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Sustaining the Finnish forest Finland's alternative system of certification allows myriad owners of small forests to conserve en masse

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technical & practice

The Finnish forest industry has introduced a method of certifying its forests which will allow it to prove to potential purchasers that its timber is produced in a sustainable manner. As the second largest exporter of timber to the uk after Sweden, this is important since such reassurances are being sought increasingly. And Britain and the Netherlands are believed to be the countries most concerned about proving sustainability - possibly, think some cynics, because our high population densities mean that we are so out of touch with nature that we demand the impossible.

The Swedish timber industry is already certified under the fsc system, the first and most widely recognised certification system, which originated in the us. This system suits Sweden with its relatively small number of large-scale producers. But it is not suitable for Finland, where there is a network of very small producers.

Multitude of operations

In a country where forest predominates, 62 per cent of the total is privately owned, and most of this is in the southern, more productive part of the country. So the proportion of timber production from private ownership is far higher than the 62 per cent. These holdings are mostly small, either as part of a farm, or owned by people who are now city dwellers. There are 440,000 forest owners and the average private holding is 30ha, yet to make a sole living from it one would need at least 100ha.

This is not to say that the forests are run in an unsophisticated manner. Most of the smaller forests are managed by contractors, who use high-tech equipment with great efficiency. Perhaps because forestry has been such a backbone of the country's economy, systems for getting from the growing tree to the finished wood product are highly developed. Finland seems to have given the production and processing of forest products the same level of attention as Ford gave the motor car.

But the network of small producers does mean that every estate having to produce detailed documentation to show that it complies with a certification system is not feasible - and this is exactly what they would have to do under the fsc system.

So the Finnish Forest Industries Federation has developed its own certification system, which it is putting forward for approval to the pefc (the Pan European Forest Certification scheme). This is an alternative system which although equally demanding in terms of quality, allows for group rather than individual certification.

This is the process that the Finns have adopted. Their numerous small holdings are formed into 260 forest management associations, which in turn are part of 13 national associations, an efficient structure which is well placed to administer such a system.

Mushrooms matter too

The Union of West Finnish Management Associations, for example, received its certification under the Finnish Forest Certification System in November after a year's work. The union, which covers 80,000 forest owners who each have holdings of more than 4ha (yes, there are even smaller holdings), has a staff of seven. They received agreement from the large majority of the forest owners to take part in the scheme, explained the work required, and appointed the outside assessment company which then appraised a sample of the producers. The results were sufficiently good that the region received its certification.

This process is made easier by the fact that there is already a high degree of environmental awareness - this is a far cry from a producer of tropical hardwood ripping down whole swathes of virgin forest. And that is the reason why some sceptics have questioned the need for a certification system at all. In Finland, forest is closely tied up with the country's heritage, and is also an important amenity. No areas are fenced, and in summer the forest is widely used for hiking and picnics. Many farmers supplement their income by hiring out summer cabins; city dwellers frequently have second homes by the lakes; mushrooming and the collection of berries are still important rituals in a country where, only a generation ago, fresh food was still in short supply in the winter.

All this led to an understanding of the importance of the environment, which on the other hand suffers few pressures from its leisure use because the area is so vast and the population so small. But the certification system has systematised the process. Deliberate despoliation may be rare, but certification should ensure that damage is not caused by ignorance or oversight either. Standards are laid down for example for the strips of forest that have to remain uncut beside watercourses, and for the proportion of trees that have to remain standing in an area that has been cut.

Finland's certification system may be born more out of an artificial demand for assurance about everything than out of need, but it is an indication of the way in which sustainability can be achieved in harmony with amenity and economic production - much easier of course if you live in empty Finland than the crowded UK.

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