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The tiny town of Kuhmo finds itself at the core of Finland’s national bioeconomy strategy. New, eco-friendly ways to upgrade timber create more jobs in the northern forests. On the other hand, using the forests is a necessity for the town’s survival.
Talking to people in Kuhmo, you hear them mention green and ecological values every now and then. No wonder, as most of the town area and the surrounding Kainuu region are covered by coniferous forest, producing the famous sustainable timber of the North.
Ms. Eila Valtanen, Town Manager of Kuhmo, likes to refer to her town as “the half-a-million-hectare wood”. Another thing she often says is that “Kuhmo is bioeconomy in the making.”
By this she refers to the wide variety of forest industry products made in Kuhmo: sawmilling and planing products, prefabricated log houses, wood-framed windows, garden structures. A couple of years ago, a factory producing cross-laminated timber (CLT) was opened in the Kantola industrial area. It was the first in the country, producing components for the neighbouring Elementti Sampo company, which turns them into components for blocks of flats.
According to Ms. Annina Komulainen, Project Manager at Elementti Sampo, the ability to cooperate is characteristic of the entrepreneurs in Kuhmo. Although there are only 9,000 inhabitants in Kuhmo, they do not hesitate to put forth new ideas and test innovations.
A visit to Elementti Sampo also reveals something new: they are in the process of making components for large tower blocks from CLT. In other words, an entire bedsit is constructed in the factory, including external cladding, electrical wiring and skirting boards – in short, everything. Larger flats are constructed by combining more of the same components.
Forest is valued by people in Kuhmo
According to Komulainen, timber creates interest. “It is a trend to return to something that has been known to be good since time immemorial. Among construction materials, timber is the most ecological, for the fact alone that it sequesters carbon. Nor does it create hazardous waste after use,” says Komulainen.
Environmental organisations protest every now and then against the “excessive” use of northern coniferous forests. From the perspective of the people in Kuhmo, this sounds bizarre.
“It is precisely here that people respect nature and have the skills to use forests carefully and with expertise. Forests are valuable for us and managing them is based on long traditions,” says Komulainen.
Komulainen has always preferred wood as material, as it is beautiful and warm. The self-evident eco-friendliness of wood is something that she only realised later. After completing her degree in construction, she was pleased to be able to return to her home town Kuhmo.
“Nature in Kainuu is unparalleled. And you won’t know what silence can be unless you’ve experienced it in the Kainuu forests.”
Jobs in the forest – and at the sawmill
Forests have an enormous significance for employment in Finland. In Kainuu, forests play a greater than average role. For example, their share in providing employment is twice the Finnish average.
The heart of the Kuhmo forest sector and the town’s principal employer can be found right next to the Kantola industrial area. One of the biggest sawmills in Finland, Kuhmo Oy has stood on the shore of Lake Lammasjärvi for more than 60 years.
The sawmill employs close to 150 persons. However, if you include the transport and forestry operators and the like, the number increases to 400.
The total employment effect is greater, even as high as 900, according to a study by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. This is quite a figure, considering that the total number of jobs in Kuhmo is 2,800.
The sawmill channels EUR 64 million annually into the regional economy. For comparison, the annual budget of the town of Kuhmo is around EUR 70 million.
The major part of the sawmilling products are exported. However, the most valuable customers for the Kuhmo sawmill are the local entrepreneurs. “The more processing industries there are in the same municipality, the more local customers we have. And short transport distances do not only mean cost-efficiency, but also more eco-friendly transport,” says Mr. Tommi Ruha, Executive Director of the Kuhmo sawmill.
The transport distances from forest to sawmill are also short. Over half of the timber used in the sawmill comes from Kuhmo, and the rest largely from the home region Kainuu.
“We produce some 400,000 cubic metres of timber annually, while respecting nature” is the slogan on the website of the Kuhmo sawmill. According to Ruha, respecting forest biodiversity is a matter of course for modern Finnish forestry.
“For example, when harvesting, we take into consideration the vulnerable margins of small waterways,” says Ruha and points out that the sustainability of forestry activities is guaranteed by the Forest Act and forestry recommendations. What is more, practically all wood in Kainuu is PEFC certified.
Local authority supports building with wood
The report Value Chains of Forest Bioeconomy divides Finnish regions according to whether they are dominated by forestry, pulp and paper industry or wood products industry.
The report, produced by the consulting company Tapio and sponsored by the Finnish Forest Foundation, says that of the total output of Kainuu, no less than 46 percent is created by manufacturing wood products, while the average in Finland is 23 percent.
It is not a coincidence that so many smaller-scale forest sector enterprises have emerged around the Kuhmo sawmill. The tradition of systematic development work is long in the town: at first to create start-up companies, now to promote building with wood.
Kuhmo town owns the Woodpolis company in the Kantola area, which aims to promote innovations in building with wood and provides training to the sector in its industrial facilities.
“Large-scale building with wood is about to make a breakthrough in Finland. We can also see it here,” says Mr. Tapani Kiiskinen, Development Director of the town of Kuhmo. “Sixty new jobs have been created in Kantola in the past two years.”
Wood-built school is heated with renewable energy
Kiiskinen also considers cooperation to be the strength of the local enterprises. “Constructors want the ease of package deals. Here in Kantola, we have practically a one-stop shop.”
A showpiece of the local know-how in building with wood is being erected only two kilometres away from the Kantola area and the sawmill. The wood-built Tuupala school complex consists of three buildings made of local CLT components.
The school, housing 400 pupils, will be heated with local, eco-friendly wood energy produced from sawdust and bark from the Kuhmo sawmill at a district heat plant owned jointly by the sawmill and the town. All in all, the share of renewables of the energy used in Kuhmo is close to 70 percent.