One of the enduring memories of my childhood is the smell of the peat fire burning in the grate of Packie and Kathleen’s home in Sligo, Ireland. That is a long time ago now, but there are still many people in Ireland who burn peat.
Turns out that there are lots of them in Finland as well. In fact, the Finnish word for their country is “Suomi” – ‘suo’ meaning mire or swamp – and peatland makes up almost one third of Finland, although a great deal of it was degraded during Finland’s post-WWII industrialization.
One of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prizes – often referred to as the environmental Nobel – has been awarded to Tero Mustonen, who since 2018 has led the transformation of 70 severely degraded former industrial peat mining and forestry sites throughout Finland into productive, biodiverse wetlands and habitats – almost 130,000 acres. It is the first Goldman prize for Finland.
The peatlands are like the Amazon in terms of addressing climate change, Tero says. They can restore the waters, keep carbon in the ground, and draw down carbon from the atmosphere in massive quantities. But if peatlands are drained, as Finland did in the post-war years, their carbon is released to the atmosphere and is just as polluting as coal.
The Linnunsuo peatland near his village of Selkie was drained for peat mining by the state energy company. But in 2010 and 2011, toxic runoff from the drained land killed off fish in the nearby waterways, devastating the subsistence fishing on which many of the villagers relied.
The villagers eventually forced the company to close the site and provide initial funding to begin restoration. And it was that experience which led to the largest rewilding and restoration campaign that has ever been carried out in Finland.
Tero, who grew up amidst Finland’s lakes and peatlands, has brought together Western scientists, village elders, and Sámi Indigenous knowledge holders to preserve traditional culture and environments in the face of human exploitation and climate change. He has developed a truly cross-cultural model of climate change mitigation and adaptation near the Arctic Circle.
He is president of the Snowchange Cooperative, a pan-Arctic and boreal forest network of community associations fighting climate change and biodiversity loss which he founded in 2000. He is also adjunct professor of geography at the University of Eastern Finland.
Snowchange acquires former industrial forestry and peatland sites on the open market in order to restore them. When the restoration program began in 2018, it had eight sites and a total of 988 acres. Through Tero’s collaboration with local Sámi Indigenous and Finnish rural communities, nearly 25,000 acres were under restoration by 2020. By April 2022, there were 62 rehabilitated sites across Finland, totaling more than 86,000 acres.
By interviewing locals, researching the history of the peatland sites, and studying soil and biodiversity trends—including community efforts to conduct species inventories and measure pH and groundwater levels—Tero and his team developed a peat rehabilitation program that combined traditional knowledge with modern scientific data.
Natural water levels on peatlands were restored using bulldozers, diggers, and small earthen dams. Snowchange staff often followed on foot with spades to redirect water flow. Once complete, they stepped away and allowed nature to gradually restore the rest.
Snowchange now has six major catchment areas. The restored sites are chosen based both on the local community’s priorities and on ecological needs. Using trace gas analyzers, Tero and his team monitor CO2 emissions at the sites. One site, the Onkineva peatland, draws an estimated 500 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, and is expected to capture some 50,000 tons over the next century.
Restoring wetlands brings back habitat for migratory birds flying north in the spring and returning south in the fall. Birds, including rare ducks and waders, butterflies and other insects, plants, and mosses recover shortly after the water table is restored. One site was visited by over 185 different birds, including rare species such as the greater spotted eagle, Terek sandpiper, and tawny pipit.
Snowchange Cooperative is also a network of local and Indigenous cultures around the world. Its partners include the Saami, Chukchi, Yukaghir, Inuit, Inuvialuit, Inupiaq, Gwitchin, Icelandic, Tahltan, Maori, Indigenous Australian and many other local and Indigenous peoples and communities. Members of these Nations form the international Steering Committee of Snowchange.
Snowchange works with the Arctic Council, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Crisis Advisory Group, National Science Foundation of USA, several universities and partners on questions of biodiversity, climate change and local communities. It has created books, photo albums, international conferences, and political changes. It represents the positive change the North needs.
Cover image: Tiia Monto, Wikimedia