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Uganda’s Museveni is right - trees in Finland can take 120 years to mature, but these are not for paper

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Some Kenyans were quite tickled by Uganda President Yoweri Museveni’s sartorial choices when he arrived at the sweltering coastal city of Mombasa bundled up in a black suit.

But Museveni, who was on a state visit to Kenya in March 2019, had more serious issues on his mind as he pushed for more regional trade. Money not growing on trees was one of them.

Uganda was spending millions of dollars importing paper from distant countries such as Finland he said, when there is a paper mill in Kenya close to Uganda.

“Imagine, I am buying paper from Finland… Finland is a place which is so cold that a tree takes 120 years to grow,” said Museveni.  

“In Uganda, pine trees take seven years, they are already mature. But I am buying paper from Finland, why not buy it from Webuye?”

His host, President Uhuru Kenyatta, told him the factory at Webuye in western Kenya had collapsed but reassured him the government was reviving it.

But do trees in Finland really take that long to mature? We counted the growth rings.

Where does Uganda buy its paper from?

In 2017, Uganda spent $153.9 million to import “paper, paperboard, and articles of paper pulp, paper or paperboard”.  

This is according to the most recent data from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.

Of this, $1.65 million was for paper and paper products from Finland, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, which tracks trade among countries.

Other sources included China, Russia, Kenya, South Africa and India.

Does a tree in Finland take 120 years to mature?

It is not unusual for tree “rotations” of 120 years and more in Finland, Jari Vauhkonen, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Institute of Finland told Africa Check.

But these “extended” rotations are not for wood pulp production, Vauhkonen said. According to a Finnish Forest Association factsheet he directed us to, a rotation period starts when a new forest stand is established and ends many decades later, when most of the trees will have been harvested before  a new stand is regenerated.

Vauhkonen said there was a clear distinction between a tree’s commercial maturity (for wood pulp and paper production) and its actual maturity for timber products, plywood, board and planks used in construction.

For a tree to reach commercial maturity for wood pulp purposes, it takes a minimum of 30 years from seed to tree, he said.

“But because the forest management is such that it is not focused on wood pulp alone, the thinning (for wood pulp and to remove poor quality trees) is mainly to support the growth of the remaining trees,” Vauhkonen said.

Thinning takes place until the end of a rotation period, which can be 60 years and more until regeneration felling.

Rotation periods in Finland’s forests typically last between 56 and 130 years, but longer ones can be between 106 and 136 years.

Does the cold have anything to do with it?

Because of their role in photosynthesis (for food) and transpiration (for water loss), leaves are essential for a tree’s growth, Jonathan Muriuki, the Kenya country representative for the World Agroforestry Centre told Africa Check.  

If it is too cold, transpiration will just end up as ice on the leaves clogging the stomata (the pores in the leaves through which water evaporates), Muriuki said.

Finland is a cold country, with temperatures below zero degrees celsius for about half a year according to the World Bank’s climate portal.  

In such countries trees adapt in certain ways, including closing their stomata.

“In the entire winter period and during the very cold seasons, there’s no growth,” said Muriuki. It would thus take much longer for a tree to grow in very cold environments.

“What President Museveni is saying is true.” -Alphonce Shiundu (29/03/2019)


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