“In clear-cut forest, the silence is deafening,” the conservation photographer Marcus Westberg, who’s covered environmental stories around the world, tells me. This one—on the forestry industry—brought him to his own backyard in Sweden: “What I miss the most is the sound of the wind moving through trees, branches, and leaves. It’s devastating, of course.”
Sweden has a reputation for being “green,” with the oft-cited fact that 70% of the country is covered by forest. But that number is misleading, as not all of those forests are natural, wild areas. “When the forestry industry and the government say ‘forest,’ they don’t mean intact ecosystems,” Westberg explained in a recent talk. “They mean, ‘there are trees’ or ‘there were trees and there will be trees again soon because we’re planting them.’”
The problem with this line of thinking is that there’s a significant difference between a forest and a landscape with trees. “A forest is a complex ecosystem,” the photographer explains. “Even if most of the trees are of the same species, as is sometimes the case, there’s a plethora of other species present, too: lichen, fungi, mosses, flowering plants, invertebrates, birds, etc.
“The individual trees will be of varying ages, supporting different organisms at different stages of their lives. Dead trees are important, too, and they can remain present for much longer than you might expect: hundreds of years.
“The ecosystems themselves have often been around for millennia, and the trees present will be the ones that have proven sturdy and adaptable enough to survive a variety of conditions. When you clear-cut a forest, all of that is erased. The ground is churned up, the undergrowth and dead trees cleared out.”
It doesn’t work to simply replace those old trees with new trees, as is the case with monoculture plantations, which make up a large portion of so-called “new forests.” These “forests” are often quickly cut down and harvested, without benefiting biodiversity or capturing carbon as a ‘real’ forest does. “The new trees are more or less of the same age and origin,” Marcus Westberg continues. “It’s pretty much like comparing a meadow to a field of wheat; both may contain grasses, but that’s where the similarities end.”
In truth, the photographer explains, Sweden is currently clearcutting its old-growth forests very quickly—at a rate that’s even faster than the clearcutting happening in the Brazilian Amazon. This clearcutting has far-reaching effects, making the land inhospitable to lichen, fungi, insects, and birds and also for the people who rely on the land to survive, including those in eco-tourism and members of the Indigenous Sami communities, who raise reindeer.
The photographer became aware of the problem while staying at Lapland Guesthouse in northern Sweden, the region where much of the clearcutting takes place. “In the morning, the owner took us out and showed us a real forest and a plantation,” he remembers. “Once I’d seen it, I couldn’t unsee it. I started reaching out to people—biologists, guides, reindeer owners—and I decided to photograph the destruction of our forests rather than seek out the remaining ones.”
For most of his career, Marcus Westberg has told stories far from home, but after learning about this environmental crisis taking place nearby, he immediately started to see the signs. When asked how he found these locations where massive swaths of forest have been cut, he admits that it was not difficult. “Unfortunately, no research was necessary, because it’s happening everywhere,” he tells me. “Many of these photos were taken at places that I simply stumbled upon while driving around.”
His goal is to challenge a pervasive “greenwashing myth” with photographs that reveal the truth. In telling this story, he’s going up against powerful forces—rich people at the helm of big corporations that profit from monoculture plantations. “The EU is our biggest hope for immediate change, provided Sweden respects their rulings,” the photographer explains.
On an individual level, protests and boycotts can help put pressure on these companies to change their practices. “Big changes aren’t easy to create, but when enough people feel a moral obligation to do so, it gets done,” Westberg says. “Most people, when they see what this devastation actually looks like and how enormous the scale of it is, get angry. As they should: a small group of greedy, wealthy people are destroying our natural heritage as well as our future. We need more of that anger. We need more people to care enough to speak up.”
If you’d like to get involved, two organizations to follow are Skydda Skogen (Protect the Forest) and Naturskyddsföreningen (the Nature Protection Organisation) in Sweden. Of course, deforestation is happening all over the world, so you can also look into conservation projects close to home.
Old-growth forests, like the ones being cut in Sweden, have been around for thousands of years, home to countless plants, animals, and people. “Many of the trees [that were cut] were hundreds of years old,” Marcus Westberg tells me. “There is a diversity and history in intact forests that can’t be replaced or recreated. We don’t stop to reflect on what this means when we bulldoze natural environments. We simply assume that it’s our right to do so.”
All images © Marcus Westberg