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Sustainable forest management in Finland: its development and possibilities

M. Ahtisaari

Martti Ahtisaari is President of Finland.

FAO/11878-y23/L. SPAVENTA

The text of a speech presented by Martti Ahtisaari, President of Finland, at FAO, Rome on 22 November 1999.

President Ahtisaari addressing the 1999 FAO Conference

These days forests are not only a local and regional issue. They are very much a global issue.

Let me begin with the concept of sustainable forest management. We can then move on to the Finnish example of enhancing sustainable forest management and finish up with a discussion on selected international forest issues.

Sustainable forest management

A forest symbolizes something different for each and every one of us. For some it might be a source of essential fuelwood, a place to go hiking or even a spiritual place. For others it is a source of pure drinking water or raw materials for a sawmill. Different perceptions sometimes make it harder to understand other people's perspectives and needs. Although we might agree about the importance of the sustainable use of forests, do we really have a common understanding of what forests are and therefore what kind of sustainability we are seeking?

The general recognition of the sustainability of forestry has broadened. Stable economic growth today has an equal standing with concepts such as environmental, social and cultural sustainability: the desire to pass on the legacy of welfare and well-being from one generation to another.

Sustainable forest management, however, is becoming a more and more complex question of balancing. It includes the balancing of private and public interests, present and future generations' needs and environmental and economic benefits, to mention just a few examples. Forestry must address increasingly complex demands from a growing number of users.

Based on the definitions and the general criteria of sustainable forest management at the European level, the following principles were agreed upon in Helsinki in 1993:

In northern Europe, we have a tendency to take it for granted that the stability of society needed for sustainability is easily achieved - unlike in some other places in this world. We might offer some experiences about the development and present state of our forestry, but we have to keep in mind that the development of our forestry is based on a combination of circumstances that are not present anywhere else.

The development of finnish forestry

In Finland, climatic conditions are not the most favourable for forest growth, yet the forestry sector and the export of forest products are very important for our economy. The forest sector alone accounts for one-third of Finland's gross export income. With approximately 0.5 percent of the world's forests, Finland accounts for 15 percent of the world's exports of paper and paperboard.

In the history of social and industrial development in Finland, forests have gone through many different phases: from the balanced coexistence between forests and early hunters, to the crude exploitation of forests for grazing, shifting cultivation and the distillation of tar in the late nineteenth century, leading up to the current situation where forest resources are managed through sustainable use, which is based on a large variety of forest products, ranging from timber to berries and from pleasant scenery to the mere existential value of a forest.

At the end of the nineteenth century the growing demand for timber for the expanding European market and the domestic exploitation of forests for tar and shifting cultivation raised for the first time concerns for the future sufficiency of wood as a raw material. The Senate invited the German forestry expert Edmund von Berg to evaluate Finnish forests.

Our first known foreign forest consultant gave us the following questionable appraisal: "The Finns have become very skilful in the art of destroying forests". And furthermore: "The Finns live in and from the forest, but out of stupidity and greed - like the old woman in the fairy tale - they kill the goose that lays the golden eggs". As a consequence of the report, our first forest law was written in 1886. The statement was simple but effective: the forest shall not be destroyed. In a small country it was easy to realize that if we did not plant when we harvested, we would not have trees in the future.

Forestry in Finland today

The most recent reform of Finland's central forest legislation took place in the 1990s. It retains the prohibition on the destruction of forests, and in addition the renewed forest legislation covers all the aspects of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) such as social and environmental sustainability. I would like to give you some examples of our efforts.

Natural pine forest in Finland


In the long run we see the Finnish National Forest Programme as one of the best ways to ensure the sustainable use and development of our forests and to maintain a sufficient level of forest conservation in Finland. The idea behind our National Forest Programme is to meet domestic and international requirements in order to develop forest management and protection along such lines that forests will provide Finns with as much work and sources of livelihood as possible, remain healthy, vital and diverse and provide spiritual and physical recreation for the Finnish people.

The sustainability of forest ecosystems rests on protected areas and the management of commercial forests. In Finland 7.6 percent of forests and other wooded land is protected. Today the emphasis is, however, on maintaining the level of biodiversity in managed forests. The 1997 Forest Act and the 1997 Nature Conservation Act have created a good framework for this work. For instance, according to the Forest Act, during harvesting, large trees are left on site as nesting trees for large birds of prey and dead trees to host a variety of insects.

According to the National Forest Programme, social sustainability is supported by strengthening family forestry, by decreasing rural unemployment and by supporting the creation of new employment opportunities. In rural areas forests and wood are more and more essential in creating and supporting employment and developing business ventures, such as value-added wood processing, wood-based energy production or the multiple use of forests.

As part of enhancing sustainable forest management, Finland has also been active in developing criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management and in creating favourable circumstances for forest certification. Based on the Helsinki process, Finland has drawn up six criteria and some 150 indicators adjusted to local conditions which are now being tested in practice.

Global forest policy

Throughout the last decade a very active intergovernmental forest process in various forms has taken place in which Finland and the European Union have underlined the crucial role of forests for sustainable development. Sustainable forest management is an integral part of sustainable development and it requires long-term commitment and adequate arrangements for its execution and for cooperation on all types of forests at the global and national levels.

International cooperation in forestry and environmental issues is also growing fast. One example of this is the valuable work performed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF) and the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF). The outcome so far of UNCED in 1992 as well as the IPF-IFF process represent a large spectrum of useful proposals which form a solid base for further progress.

The negotiation process at IFF shows an emerging consensus on the need to continue the international forest policy dialogue for action and to reach a common understanding on its basic functions. These in my view should include objectives and global goals along the lines of UNCED decisions and the valuable work of the IPF-IFF process.

Finland as the current holder of the Presidency of the European Union is convinced that the time between now and early 2000 should be used to find a negotiated solution to the apparent divergence of views and sometimes strict positions by all parties. After all, we are making decisions regarding the most important terrestrial ecosystem on which humankind depends for its livelihood and survival, the forests.

The forests merit an international arrangement and agreement which takes a comprehensive and holistic approach and also enhances the effective execution of the global environmental conventions with due regard to the coordination of actions. The future arrangement and agreement should also facilitate equality and equity among countries and provide support to developing countries and countries with economies in transition by taking into account their specific circumstances.

In Finland's development policy one priority area is support for developing countries to implement international environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification as well as the proposals for action produced in the IPF-IFF process. In actual activities, support for national forest programmes and forestry-related projects have a major role. Finland is also keen to support the implementation of the international forest regime and these conventions in the future and to assist developing countries in this context as a bilateral donor while working with intergovernmental organizations such as FAO.

However, these international conventions have laid down forest-related regulations and guidelines without consideration of their possible implications on the forest sector as a whole. Therefore I wish to reiterate the importance of the international community reaching consensus on a comprehensive and holistic arrangement for all types of forests.

We are convinced that the future arrangement should manifest the necessary political will and a permanent high-level commitment for policy-making at the international and national levels. A commitment by countries to apply a holistic approach to forest-related issues within the framework of national forest programmes is a prerequisite.


In the ministerial meetings on forestry convened by FAO, constructive work has been done in promoting the management, conservation and sustainable development of forests. The conclusion of the ministers placed emphasis on the importance of forests for people's welfare, livelihood and food security now and in the future, as well as for the life-supporting system of the entire planet. The ministerial meetings have also called on FAO to continue to serve as a facilitator and to give support to international processes related to sustainable forest management.

FAO has done an excellent job in chairing the High-Level Inter-Agency Task Force on Forests and has facilitated in many ways the intergovernmental negotiation process over the past years. At the same time, FAO has continued to perform as a centre of excellence in both normative and technical work, in the development of forest policy strategies and instruments as well as practices in the form of national forest programmes, and in areas of special importance such as the field of community forestry.

FAO's work in global forest resource assessment and the evaluation of the state of the world's forests is commendable and should be further strengthened. The valuable work of FAO in promoting national forest programmes worldwide as one integral element in the implementation of the emerging international forest regime should gain even new momentum. The Organization-wide strategic planning process offers renewed opportunities to address effectively the interface between agriculture and forestry and the role of forests in food security and poverty reduction through the enhancement of rural livelihoods. The role of FAO as a United Nations specialized agency should offer yet again good prospects for establishing partnerships between the Organization and other key players, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, in order to make the work on forests even more efficient and effective.

Concluding remarks

Over one-third of the world's land area is forested. We certainly all agree on the importance of forests on a local, national and global scale. Forests continue to be a source of environmentally friendly raw materials. Forests can slow down climate change and contribute to maintaining the habitability of the planet. But for how long can forests continue to do this?

In the near future the important question will be how the principles of sustainable forest management, the forestry guidelines and the resolutions of conventions can be transformed into concrete measures. It is up to each country to decide how best to balance human activities with nature's ability to renew itself. It also requires foresight: greater global understanding of the current and potential values of forest ecosystems, private and public investments in forests and sometimes restrictions on utilization by curtailing exploitative short-term forest uses.

The world's population is expanding and it is our responsibility to see that our children will have their chance to get to know the forests. We can help the forests to survive for future generations only through concrete measures. 

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