000 hectares of original, primary forest that has now been set outside logging areas either permanently, or for the next 20 years.
The struggle to protect the Finland’s forest reached its zenith almost six years ago, between February and April 2005, when we established the Forest Rescue Station. Located first on the Finnish-Norwegian border, and then on the Russian border, the Forest Rescue Station was crewed by activists from all over Europe, who hiked, skied and rode snowmobiles through the forest with local reindeer herders to chart and demarcate the forest areas that needed protection. We had mild weather by local standards, but it was a shock for some of the fair-weather southerners; temperatures rarely climbed above -15C, and that was in the sunshine, with no wind, while at night we camped in -30C and below.
Saami reindeer herder and Greenpeace activist demarcating the forest.Photo © Greenpeace/Patrik Rastenberger
And then there were the neighbours. Greenpeace forest activists around the world regularly come against fierce opposition sponsored by the logging industry; in Finland we had to deal with a supposedly “grassroots” group of loggers that set up a rival camp to block access to ours. Activists went through weeks of sleeplessness and stress; harassed by snowmobiles and taunts during the daytime, they were kept awake at night by fire sirens beside our tents or the windows of our converted shipping containers. One night, a huge tree harvesting machine was driven into the heart of the camp and started cutting down the trees around us – on another, we were woken because a tree inside the camp had been set on fire. But they never “got to us” – our team kept its sense of humour, and its determination to carry on.
The Forest Rescue Station. Photo © Greenpeace/Matti Snellman
I spent two months in the village of Inari and the Forest Rescue Station, and despite having trips to the Southern Ocean, Greenland and West Africa under my belt since; I still rate my time in Finland as one of the toughest I’ve experienced with Greenpeace. There was little respite from pressure; our vehicles were followed everywhere, and one activist who lived locally even started receiving death threats.
But it wasn’t all bad – an amazing, dedicated family of activists was formed at the Forest Rescue Station, and in the town of Inari, we had great support, from both the Saami people in general, and the students from the local Education Institute. Special mention should go to Rosso, the Italian activist drafted to cook for at the camp. Even while our tormentors surrounded us, Rosso was in the kitchen turning out fresh tagliatelle from the pasta machine he’d brought with him. And he still maintains he lost weight from the stress and sleepless nights… For my part, I fell in love with the wilderness and wildlife of Lapland, the long shadows of afternoon, and long nights of early summer.
The success of the Forest Rescue Station came not only from working in the forest itself; our campaigners were working from the forest, reaching out across Europe to contact companies directly about products that were connected to the forest destruction and building up awareness of the problem amongst suppliers. Demonstrations were held not only in Finland, but Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy – countries where the Finnish wood was exported to be made into paper. We even had a group of bestselling authors from across Europe travel to the forest, concerned about where the paper in their books might come from.
All this work eventually led to an informal moratorium on logging beginning in 2006. Now, almost five years later, these forests are protected thanks to the incredible dedication, commitment and patience of the Saami people, Greenpeace folks from Finland and all around Europe. They’ve worked countless hours, trekking and camping in subzero temperatures, delivering messages to the paper industry and governments, and sitting through rounds of apparently endless meetings.
They all remembered to keep their eyes on the prize, even when suffering setbacks, or when progress seemed impossible. They believed that the longterm protect of the forest was possible, and more importantly, that it was the only acceptable outcome.
Siberian jays in the forests of Northern Finland. Photo © Greenpeace/Matti Snellman
Greenpeace is campaigning to protect forests in many different parts of the world, such as Indonesia, the Congo and the Amazon; amongst other things, we are also in the midst of long, hard campaigns to save our oceans, protect water resources, and save our climate. The Finnish forest success outcome is a lesson for us all – great things are not only possible, they are inevitable, if we keep maintain our optimism, have faith in our abilities, and have the determination to see our work through to the very end, no matter how long the fight.
This Blog is dedicated to the hundreds of people who gave their time to fight for Finland’s Forests.
Dave (with big help from Olli and Max)
First photo: The beauty of Northern Finland's forests. © Greenpeace/Henna Tahvanainen