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Deforestation Poses ‘Existential’ Threat to Sweden’s Reindeer, Warn Indigenous Herders

3 minute read

On an early morning in northern Sweden, Nila Jannok, a local Sámi reindeer herder, was out walking through one of the country’s last remaining old-growth forests when he stumbled upon something alarming.

Towering above him stood a thousand year old tree that had been wrapped in a yellow plastic tag that read “Sveaskog”—the name of the state-owned forestry company. 

“This one will be cut down,” he said, fiddling with the plastic tag. “They all will actually.”

Sweden has long been celebrated for being an environmentally progressive country. The Swedish Forestry Model, promoted by the government and the forestry industry, claims to be the most sustainable logging model in the world. Yet scientists say current logging practices are pushing Sweden’s old-growth forests to the brink of extinction. Across the country, large swaths of ancient forests are being felled and replaced by tree-plantations of spruce and pine, leading to a devastating loss in biodiversity. These old forests—which are currently a valuable carbon sink and source of biodiversity—are now on the verge of collapse. 

But for Jannok and the Sámi Indigenous people of Sweden, logging does not simply present a risk to their environment, it is also an existential threat to their way of life.

Read more: Conserving Forests Is the Fastest, Most Effective Way to Stabilize Our Climate

The Sámi people’s traditional livelihood revolves around reindeer herding. Their entire cultural, spiritual, and psychological worldview is built around their connection to the reindeers—a keystone species in northern Sweden. The reindeers depend on lichen to survive. But the lichen only grows in old forests. If the ancient forest disappears, so too, Jannok fears, will the reindeer and by extension, the Sámi people. 

“Reindeers have survived here since the ice age,” he said. “But only sixty years of clear-cutting have put them on the verge of starvation.”

The Sámi people have been resisting felling by the forestry industry for decades. And while they have been successful in pushing out forestry companies in some areas, the country's forests have nevertheless disappeared at alarming rates. A 2022 study published by the journal Earth's Future found that almost a quarter of Sweden's last unprotected old-growth forest was logged between 2003 and 2019, equivalent to a loss of 1.4% per year. If current logging rates continue, Sweden's old-growth forests—some of the last in Europe—will be lost in fifty years.

"As long as history goes, governments have discovered natural resources here on Sámi land," said Jannok. "Step by step, the state has taken land away." He adds: "But what happens when there is nothing left to take?"

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