Today the Baskegur eguna is being held, an event that has remained faithful to the calendar in which the people who represent the Basque forestry sector, which accounts for 2% of total employment in the Basque Country, discuss and highlight the work they do. Oskar Azkarate, general manager of Baskegur, the professional association representing the Basque forestry and wood sector, lands in Zamudio after a tour of the Ligna Fair in Hannover and the PEFC General Assembly in Seville and the InnovaWood Assembly in Tallinn (Estonia). Passionate about his work, Azkarate fights for forest management to be seen in a better light; and wants to defend the fact that 72% of the wood used by Basque industry comes from the Basque Country, and that sustainable wood is the most important natural and renewable material available nearby for creating a bio-economy.

Once again, what’s in store for us at this Baskegur?

– This year, we will emphasise particularly sensitive issues for the viability of the sector, such as working with children in schools, so that they are aware of our reality and understand that forest management is necessary if we want to have a raw material that enables the development of the bio-economy. There will also be references to the work being done to digitise the value chain, and other initiatives linked to innovation.

– What is the current situation of the forestry-wood sector in the Basque Country?

– Wood has a very good and positive image. There is a strong demand for wood products, even from sectors we have never been in before. However, and it is a paradox, we are in one of the worst times in terms of forest uses and management. It is becoming increasingly frowned upon by the public and penalised at the regulatory level. Cutting down trees or working with certain species, which are the ones that give us the products that they love, is frowned upon. Packaging must be made of paper instead of plastic. But paper comes from wood. And sustainable wood is the most important natural and renewable material we have nearby for building a bio-economy. What does not make sense is that it comes from eucalyptus or pine trees from Brazil or Austria, because then it would no longer be sustainable. The value of km0 must be enhanced.

Is it perhaps necessary to build a narrative so the timber sector is positively valued? You cite the bio-economy a lot…

– We have based the first narrative on the bio-economy. This strategy consists of making products that today do not exist, which will position us in markets that we are not in today, such as the automotive or green chemistry sectors. This whole area is achievable with wood. It is the alternative to much more polluting petroleum-based products and one of the solutions in combating climate change. And this cannot be done if you don’t do it with a local raw material, for which it is necessary to cut trees down, here comes the part that is not understood… It is necessary to understand that there is a type of forest management that sometimes bothers us when we go cycling in the woods, because there is someone passing by with a truck, that sometimes we don’t like certain species that are necessary, to build high buildings, to replace concrete, aluminium or PVC, which are much more polluting.

– You say that forest management is frowned upon. How can this perception be turned around?

– In the last year we have been working on another narrative that is much more focused on forest management to eliminate ideas that do us a lot of harm. When criticisms are made about management, they are based on a lack of knowledge. More light, more transparency and more information must be shed on this part of management. It is not true that we have just one single crop. The Basque Country is a mosaic of species: 28% is radiata pine, half are hardwoods and half are conifers. The Nordic countries have 80% spruce. Here we have an increasing area of broadleaved woodland which is mostly privately managed.

– What would that forest management story be?

– On the one hand, managers must be valued. The forest owner is 75% private in Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. It is responsible for managing and caring for the forest that citizens enjoy when walking, cycling or picking mushrooms. And that can happen because someone is looking after it. Otherwise it would be full of brambles and people wouldn’t be able to get through. If we aren’t at an all-time record for fires, it is because someone is managing and looking after it.

On the other hand, we must also highlight the fact that management is multifunctional and that there is no such thing as just one single crop, as we are told. It is necessary to reconcile conservation models – native hardwoods already account for almost half of the total surface area of the Basque Country – with other fast-growing productive stands in order to obtain the natural and renewable raw material that gives us the possibility of creating a bio-economy.This is the model that is envied outside the Basque Country.

– How many companies are members of Baskegur and how significant is the Basque wood sector?

– Baskegur is an association of associations.  These are the ones associated with Baskegur. According to the White Paper of the Basque Wood Observatory, there are 19,000 workers, 15,000 direct and the rest indirect. We are a rarity, as we represent more than just the industry. There is no timber company in the Basque Country that is not in Baskegur. In addition, there are also the three Basque associations of forest owners, which have around 10,000 members.

– It is a very diversified sector…

– Yes, very much so. In fact, in the Basque Country we have companies in almost all the different sectors, including top-level companies. The largest sawmill or the premier processing company in Spain or the largest timber manufacturer is in the Basque Country and in Baskegur. Astigarraga Kit Line is also a company that is a benchmark in Spain and southern Europe. Baskegur is made up of different subsectors and benchmark companies.

Is Baskegur sufficiently represented or do you miss the presence of any company?

– Within the bio-economy strategy, we need to incorporate new sectors, new companies that have nothing to do with wood.

– What do you mean?

– Markets that we were not in until now; for example, automotive, energy, textiles, some packaging that never went with wood, cardboard or paper. Why? Because in this bio-economy strategy, these sectors are looking for new, much more sustainable, natural and renewable products, such as wood, to replace oil derivatives. It is time to start opening up the sector to new markets that bring added value and a better image.

What services do you offer to professionals in the wood sector?

– We work in five strategic areas: communication, training, competitiveness, sustainability or environmental certifications and internationalisation.

At Astigarraga Kit Line, the word sustainability is tattooed on us. We are endorsed by two important certifications: PEFC and Ecolabel. How does Baskegur promote a concept such as sustainability, which is such a priority for society in general?

– Baskegur is boosting sustainability at various levels. We work on the implementation and promotion of the PEFC and FSC seals, which are voluntary and guarantee that the wood comes from forests with sustainable development. And everything to do with EUTR, which is already legal timber, and is mandatory for determining between ourselves and countries the origin of whose timber is doubtful. The PEFC and EUTR secretariats are run from Baskegur.

For more than ten years, we have been helping companies to obtain environmental product declarations (EPDs). We are a benchmark in southern Europe for the highest number of EPDs, but we have also achieved, and are now going to renew, the environmental declaration of sectoral products for various uses. We were the first in Europe. The one that was there was only for construction.

-The word sustainability is a hackneyed one, don’t you think?

– That is why it is important to highlight and emphasise communication within sustainability. It is not only about whether you are sustainable or not, but also about communicating and explaining why you are sustainable and why others are not. Everyone is now sustainable and eco-friendly. But the value of certifications that are objective and pass audits must be highlighted. Sometimes there is a lack of knowledge due to this variety of logos, many in sales promoting their product and they all end up saying the same thing. But in our case, we are giving and we have to give consumers all the information so that they can compare it.

– And how do you define what is sustainable and environmentally friendly?

– Sustainable or ecological is something that is natural, renewable or local. But it is not only a question of whether a product is sustainable and its production consumes a small amount of energy. In addition, wood is fully recyclable and has an infinite lifespan with a low energy cost of production. Also, we don’t talk about waste, we talk about by-product. All other materials have an end-of-life problem. Everyone sells recycled aluminium or PVC as eco and sustainable, but recycling it has a very high energy cost. In the case of wood, it is either to shred it and turn it into a board, or to shred it and create energy, or not to shred it at all. It is the best raw material for pre-industrialised construction.

-One of Baskegur’s objectives is to position Basque wood internationally. In this sense, what actions are you carrying out?

– First, as an organisation you have to have a presence in the world. Baskegur promotes the internationalisation of companies and the Basque forestry-wood sector itself, supporting the opening of new markets and strengthening its presence in the most established ones. Some of the actions include direct trade missions, participation in international fairs and congresses and the organisation of business missions abroad to the main trade fairs in the sector. We are going as a whole: the same stand for all the companies, although then each one personalises it, but we seek to position the identifying brand image of the business community and of local Basque wood at an international level.

– The Basque Country has one of the highest ratios of woodland in Europe. But wood consumption here is much lower than in those countries that also have large, forested areas…

-That’s right. We have tree cover ratios similar to those in the Nordic countries. In the Basque Country, 52% are hardwoods (mainly oak and beech) and 48% conifers (28% radiata pine). When we talk about km0 and the use of raw materials, it should be noted that 72% of the wood used by Basque industry comes from the Basque Country. Another 26% is from neighbouring communities. And imported timber does not reach 2%. This is totally antagonistic to what is happening in Spain. Mainly imported wood from Austria, Finland or Germany is used.

The paradox is that we are a forestry country in terms of ratios, we have one of the most powerful industries in southern Europe. However, it is ridiculous that these companies have to go outside the Basque Country and Spain to carry out these works, which no longer makes it so sustainable. It doesn’t make sense that a company here is doing so much work in France or the UK and here the work is around 1%. The percentage of timber construction is 0.8% of the total. In construction it is very obvious, but in many other sectors we use much less wood than in other countries. The value of km0 and local raw materials must be enhanced.

-Is it difficult to incorporate wood as a regular consumer product?

– It is a totally cultural issue, and because of sustainability it is changing and coming back. We have lost the culture of using wood. Nowadays it is very difficult for us to have professionals, specifiers, architects or engineers working with wood due to a lack of knowledge. Wood has disappeared from architecture and engineering courses. We have experienced a detachment from wood, which was a big mistake. The prescriber who may come to you with a timber project no longer comes to you because he doesn’t know the material, something that has not happened in central and northern Europe. They work with and consume wood.

– What are the main lines of action for Baskegur in 2023?

– We have a strategic plan with many lines of action in each of the five areas I mentioned earlier. As important developments, certain internationalisation missions. At the training level, we are launching a specialisation programme for forest uses and transport. We are immersed in a project for schools so that children know how the forest is worked with and managed, through cartoons, which we are being presented today at Baskegur Eguna. We want to highlight the multi-functionality of the forest. Because the forest is many things: it is true that it gives you wood, but it also gives you mushrooms, leisure, oxygen, retains water in the soil, creates ecosystems… Along these pedagogical lines and in this narrative, we want to teach children that cutting down a tree is not a bad thing. We are also working on another very important communication project, which is a major sectoral campaign in all media. Seven years ago we carried out the ‘Gure zura’ campaign and now we are going to do another one whose idea is to bring the forest to the city. In addition to all this, we have 48 projects in the strategic plan.