Navigating a heated debate: Societal views on forest use and forest protection in Sweden

Almost 70% of Sweden is covered by forests, making the topic of “Forest use vs Forest protection” of great importance and personal relevance to most people in the country, young as well as old. During Autumn 2022, two secondary school classes in the city of Umeå, in Northern Sweden, took a deep dive into various forest-related local and global issues.

The basis for the learning activities was the teaching material Skogslabbet (Forest Lab), developed by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in collaboration with local teachers. Both SLU and the teachers are partners in the MULTIPLIERS Open Science Community (OSC) in Sweden. Further, activities developed by Umeå University and the OSC partners were added.

The modules in Forest Lab focus on sustainable development, climate, biological diversity, and the topics “forest as a circular resource” and “humans and the forest”. With this broad approach, Forest Lab relates to general aspects of the Swedish national curriculum as well as particular content of the Biology and Science Studies courses. The MULTIPLIERS OSC in Sweden was part of the work throughout the modules. Here, we share our experience with the teaching and learning activities, focusing on three valuable components: interviews on people’s relationship to forests, a roleplay mirroring current societal debates around forests, and an investigation of how the topic is portrayed by the media.

Interviews with three generations

As one of the introductory activities, students interviewed people from three generations about their individual historical relationship to forests under the theme “What do three different generations know about forests?”. Students were asked to find out from parents, grandparents or other people from older generations how their current relationship with the forest is and what they use the forest for. Most importantly, they were asked to find out how the people they interviewed think forest use has changed throughout their lifetime.

Forest debate, a roleplay on “Forest use vs Forest protection”

To practice scientific argumentation while learning more about the current societal debate on forests, a roleplay activity from Forest Lab was introduced. The teacher divided each class into six actor groups: private forest owners, forest companies, the general public, environmental organisations, indigenous Sami communities and public authorities. Within each group, every student rolled a dice to get a personality in terms of age, gender, role in the actor group and personal traits. After that, students had time to prepare their characters. The debate took place in the classroom and involved three issues/case studies:

  • Case 1 concerns the company Green Products, who wishes to launch a new clothing brand with all clothing consisting of forest-based materials originating from Swedish forests. The question is: What should forest raw materials be used for, and are forest resources available in sufficient quantity?
  • In Case 2, the association Fairer Forest believes more people should visit local forests with the vision to increase awareness of forests’ natural values. Fairer Forest’s position requires forests with high natural values to be protected. Should this be prioritised?
  • In Case 3, a municipality wants to cut down the forest and build housing in a local forested area that until now is used for recreation. A citizens’ proposal suggests that it is more important to keep the forest for people’s health and well-being. The question is: should a citizens’ proposal be able to influence the decision on how a local and easily accessible forest will be used in light of the municipality’s new needs?

After adopting roles and joining actor groups in all three case studies, students were happy to share their experiences and ideas. About the science learning, students said: “Generally it was a good possibility to discuss what we thought about forest use” and “We learnt things when we did the research”. About the debate, students thought that “In the beginning, I was focused on what my character thinks but towards the end, I reflected on what I believe myself” and “I am not like that in reality, this was acting”. Also, students wished for more debate around some of the questions. For example, they suggested rephrasing the questions to elicit more varied opinions and arguments among the actor groups.  

After future development of the activity, we hope to give the MULTIPLIERS Open Science Community (OSC) a more central role in interacting with students to define roles in the actor groups and personal traits of the characters.

Meeting a journalist and analysing newspaper articles

To develop skills in critical thinking, Ulrika Nohlgren, a journalist from the local newspaper Norran and a partner in our OSC, met the students with the aim to show how journalists work (and don’t work) and highlight core aspects of their profession. In preparation, students read a recent newspaper article titled “Forest companies cut down forests younger than regulations allow”. Based on the article, they wrote a short reflection on whether they found the article balanced (or unbalanced) in relation to the perspective of different stakeholders and the issue of “Forest use vs Forest protection”.

Discussions that followed focused on what “balanced” means and what is behind what we read in newspapers compared to, for example, social media. This highlighted the importance of developing media education skills and knowledge in relation to all societal and environmental challenges, which helps to make science more meaningful and relevant to everyday life.

Taken together, the activities enabled the students to practice critical thinking and argumentation as well as learn more about historical and current views of “Forest use and forest protection” by interacting with families, experts and the media.