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Traditional knowledge guides protection of planetary health in Finland

  • Undisturbed peatlands act as carbon sinks and support biodiversity. Finland has drained 60% — more than 60,000 km2 (23,000 mi2) — of its peatlands, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and destroying entire ecosystems.
  • But scientists and Finnish traditional and Indigenous knowledge holders are collaborating to rewild and protect peatlands and associated forests and rivers, turning them into carbon sinks again, while bringing back wildlife and supporting fishing, hunting, and even tourism, offering economic benefits to local communities.
  • These Finnish collaborations are already serving as both inspiration and guide to those seeking to use rewilding to curb climate change, enhance biodiversity, create sustainable land use systems, and restore forest, freshwater and wetland ecosystems, while supporting traditional communities.
  • “Rewilding is very much about giving more freedom to nature to shape our landscapes, and looking at nature as an ally in solving socioeconomic problems,” says Wouter Helmer former rewilding director of Rewilding Europe. “It’s a holistic way of putting nature back on center stage in our modern society.”

On any given autumn day, 100,000 geese visit the Linnunsuo wetland in North Karelia, Finland. Their raucous honks and squawks drown the cries of the 200 or so other bird species that swoop and surge above the restored bog and forest while moose, otters and wolverines forage amid the pandemonium.

The noisy scene bears a stark contrast to the wetland 10 years ago. In the aftermath of peat mining it stood relatively lifeless, with few animals able to find homes or food in the mutilated naked landscape that seeped carbon into the atmosphere, worsening climate change.

Then, in 2012, a Finnish nonprofit, the Snowchange Cooperative, started to restore the wetland and, in 2017, launched an ambitious project to rewild it. The Snowchange team didn’t work alone to achieve this feat, but invited local traditional villagers to teach them about the locale, its wetland ecosystem, and how to best care for it.

Vladimir Feodoroff, a Skolt Sámi elder (left), and Snowchange staff member Tero Mustonen restore boulders to rewild stream hydrology in the Näätämö area, 2018. Image courtesy of Snowchange.

Guided by this vital traditional knowledge, the collaborators rewilded Linnunsuo successfully, creating a haven for biodiversity while also, over time, transforming the wetland from a carbon source into a carbon sink.

Healthy peat bogs store 10 times more carbon on average than any other ecosystem. But when mining churns them up, the carbon dioxide escapes. Before 2017, the disturbed 110-hectare (272-acre) Linnunsuo peatland released about 400 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. Once rewilded, these emissions stopped and, in the future, as new plant and animal life continues taking hold, it will sink about 100 metric tons of the greenhouse gas into its soils for storage.

Although Linnunsuo is relatively small, its sweeping achievement has already inspired other rewilding projects throughout Finland and Scandinavia, and the hope is that local communities will initiate similar schemes throughout the Arctic.

“Such rewilding projects could substantially contribute to solving our climate problem,” says Wouter Helmer, co-founder and former rewilding director of Rewilding Europe. “Not only by helping adaptation on the ground but by avoiding future carbon emissions.”

Reindeer herder and fisherman Jouko Moshnikoff, right, and late Skolt Sámi elder Teijo Feodoroff have been central knowledge keepers and staff for Näätämö River rewilding efforts. Here they are tending the winter nets fishery in the Arctic spring, 2014. Image courtesy of Gleb Raygorodetsky.

In the mid-2000s, scientist Johan Rockström, founding director of Sweden’s Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), recruited an international group of researchers to define Earth operating systems and the natural boundaries that humanity must respect and not cross to keep the planet habitable. The collaborators identified nine boundaries in all; four of which the traditional Finnish villagers have aided in positively affecting through their rewilding efforts: climate change, biodiversity loss, freshwater use, and land-system change.

Scientists and local communities, by cooperatively harnessing centuries of traditional ecological knowledge to rewild peat-mined and drained wetlands, are now developing a restorative model that reduces greenhouse gases and stores carbon, revitalizes plant and animal life, protects freshwater ecosystems, and uses land sustainably. In doing so, they are helping in the quest to protect and sustain planetary health while preserving and benefiting traditional communities.

“Rewilding has tremendous potential to solve some of the biggest crises of our time,” says Snowchange Cooperative director Tero Mustonen. “Ultimately we are serving humanity as well as nature and local communities.”

The Linnunsuo rewilding area in summer, 2018. Image by Mika Honkalinna/Snowchange.

Seeing nature as an ally

In November 2021, scientists identified key locales around the globe that humans must protect to avoid a climate catastrophe — regions where ecosystems store an extreme density of carbon so rich that the researchers termed it “irrecoverable carbon.”

These natural systems take a very long time to form. But if humans disturb them in a major way, that could result in the quick release of all their stored carbon, with the devastation unable to be reversed in time to stop climate change reaching unsafe levels, says Susan Cook-Patton, a co-author of the 2021 study and a forest restoration scientist with The Nature Conservatory.

“If you don’t protect these areas, you won’t get the carbon back in time to constrain the climate crisis,” warns Cook-Patton.

The scientists identified wetlands and peatlands as vital to storing irrecoverable carbon, with peatlands making up 15-30% of global carbon storage. But in Finland, humans have already drained 60% of the country’s 104,000 square kilometers miles of peatlands —that’s more than 60,000 km2 (23,000 mi2) — to support forestry, farming or the energy industry. “We are the superpower of peatlands here in Finland,” Mustonen says. “Unfortunately, so much of these peatlands were ditched, churned and used by industries in the last few decades.”

Peatland resource extraction not only releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases, it also devastates wildlife, impacts biodiversity, and degrades downstream lakes and rivers, while adversely affecting the rural communities that rely on the local environment for food and traditional ways of life. It’s this destruction that spurred Snowchange to act.

A view of a peat mining area in Selkie. Peat mining releases large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere. Image courtesy of Snowchange.

For the past two decades, the nonprofit cooperative partnered with local and Indigenous communities in boreal regions and the Arctic to support their cultural well-being and to restore lands where they’ve previously thrived for centuries, sometimes millennia.

In some cases, traditional knowledge holders initiate Snowchange projects. That’s what happened around 2011 when the Skolt Sámi contacted the NGO to see if the cooperative could help Indigenous peoples respond to the rapid climate change impacts they were seeing on their Arctic lands. The two parties established the first-ever collaborative management project to restore Finland’s Näätämö River Basin and watershed, famous for its wild Atlantic salmon.

The local communities have lived for centuries on these lands, becoming acutely attuned physically and spiritually to the life processes of Arctic plants and animals, and the health of wetlands, lakes and rivers. The Skolt Sámi women are particularly sensitive to “receiving messages” from their home environments, said Skolt Sámi Pauliina Feodoroff, in a statement at the kickoff event for Arctic PASSION, an innovative pan-Arctic observation and monitoring project meeting the challenges of climate change facing polar peoples.

Consequently, the Skolt Sámi Indigenous women guided the ongoing Näätämö land restoration in ways that honored the fragile northern ecosystem. “It’s the first time in Finnish history, to my knowledge, where Indigenous peoples were able to use their knowledge directly in land management and restoration,” Mustonen says.

Skolt Sámi elder Vladimir Feodoroff has been co-leading the Näätämö work since 2010 and is considered a living library of Indigenous knowledge. Image by Chris McNeave/Snowchange.

Triumph in the Jukajoki River Basin

Similarly, in 2010 and 2011, the village fisherfolk of Selkie and Alavi in North Karelia acted as an Arctic ecological early-warning system when they noticed two massive fish die-offs, both which had gone undetected by authorities. Researchers at Snowchange, headquartered in the boreal village of Selkie, quickly joined with the communities to address the crisis.

As there was no scientific data about the basin before the 1980s, the scientists turned to traditional knowledge to find out the natural, largely not degraded state of the ecosystem. The collaborators collected 35 oral histories from traditional community residents, which revealed observations about the Jukajoki and Jukajärvi watersheds that reached back to the early 1900s.

Historical knowledge about the fish, animals and plants revealed the changes to the environment that had taken place: for example, the ecological indicator species freshwater crayfish and brown trout had disappeared from the system well before the 1980s — a fact unknown to scientists. And present day traditional knowledge observations led the science teams to discover an unknown population of brook lampreys in the basin, which provided critically important ecological data about the area.

The Snowchange winter seining team on Lake Puruvesi, North Karelia. Seining is a traditional method that harvests nutrients from the highly oligotrophic lake, maintains food security, and upholds a unique culture that has been thriving since the 1300s. Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture nominated it for inclusion in the National Inventory of Living Heritage in 2017, and it is listed with UNESCO as an excellent example of traditional knowledge, practice and rewilding. Image by Mika Honkalinna/Snowchange.

The traditional knowledge provided the scientists with a picture of the types of changes, that had impacted the ecosystem over the past hundred years and guided where, and how, the team chose to monitor and restore the basin. The collaborators took actions to encourage the return of fish such as installing spawning gravel and juvenile habitat for trout and grayling, and reintroducing natural stocks of trout. These efforts succeeded.

“Now we have kilometers and kilometers of a functioning river system for trout and other cold-water species to give them a better chance,” says Mustonen, who is the leader of Selkie village and a professional fisherman.

After restoring the full Jukajoki River Basin, the collaborators looked to the cause of the fish die-offs. The culprit? Peat mining at Linnunsuo.

Before the 1980s, birds thrived at Linnunsuo, which is Finnish for “mire of birds,” and Selkie villagers hunted the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) and gathered berries and hay at the site. Then a Finnish energy company began mining peat at Linnunsuo, destroying habitat. By 2010, acidic waters from the mining operation leaked downstream and killed the fish in the Jukajoki River.

Peat mining area seen side by side with rewilding and rescued peatlands. Snowchange was able to secure Kivisuo — at 650 hectares (1,600 acres), it’s the largest rewilding site in the Landscape Rewilding Programme. However, the western side of the Kivisuo peatland has already been allocated to peat mining. Image by Mika Honkalinna/Snowchange.

Spurred by this discovery, Snowchange researchers have since focused on restoring mined or disturbed peatlands. “We are trying to do what we can to take sites out of harm’s way, and even nurture them back to life, despite the horrible damages that have happened in this part of the world,” says Mustonen, who was also a lead author for the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Restoration makes “these habitats [into] safe havens for climate security, biodiversity and for local communities.”

In 2017, the cooperative, with funding from Rewilding Europe, started to fully rewild Linnunsuo. After just a few years of effort, 195 species of birds came back to the wetland, including rare waders and waterbirds, allowing villagers to resume sustainable hunting and fishing.

“Rewilding is very much about giving more freedom to nature to shape our landscapes, and looking at nature as an ally in solving socioeconomic problems,” Helmer of Rewilding Europe says. “It’s a holistic way of putting nature back on center stage in our modern society.”

The successful nesting and breeding of the wood sandpiper (Tringa glareola) is one of the monitoring indicators of achieved rewilding in Linnunsuo. Image by Mika Honkalinna/Snowchange.

Benefiting nature and culture

Snowchange researchers and traditional knowledge holders stood as equals in the decision-making and governing efforts to rewild Linnunsuo: The team used traditional knowledge to guide the process of restoring the landscape to its former health, while science was used to measure and evaluate ongoing rewilding and report the results to the global community.

Using traditional knowledge gleaned from centuries of experience living in a particular place proved essential to choosing bottom-up solutions that work and “fit the shoe,” Mustonen says. “We believe that traditional knowledge, oral histories and community engagement provides some steps towards [tailoring] that shoe for each place.”

Most rewilding projects in the United Kingdom, EU or North America have a different starting point: building their restoration efforts around an ecological rewilding framework. But Snowchange’s programs rewild within a cultural framework, says Jules Pretty, a professor of environment and society at the University of Essex, U.K., who featured Snowchange in his book The Edge of Extinction.

“Local people are involved [from the start,] people who have lived on the land, whether it’s through use of wood, or fish, or water, or birds, or multiples of all of those,” Pretty says. “They’re going to be the ones that help to shape this cultural and ecological rewilding.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint for rewilding landscapes. Each has its own particular characteristics, so there’s a need for local communities to bring their historical and place-based perspectives to bear on restoration, Helmer says. That’s why rewilding considers traditional peoples as an integral part of the ecosystem, interrelating intimately with nature. “So, the sustainability of the [ecological] system is also very much about if there’s a sustainable future for the people there socially and economically.”

Snowchange ecologist Antoine Scherer, left, measures methane and carbon dioxide fluxes with a state-of-the-art trace gas analyzer in Linnunsuo, 2021, with staff member Noora Huusari, right, recording the flux readings. Exact greenhouse gas measurements on rewilded sites are needed in order to monitor and demonstrate the success and speed of recovery of the rewilding projects. Image courtesy of Snowchange.

If researchers or conservationists want to access traditional knowledge, it’s imperative that they do so in a way that provides benefits to the knowledge holders, notes Maria Tengö of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Her research focuses on the connections between people and nature in ecosystem-based management projects and the co-production of knowledge and science synergies. One of the guiding principles in her work is “usefulness for all involved.”

If researchers want to engage with traditional knowledge holders, they need to tie the fruits of their projects to specific places, Tengö emphasizes. “Because it’s in those actual places that it can become meaningful and useful and relevant for local people.”

Everyone wins: Peatland rewilding projects like Linnunsuo ultimately have benefits for planetary health, regional and local ecological health, and simultaneously serve the well-being of local and Indigenous communities, Mustonen agrees. Today, Selkie’s children play in the restored landscapes, while adults fish in the restored and rewilded wetlands and rivers.

Rewilding that honors traditional knowledge also creates jobs for elders, women, and other marginalized groups, and the co-management approach supports traditional ways of living and practices.

“The ideal is to have the cultural and ecological rewilding side by side, if it’s possible,” Pretty says. “Here, you’re getting two really interesting strands that are kind of braided together, which I think is fantastic.”

Fish are returning to the Jukajoki River after the rewilding of the entire catchment. Village elder Pekka Ikonen, left, and fisherman Tero Mustonen harvest the day’s bounty of bream (Abramis brama) for waiting villagers. Traditional fyke net traps are one of the tools used for community-based monitoring efforts, which rely on traditional knowledge along with science to determine status, trends and recovery success in rewilded habitats. Image courtesy of Snowchange.

A model for the future

Linnunsuo’s success heralded an era of rewilding in Finland. In recent years, Snowchange purchased 2,800 hectares (6,919 acres) of land that were on the open market to protect and restore vital ecosystems from mining and logging. The cooperative also negotiates with landowners to rewild privately held wetlands and peatlands, with such arrangements already encompassing 31,000 hectares (76,602 acres). In 2021, Snowchange received the St. Andrews Prize for the Environment for its landscape rewilding efforts.

For most of the 55 rewilding sites already put in place, Snowchange researchers and local communities plan collaboratively, share decisions, conduct rewilding together, and maintain the land as equals.

But that’s not always the case. For example, when rewilding takes place on Sámi Indigenous land, the Sámi people lead the protection and restoration decision-making process, and determine how such actions dovetail into their hunting and reindeer herding practices. That’s because the Sámi have never held formal title to the lands they live on in Finland, so it’s essential they have the right to manage the land, Mustonen says. “The Sámi are the traditional owners and when rewilding happens in Indigenous home areas it is extremely relevant to be aware of the past equity issues and correct them.”

Linnunsuo in 2017, halfway through the rewilding process, showing three large wetlands created by the collaborators. With the completion of nine large wetlands in 2022, the Linnunsuo rewilding project will be complete. Image by Janne Raassina/Snowchange.

Rewilding makes economic as well as environmental sense. In 2021, Snowchange acquired Onkineva, a 210-hectare (519-acre) northern boreal peatland for rewilding. As a carbon sink, the site draws in about 500 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, adding up to 50,000 metric tons of carbon capture over the next century. If humans mined Onkineva as originally planned, the site would have released 2.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, roughly equivalent to the annual emissions from 450,000 cars.

Given the current carbon emissions trading price, the prevented emissions from Onkineva have a “cash value” of approximately 128 million euros ($141 million). Snowchange paid 150,000 euros ($165,000) for the site. “By getting it into our program, and safeguarding and conserving it for the community, we are then keeping those 2.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in the ground,” Mustonen says. “And creating real value, including a cash value.”

Snowchange’s rewilding work with traditional and Indigenous communities is increasingly serving as a model for sustainable ecosystem restoration elsewhere — even as a few new innovative wrinkles get added, Mustonen says. Rewilding Europe, for example, is currently launching a collaborative rewilding project in Sweden with the Sámi that aims to attract tourists to the restored landscape — a value-added project benefit. “There’s a whole range of activities connected to rewilding that could improve local economies in a way that nature and culture actually become one and the same,” Helmer says.

Traditional knowledge-guided rewilding is likewise benefiting natural and human communities across the world. In Nigeria, the Ekuri Indigenous community has secured and is maintaining 33,600 hectares (83,027 acres) of intact forest against all odds from multiple pressures, including logging and the state’s attempts to build a superhighway. In Australia, the Indigenous Land and Sea Country Rangers of Djunbunti have nurtured a former sugarcane plantation in the East Trinity Wetland back to life.

Tourists watching a muskox (Ovibos moschatus) in Dovrefjell National Park, Norway. The muskox has made a limited return to Sweden as well, but the population remains vulnerable. Rewilding could help support growing numbers. Image by Staffan Widstrand/Rewilding Europe.

Practitioners contend that rewilding is the ideal path to conservation: “I don’t see really any other tangible solution because we all want the good life, we all want to live on this Earth, and we need natural systems to function,” Mustonen says. “It’s not only about carbon — it has to be about biodiversity and clean water and human rights as well.”

In 2020, Mustonen co-authored a strategic paper on Indigenous and traditional knowledge-led conservation and rewilding, which outlined a global road map for surviving the multiple challenges facing Earth today, ranging from climate change and ocean acidification to the biodiversity crisis. The paper’s authors point out that humans have already survived multiple ice ages and major planetary changes by living in harmony with nature.

Obviously, rewilding can’t be used to restore all places; traditional knowledge-informed rewilding wouldn’t work in Berlin or London, for example, Mustonen concludes. “But where the shoe fits, why wouldn’t we do rewilding? Why wouldn’t we take the steps that will create jobs, conservation, community empowerment, recognition of traditional knowledge, and meanwhile service the whole planet?”

Selkie schoolchildren building forest play cabins and romping in the old-growth rewilding forest that Snowchange saved from logging. Image courtesy of the Selkie village archives/Snowchange.

Banner image: A member of the Sámi Indigenous people tends a reindeer in Sweden. Image by Staffan Widstrand/Rewilding Europe.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Tero Mustonen and author Judith Schwartz discuss rewilding efforts worldwide, listen here:

Citations:

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Noon, M. L., Goldstein, A., Ledezma, J. C., Roehrdanz, P. R., Cook-Patton, S. C., Spawn-Lee, S. A., … Turner, W. R. (2021). Mapping the irrecoverable carbon in earth’s ecosystems. Nature Sustainability5(1), 37-46. doi:10.1038/s41893-021-00803-6

Simola, H., Pitkänen, A., & Turunen, J. (2012). Carbon loss in drained forestry peatlands in Finland, estimated by re-sampling peatlands surveyed in the 1980s. European Journal of Soil Science63(6), 798-807. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2389.2012.01499.x

Mustonen, T. (2013). Oral histories as a baseline of landscape restoration — Co-management and watershed knowledge in Jukajoki river. Fennia – International Journal of Geography191(2), 76-91. doi:10.11143/7637

Mustonen, T., & Tossavainen, T. (2018). Brook lampreys of life: Towards holistic monitoring of boreal aquatic habitats using ‘subtle signs’ and oral histories. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries28(3), 657-665. doi:10.1007/s11160-018-9527-0

Ogar, E., Pecl, G., & Mustonen, T. (2020). Science must embrace Traditional and Indigenous knowledge to solve our biodiversity crisis. One Earth3(2), 162-165. doi:10.1016/j.oneear.2020.07.006