Until a century ago, almost a third of Finland was covered in pristine peatlands, which comprise one of the Earth’s largest and most important carbon sinks. Since then, however, half of Finnish peatlands have been strip-mined for fuel or drained to make room for forest plantations.
But Tero Mustonen is turning the tide. After campaigning to restore a polluting peat mine in his village near the Russian border, he has been masterminding the rewilding of about 80 areas of peat across the country. Last week, Mustonen, 46, won a Goldman Environmental Prize for his work through the NGO he founded, the Snowchange Cooperative, which has taken on a global agenda for ecological and native cultural restoration from Alaska and northern Russian to Polynesia and New Zealand.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Mustonen talks about the challenge of halting peat mining and launching rewilding efforts in Finland, the return of birds and fish to restored areas, and his organization’s collaboration with Sámi Indigenous and Finnish rural communities. “Our approach supports traditional knowledge and Sámi rights,” he says, “and recognizes that nature has its own distinct value separate from financial value. We are proud of that.”
Yale Environment 360: What is the current situation with peatlands in Finland?
Tero Mustonen: Not good. They were mostly intact until the end of the Second World War. Then Finland industrialized. Intact peatlands were seen as unproductive wastelands. They were drained by foresters and mined for fuel. Today, such draining is in decline. But along the way, we have lost approaching half of our wet peatlands and their wildlife — more than 12 million acres. With little government action, Snowchange’s Landscape Rewilding Programme is the only systematic effort to restore them on private lands.
e360: How did you get involved in rewilding?
Mustonen: What triggered this for me was events in my home village of Selkie in eastern Finland in 2010. A giant peat mine was releasing acid discharges that were killing the local fish. We are a fishing community. We asked the mining company to stop work, and to our great surprise it yielded, offering to create three wetlands on their scraped moonscape. Unfortunately, they did a sorry job. So they eventually asked us to take over. We got some funding and agreed. Everything came together in that moment. We felt our work could be replicated on other damaged peatlands across the country. In 2018, we started the Rewilding Programme.
e360: What form does your restoration take?
Mustonen: I’m not a big fan of machinery, but we need excavators at first to block ditches, raise [water] tables and restore water flow. Then, nature can get back in control. We don’t interfere any more. We do rewilding rather than strict ecosystem restoration. A lot of these wetlands will never get back to how they were. The climate is too different, and the original peatland ecosystems have been lost. But we can recover rich, biodiverse wetlands.
e360: How are things going?
Mustonen: Currently, we have 130,000 acres rewilding at around 80 sites. We have bought land to save it. But sometimes we enter into rewilding agreements with existing land users. We might say that locals can hunt or graze reindeer, as long as they don’t disturb the restored wetland. This is essential when, for example, we are trying to rewild whole lake basins or river systems.
“After decades of landscapes being torn apart, now we have recovering landscapes that people feel connected with again.”
One of the quickest gains is the return of birds. It’s really surprising. One moonscape we took over in 2015 has gone from three bird species to 210, including rare waders such as Terek sandpipers.
e360: What was your upbringing? Are you a man of the North?
Mustonen: Yes. I grew up in a fishing family. We were close to nature, living without running water in a small village in the boreal forest each summer. I decided I needed scientific training to understand properly what was going on in the landscapes I knew. I often say that I first went to a real school, fishing on the ice, and then I learned the analytical tools to make the link to scientific knowledge.
I am now an adjunct professor of human geography at the University of Eastern Finland, as well as a professional fisher. I founded Snowchange back in 2000 to integrate Indigenous knowledge with science and to advance the voices of traditional communities in the North, while helping them maintain fisheries and reindeer herding in the face of climate change and other threats.
Our subsequent rewilding work came out of that. It brings jobs to local communities and something that can’t be measured in money: self-esteem. After decades of their landscapes being torn apart, now we have recovering landscapes that people feel connected with again. I know I do. I am talking to you from my home in Selkie, where the fish are back in our rivers and, thanks to our rewilding, I am watching incoming migratory birds.
e360: Do you get involved in the politics of land rights?
Mustonen: Yes. We never wanted to be just a conservation organization. We are appalled that the Sámi people in northern Finland, with whom we work a lot, are the only Indigenous peoples in Europe who don’t have proper land rights. But our rewilding work has at least created a model of what restoring those land rights should look like too. We adopt co-management, where Sámi knowledge and priorities are guiding the work we do.
e360: The restored peatlands must be storing large amounts of carbon. Do you sell carbon credits?
Mustonen: When our rewilding program started, many big corporations offered us huge amounts of money if we certified carbon credits. We consulted with communities. But our answer was that we don’t sell nature. We know that peatlands are extremely effective in storing carbon. We monitor this in detail. But we don’t think it is right to go to a degraded site, restore it, and then claim economic benefit for doing so. We accept donor support for the actual restoration work; but that’s it.
This approach has meant turning down millions of euros. But so what? Our approach supports traditional knowledge and Sámi rights, and recognizes that nature has its own distinct value, separate from financial value. We are proud of that.
“As temperatures rise [in Russia], the permafrost is melting, and we have seen wildfires in the tundra for the first time.”
e360: Snowchange is an international network. Where else do you work?
Mustonen: We have a big Arctic program, with paid part-time staff not just in Sámi villages in Finland, but also in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.
We also have a Pacific program. About 15 years ago, we started collaborating with the Māori peoples from Aotearoa, which is New Zealand. We also have a small grants program for island communities in the Pacific. For instance, we help the elders of Taumako in the Solomon Islands, who teach traditional navigation methods for voyaging by canoe. Relearning how to travel between the islands in the old way is a growing feature of a cultural renaissance among Pacific Island societies.
e360: You used to work in Russia too.
Mustonen: Yes, in the north. As temperatures rise there, the permafrost is melting, and we have seen wildfires in the treeless tundra for the first time. We were training Indigenous communities how to monitor and respond to fires. For almost a quarter of a century we were the only NGO working long-term with the Evenki people in Sakha [Province in Siberia]. Towards the end of 2021, we were planning their first rewilding project. Then Russia invaded Ukraine. We are now bound by the EU not to work in Russia. And any individual there who collaborates with us is also at risk. So that stopped.
The war will end one day, and we hope to return. By then we fear that climate change will have hit very hard in the Russian north, and pollution from mines and oil and gas fields will be even worse. Indigenous communities will have a tremendous need for an environmental program. But whether, and when, we can ever get there remains to be seen.
This interview was conducted by Yale Environment 360 contributing editor Fred Pearce and was edited for length and clarity.