Iceland recovers the forests that razed the Vikings a thousand years ago

       
A landscape of Iceland.

The wooded area barely accounts for 0.5% of the country, according to a United Nations report

A mysterious land of ice and fire at the gates of the North Pole. This is Iceland, a gigantic island of the Atlantic Ocean with only 330,000 inhabitants. In this remote place, the sun shines during midnight in summer and, in winter, millions of tourists approach to enjoy its northern lights. They are not the only contrasts. Its landscape includes deserts, waterfalls, glacial rivers and immense expanses whipped by the lava of the volcanoes. However, what most impacts tourists is the absence of trees. There were, but they were razed by the Vikings when they colonized the island, a thousand years ago. The country has proposed to repopulate its forests, which barely account for 0.5% of its area, according to a report published in 2015 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

“Iceland is undoubtedly one of the worst examples of deforestation in the world,” explains Throstur Eysteinsson, director of the Icelandic Forest Service, in the video Reforesting Iceland, a cause for optimism. For five minutes, this expert recounts the efforts they make to increase the wooded area. “We have started using exotic species. The goal is to produce the seeds we need by genetically modifying them, ”Eysteinsson insists in the video, edited by Euroforgen, a European program of genetic and forest resources that supports the conservation and sustainable use of these resources.

The island was uninhabited for millennia. The first settlers arrived in the ninth century from present-day Norway. Then, a third of the country was covered with trees, but the Vikings destroyed them in just three centuries. Their need to cultivate the land, graze and use logs to warm up and produce utensils condemned the forests. The intense geological and volcanic activity and the importance that sheep farming has historically had has prevented them from regenerating naturally. This meant a drastic change in the landscape of the island. Iceland has lost almost all of its forest area and that has worsened soil erosion and increased the risk of desertification.

Icelandic tree area.

Climate change, an ally

Iceland is the European country with the lowest percentage of forest area. The absence of trees made its inhabitants even popularize a joke: “If you want to leave the forest, you just have to stand up.” Reforestation efforts began at the end of the 19th century, when some pines were planted in Thingvellir, a national park. However, the first law on forest protection was not passed until 1907, says Hreinn Óskarsson, coordinator of the Icelandic Forest Service. The real impulse came in the middle of the twentieth century, but many of the specimens that were sown then are slowly dying. “Most of the trees that are planted are part of the afforestation projects financed by the State since the nineties with about three million euros annually,” says Óskarsson.

“The budget fluctuates every year, it fell due to the crisis, but it has increased again. Reforestation is part of the Government’s actions against climate change, ”acknowledges Ragnhildur Freysteinsdóttir of the Icelandic Forestry Association. The activist explains to EL PAÍS by email that there are 60 associations and more than 7,500 people involved in the project. However, it is the farmers who plant the trees. Most of the specimens belong to the native birch, but there are also lodgepole pines, Russian larches, Sitka spruces and black poplars, which are mainly used for wood production, since the birch is not very productive. However, Freysteinsdóttir stresses that in order to achieve results it is necessary to fence the new crops so that the sheep do not put reforestation at risk.

The Forest Service has set the goal of reaching 12% of wooded area by the year 2100. Climate change has paradoxically become an ally. Historically, the cold that hit the island hindered the growth of forests. The gradual increase in temperatures since the 1980s has also meant increasing the maximum height by 100 meters in which the land is considered optimal for forestry. In a recent article, journalist Jeremie Richard explained that, in the last four years, Iceland has planted between three and four million trees, equivalent to about 1,000 hectares. That amount, however, only means a drop of water in the ocean compared to the seven million hectares that China has planted during the same period.

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