LIKE much of Europe, Finland was left economically bereft by the second world war. It needed to ramp up productivity fast and the government decided the answer was forestry, the country’s industrial backbone for generations. Vast tracts of peatland were drained and trees planted, blanketing the swampy ground that covers nearly a third of the country. “These sites are incredibly carbon rich and often have high levels of biodiversity, but they’re not always the best for growing trees,” says Antti Otsamo. Unfortunately, by the time this became clear about half of Finland’s peatland had been degraded.
Environmentally, this posed a serious problem. Without enough water, layers of peat were exposed and easily eroded, leaching carbon dioxide into the air and adding to global warming. Metsähallitus, the group that manages Finland’s state-owned forests, realised that planting trees in such places was no longer an option. Today, it is committed to a different goal: restoration. “If we get the peatlands back underwater, it means the carbon remains in the soil,” says Otsamo, manager for sustainable development at Metsähallitus. “Over time, the natural vegetation will return, drawing carbon from the atmosphere like a sponge. That’s what we’re trying to do now.”
Finland isn’t alone. Worldwide, about a fifth of peatlands have been drained, burned or otherwise damaged to make way for forests, farms and infrastructure, or extracted as …