Landscapes of Renewal Jukajoki, Linnunsuo and the Finnish Boreal

In this Yes to Life, No to Mining emblematic case study, Tero Mustonen, YLNM's Regional Coordinator for the Arctic, describes how the small Finnish community of Selkie has successfully revived lands and waters damaged by decades of peat mining, using a blend of traditional knowledge and science.

Introduction: Extractivism in the Finnish East

A ditch at an peat-mining site in North Karelia. Photo: Pretty Good Productions

North Karelia is located in Eastern Finland. Traditionally a homeland of the Sámi, Karelian and Savo-Karelian peoples, today the region is a modern province of Finland where natural resources play a significant role in the local economy and society.

North Karelia lies in eastern Finland. Map: researchgate.net

Timber and forestry products are the most important resources, but a range of mining practices from open cast historical mines to underground gold harvesting and surface peat extraction can be found in the region.

In the 2010s Finland emerged as a 'land of opportunity' for international and domestic mining. This is due to legal reforms that have favoured mining company access, combined with downscaling of independent environmental authorities and the lack of existing social and legal rights of local communities to address mining.

The trend of increasing ease of access to mineral resources is expected to grow during the 21st century, due to the geopolitical interest in the boreal and Arctic peripheries. These regions still contain most of the planet’s untapped mineral wealth today. New sea routes to get these minerals out of the Arctic at lower cost are opening up due to climate-change-induced losses in sea ice.

Map of existing and potential mining sites in Fennoscandia. Graphic: Geological Survey of Finland

In North Karelia, resistance to mining has emerged in many forms, for example:

  • Regional fisheries and village bodies have been trying to resist large-scale peat extraction since 1970s, especially in Koitajoki River catchment and in Ilomantsi;
  • Public movements against Uranium mining in 2006-2013, in Eno and the Pielisjoki catchment area;
  • Village and NGO opposition to Australian, US, Irish and other international companies wishing to harvest Zinc, Iron, Nickel and rare earth metals;
  • Quartz mining companies from Italy, that have been driven out of the village of Selkie.
Mining protests in Finland. Photos: (L) EJAtlas, (R) EarthFirst.

North Karelia has been central to Finnish mining history whether it has been peat or minerals. After WW2 (and at some scale since 1910s) one of the local communities, Kuusjärvi, underwent a transformation, turning into 'Outokumpu' (meaning Strange Mound), a state-led mining town which has a severe pollution record, impacting, for example, the nearby Lake Sysmäjärvi.

Abandoned mine works and a map of Outokumpu, North Karelia. Photos: Wikimedia Commons- Jniemenmaa

The first and the only Uranium mine operated in North Karelia was at Paukkaja in the early 1960s. The mine was a state-sponsored pilot project, which attempted to ascertain whether Uranium extraction was feasible in Finland. This mine was operated by Atomienergia Oy. All-in-all 30,000 kg Uranium was harvested and sold to Sweden. The mine was discontinued on the orders of the Soviet Union, but the legacy of its impacts remain.

Regional governments and national authorities continue to advance mining as a key economic activity. But sin the last decade, Finland and North Karelia have seen the emergence of global and local community narratives and actions challenging extractivism.

There have been some early victories, for example in Selkie, where a community has succeeded in restoring a whole catchment area back into a trout river after being damaged by peat mining and ditching for industrial forestry.

The River, the MarshMire and the Village of Selkie

Summer fields filled with wild flowers in the village of Selkie, North Karelia. Photo: Pretty Good Productions
“Despite all of the damages, it’s still a paradise.”

The Jukajoki River catchment and Linnunsuo Marshmire, a former peat mining site, are located in the village of Selkie, home to around 300 people, which has the status of a national landscape in Finland.

Selkie is the second oldest recorded village in North Karelia. In pre-historic times, Selkie’s first inhabitants were the Indigenous Sámi people. Later, and up until the 1640s, the village was occupied by Karelians. Due to the Swedish-Russian Rupture Wars and subsequent transfer of territories, most Karelians left for Tver, Russia. The village population was replaced with an ethnically Savo-Karelian population who still live in the village today.

The traditional ways of life in Selkie have, and to some extent continue to, revolve around fisheries, hunting and traditional small-scale slash-and-burn agriculture, which transformed into modern, small-scale farming post-WW2. Selkie is one of the western-most of the Karelian villages where Kalevala-style epic songs and incantations have been recorded in the ancient tradition of Finnish rune-singers.

View of the village of Selkie and surrounding forests. Photos: Snowchange Cooperative.

Today the village is a mix of modern occupancies, services, small-scale forestry and farming, and has its own school, kindergarten and so on. Selkie is located at the intersection of the middle and southern boreal taiga forests. The Vuoksi and Lake Ladoga catchment areas divide on top of the Selkie hills, meaning the waters that divide into the two major catchment areas of NE Europe divide here.

Selkie is an iconic Eastern Finnish / Karelian landscape that has been able to preserve its village soul by adapting to the times, but maintaining also its traditional land use forms, such as hunting and fisheries.

Ditched: Peat Mining in selkie

Peat ditching visible from the air at Linnunsuo Marshmire. Photo: Pretty Good Productions

Following the Second World War, Finland was forced to pay a 300 million dollar war-debt to Russia. A period of rapid industrialisation to fund the repayments followed, including the draining of over half the country’s marshlands for timber plantations, agriculture, and peat mining – a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Graphic: UN FAO

Following this trend, from the 1980s onwards, peat production company VAPO utilised the post-glacial marshmire of Linnunsuo (Marsh of the Birds) in Selkie for industrial peat mining. The peat extracted at Linnunsuo was burnt for domestic energy production in Finland.

Peat-rich soils are filled with iron sulphates and very acidic. Changes to the water table caused by VAPO’s mining operations at Linnunsuo created conditions for discharges of very acidic waste water into the River Jukajoki. Leaks of acidic waste water documented in 2010 and 2011 were so bad that they killed all the fish in the river. Discharges like this had happened in the past, too.

Stopping the mine

A partially re-flooded Linnunsuo marshmire. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative.

After the first fish-death event in 2010, the village council of Selkie requested the withdrawal of VAPO’s mining permits, compensation for the damages caused by the 2010 fish deaths, and mitigation of river damages. However, peat production continued as, unlike local fishermen, the company and state’s formal monitoring systems found no contamination issues.

Acidic, iron-rich run-off from peat mining in Selkie. Photo: Pretty Good Productions.

Then, in June 2011 after a prolonged dry period and high temperatures, a series of heavy rains led to a rapid discharge of highly acidic waters from the mine.

After this second major pollution event, the people of Selkie came together to successfully close down the mine for good and pressure VAPO into financing the restoration of the Linnunsuo marshmire. There were several factors and strategies behind this success.

First, villagers had already been undertaking their own endemic monitoring of aquatic ecosystems using fish traps, oral histories, photography and other tools. They had baseline evidence of ecosystem health and knew the difference between healthy and unhealthy waters.

Second, a handful of local fishermen, such as Heikki Roivas, who spend a large amount of time out observing and interacting with local ecosystems were able to draw attention to the fish kill events, and to determine the source of pollution- the VAPO peat mine- from the characteristics of the water. Their endemic knowledge and speed of response was critical.

Third, the local fishermen were able to report their observations to the active and united Selkie Village Council and local NGO the Snowchange Cooperative, having already developed close relationships through the endemic monitoring projects. Following the 2011 pollution event, these allies responded immediately, called in the authorities, filed a criminal complaint against VAPO and pushed hard to successfully gain national media coverage of the mine spill.

Feeling pressured and with its public profile at risk, these tactics forced VAPO to immediately suspend production at Linnunsuo site 2. Subsequently, villagers used the pressure they had built to demand that VAPO permanently discontinue its mining operations and finance the restoration of the former marshmire.

Under public scrutiny, the company agreed to pay financial compensation to the fish association of Selkie village. VAPO also agreed to finance the largest human-made wetland in Eastern Finland, over 120 hectares, on the site of the former mine, after more than 25 years of production.

Revival: Marsh of the Birds

Three Bewick swans on the re-flooded, restored Linnunsuo Marshmire. Photo: Mika Honkalinna for the Snowchange Cooperative.
"Success is a very big wetland."

Selkie shows how one small community can not only stop destructive mining, but also begin to restore the living ecosystems that sustain life on Earth and the knowledge that can enable us to live well within our planet’s limits.

Since successfully shutting down VAPO's polluting mine, the villagers of Selkie have actively taken their place in the revival of Linnunsuo and other damaged areas in the Jukajoki River Catchment

In 2013, a co-management council was established to manage the restoration of Linnunsuo (Marsh of the Birds). The council's function is to collectively manage the use and restoration of the site, and community organisations have established a central role for themselves.

Structure and makeup of the co-management council. Graphic: Pretty Good Productions/Snowchange

Through a restoration programme bringing together traditional knowledge and science, Linnunsuo has enjoyed a dramatic and rapid return to health. It has quickly become a highly regarded wetland habitat for rare birds and mammals, including sandpipers, northern pintails and wolverines.

185 bird species have been recorded in the area, and over 20,000 geese at a time have flocked to the wetland, resting on their migrations to and from Siberia.

Improvements in water quality and reductions in iron sulfide contamination from the site are substantial. Local people have discovered aquatic species such as brook lamprey- an indicator species for good water quality- in the wider catchment, affirming the dramatic recovery of freshwater habitats.

Linnunsuo is now recognised as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar convention, an Important Bird Area and Finland's second ever Community Conserved Area.

Linnunsuo restored. Photos: Mika Honkalinna for the Snowchange Cooperative

But the benefits of co-management go far beyond these measurable environmental outcomes.

The development of the co-management council has changed how local-traditional knowledge is recognised and valued in environmental management of the area. This knowledge is now recognised as equally valid to science-based and institutional knowledge by all actors in the council. The local community is seen as a valuable partner in on-the-ground monitoring and restoration.

Since the Linnunsuo wetland was re-wetted in 2013, Selkie and the Snowchange Cooperative (which has since purchased the Linnunsuo site from VAPO) have built on their success, initiating an effort to revive and re-wild the entire Jukajoki River catchment. This project is the largest of its kind in Finland.

Planned wetland restoration sites around Lake Jukajärvi, Finland. Map: Snowchange Cooperative.

In the short term, the goal is to restore the entire Jukajoki catchment area using traditional knowledge and science as equally valued forms of knowledge production. By 2025, the aim is to have restored Lake Jukajärvi and inflowing river bodies, allowing the return of lake trout, grayling and salmon.

In the longer term, the vision is to establish a ranger program providing economic opportunities to local communities, establish a stable governance and co-management system for the entire watershed, including a monitoring program that incorporates traditional knowledge and science.

Beyond North Karelia, the successes of the Linnunsuo and Jukajoki restorations to-date has stimulated a national programme of landscape rewilding in Finland, supported by Rewilding Europe, to alleviate the damage caused to Finnish marshmires and wetlands by extractive activities.

The Näätämö River catchment, one site of the expanded re-wilding efforts, where the Indigenous Skolt Sami People are restoring their rivers to support one of Europe's last wild salmon runs. Photos: Hannibal Rhoades for the Snowchange Cooperative

As of February 2019, the areas under restoration totalled more than 400 hectares in area- that is 4 Linnunsuo's, or 400 football pitches. As in the case of Linnunsuo, most of these sites will emerge as Indigenous and local community conserved-areas in the future, managed and cared for by communities like Selkie.

Linnunsuo is a novel landscape. Community-led restoration has happened and nature has returned in force to heal many of the damages caused by mining. The succession of species, plants and birds has happened on trajectories and cycles that have few precedents.

How should we think about, let alone govern or manage these emerging, novel ecosystems using either traditional knowledge or science? No easy answers emerge and only time will tell. The only constant is change and the powerful return of nature herself onto these sites, when left alone or under traditional land uses.

This emblematic case is part of the Yes to Life, No to Mining series exploring how communities around our living planet are successfully defending their lands, waters and livelihoods from mining, and building life-sustaining alternatives.

Find out more

Read the in-depth, Our Place On Earth case study to learn more about co-management.

Visit the Snowchange Archive of Northern Traditions to learn more about Arctic re-wilding.

Watch 'Selkie' from OPOE and Snowchange to immerse yourself in Selkie's remarkable story.

Brought to you by the global YLNM Network. Dedicated to the village of Selkie. With thanks to the Snowchange Cooperative and Pretty Good Productions.

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Yes to Life, No to Mining YLNM