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Koitajoki- a call for support Protecting and restoring an iconic N.European waterscape

Koitajoki- Background

Koitajoki is an iconic, 6,630 sq km Finnish-Russian cross-border river system of huge cultural and ecological importance. The Koitajoki’s catchment area includes intact old-growth boreal forest, intact marshmires and wetlands, which act as vital repositories of carbon in the global climate system, and parts of the North Karelia Biosphere Reserve. The river itself is home to rare and endangered species, including endemic whitefish and lake-bound Atlantic salmon and trout.

Local people living along the Koitajoki have hunted and gathered berries, hay and other natural products in the catchment area since time immemorial. They were the last communities in Finland to continue practicing the ancient collective forest-reindeer hunt (Rangifer tarandus).

Local people have a close relationship with the river. They rely on the Koitajoki as a source of fish, which they catch using a distinctive form of river seining. They maintained the ancient Finnish cultural tradition of rune singing- the root of Finland's national Kalevala epic poem- until the 1800s. Even today the oral histories from river communities carry the legacy of these epic songs and the knowledge contained within them.

River seiner on the Koitajoki. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative

Despite its global value, Koitajoki faces many challenges. Gold and peat mining threaten the river system and hydro stations currently block the migration and spawning routes of lake-bound Atlantic salmon. There is an urgent need to protect the watershed from further harm, nurture ecologically-sensitive culture and livelihoods and restore the river system where damage has already been done.

To this end, the Snowchange Cooperative is seeking funding to pursue a landmark initiative to restore and re-wild the trans-boundary Koitajoki river system, with a view to the area receiving dual Indigenous Community Conserved Area (ICCA) and UNESCO World Heritage status in the future.

Snowchange is a non-profit scientific and cultural organisation based in Finland. For the past 20 years, Snowchange has worked alongside indigenous and traditional communities of the Arctic, including the Sámi, Evenk, Inuit and Chuckchi, to advance their traditions and to ensure the protection and enhancement of their ecosystems by bringing together indigenous and traditional knowledge with science.

Since 2011, Snowchange has been involved in developing landscape-scale re-wilding initiatives in both Eastern and Northern Finland along the Näätämö, Jukajoki, Kokemäenjoki and Iijoki river systems, all of which have suffered degradation due to industrial forestry and mining.

These restoration projects have been taken forward successfully thanks to the development of an innovative co-management approach, led-by Snowchange, that has brought indigenous and local communities together with scientists, private landowners, industry and government representatives to oversee this re-wilding.

The Koitajoki Project - Phase One

These successful rewilding actions, for example along the Jukajoki and Näätämö Rivers, are now globally known through the media and scientific papers. They have created a blueprint and support for expanding these actions more widely in Finland. At time of writing, Snowchange is undertaking restoration actions on 600 hectares nationwide. Many of these sites will be established as ICCA's, cared for by local communities.

Koitajoki, as a culturally and ecologically rich-but-damaged catchment located in the same region as the Jukajoki, represents a logical next step for the expansion of re-wilding actions, re-building ecosystem connectivity in Karelia.

The transboundary Koitajoki River System. In blue, Finnish Karelia. In purple, Russian Karelia. Map: Jarviwiki

Snowchange's team includes staff who grew up in the Koitajoki Catchment and the organisation has had a working presence in the Koitajoki catchment for two years. During this time, preliminary scoping work has been undertaken. This has involved conducting initial oral history work with local communities, as part of preparing a co-management approach, and establishing a scientific overview of existing biodiversity values.

In addition, two large, mostly pristine marshmires- Keljonsuo and Ilomantsinsuo- have been acquired by Snowchange with an area totalling 120 hectares. These purchases have been made to ensure these marshmires are not lost to industrial peat mining. They will act as existing havens in the wider landscape considered by the rewilding project.

Keljonsuo marshmire. One of two pristine boreal marshmires purchased by Snowchange. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative

Snowchange is now seeking support to build on its existing scoping work and land purchases in the Koitajoki catchment through the following activities over the coming 18-months (2020-21):

  • Creating a comprehensive socio-ecological baseline of the Koitajoki River System- developing, translating and publicising selected oral history and scientific data from baseline scoping;
  • Generating scientific articles and an interactive website to make this baseline information available to the public, building the case for recognition of Koitajoki's true value;
  • Developing the multi-stakeholder, cross-border Koitajoki co-management council, leading to the development of a co-produced, comprehensive and long-term re-wilding plan for the area;
  • A set of pilot actions for rewilding Koitajoki. On the Russian side, expanding field surveys and baseline work in the catchment, for example on Lake Vieksjärvi, a critical spawning area for endemic whitefish and a relatively-intact ecosystem. On the Finnish side, undertaking light restoration of an initial area of marshmire already purchased.
Oral histories have been collected throughout the Koitajoki River System. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative

These actions are much needed. There has never before been a cross-border, landscape-wide re-wilding action in the Koitajoki catchment. And yet the catchment area, of central value to both cultural and biological diversity in the region and Finland more widely, has the potential to emerge as a ‘diamond in the North’.

Re-created wetlands and restored marshmires will act as carbon sinks and bird sanctuaries, increasing potential for ecotourism on both sides of the river. The project will thus make a decisive contribution to climate justice through both livelihood creation and ecological restoration of climate-critical carbon sinks in the Euro-Russian periphery.

Snowchange is seeking €100,000 to carry out this work

Partial contributions are most welcome and will help build the case for meeting full project costs.

Find out more..

Find out more about Snowchange's work in Finland, Fennoscandia and beyond.

Watch Koitajoki, a film from the Snowchange Cooperative, exploring the unique, river-cleaning seining traditions practiced by local communities.

Read BBC coverage of Snowchange's landscape rewilding programme in the context of Finland's national plans to go carbon in 15 years.

Created By
Hal Rhoades
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