For Tero Mustonen, Restoring Finland's Peatlands is About Saving Our Planet's 'Second Lung'

The Arctic biodiversity expert and fisherman is among six activists from around the world awarded this year's Goldman Environmental Prize.

When Tero Mustonen was a kid in the late 1970s, his family had a cabin by a boreal lake in eastern Finland, about 80 kilometers from their small hometown, where they would spend their summers and part of the winter. Mustonen recalls spending hours playing in the water and helping his parents catch fish. The family ran what he calls, a “household fishery” — they caught fish using longlines and seine nets, mostly for their own consumption and for sharing with extended family and friends. They also sold some of their catch on occasion — a common practice among families living in the region.

Tero Mustonen at his home in the village of Selkie in Finland’s North Karelia region. All photos courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

A Snowchange Cooperative-operated peatland restoration area in eastern Finland. Photo byMika Honkalinna

“I have a very clear memory of how the waters were at that time,” Mustonen says. “It was wonderful to swim in” and, he recalls, you could see a variety of fish, including whitefish, perch, and eel teeming about in the cold, oxygen-rich waters. But by the mid-1980s, as Finland began to drain more and more of its marshlands for timber, agriculture, and peat mining, the lake began to feel different. “You started to sense that something was amiss.”

The water turned murky and felt slimy. “We would go swimming and you would come out with an itchy rash,” he says. Fish catch from the lake began to change too. First the eel disappeared, then the whitefish and perch. Instead, bottom-feeders like bream, which can survive in murky, low-oxygen water, began to multiply.

“We have an understanding in boreal Finland that the lake is the child of its basin, it is rarely to blame for its problems,” says Mustonen, a well-known scholar of Arctic biodiversity, climate change, and Indigenous issues as well as a commercial fisherman. Eventually, he came to understand that health of his beloved lake was tied to the destruction of surrounding boreal forests and peatlands.

ABOUT A THIRD of Finland’s surface area used to be peatland, a type of marshland made up of partially-decomposed plant matter, such as sedges, mosses, and small trees, submerged in waterlogged areas, that breaks down over tens of thousands of years. Layers of peat — which grows very slowly at a rate of roughly three feet every 1,000 years — trap huge amounts of carbon.

These peatlands — which comprise a variety of types (for eg, fens, mires, bogs) depending, among other things, on their depth, how they hold water, and pH levels — are deeply intertwined with the carbon cycle, global warming, and the wellbeing of the boreal forests as whole. When dug up or burnt, peat releases centuries’ worth of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Although they only occupy 3 percent of the world’s land area, peatlands contain about 25 percent of global soil carbon — twice as much as the world’s forests. But rising temperatures and human actions, such as draining bogs to log forests and converting them for agriculture, now threaten to turn the world’s peatlands from carbon reservoirs to carbon sources.

In Finland, more than half of the country’s peatlands have been drained for forestry (a major industry in the country), farming, and peat extraction purposes since the 1950s. While Finland uses peat to meet only about 5 percent of its domestic energy needs, its extraction and use accounts for 14 percent of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions (some 23.8 million tons of CO2 annually), more than twice the annual emissions from Finnish road, rail, boat, and air traffic combined.

A lake in Isojärvi National Park, Kuhmoinen, Finland.​ More than half of the country’s peatlands have been drained for forestry, a major industry in the country, farming, and peat extraction purposes since the 1950s. Photo by Mikko Muinonen/Flickr.

Additionally, degraded peatlands pollute local watersheds, lakes, and rivers by releasing organic materials, heavy metals, nitrogen, and phosphorous that result in eutrophication, algal blooms, and browning of clear waters. This has proved disastrous for the abundant freshwater resources of a country that’s often called “The Land of a Thousand Lakes.” That moniker is a bit of an understatement though — the country holds 187,000 lakes that make up about 10 percent of its total land area, are home to several endemic bird and fish species, and offer resting spots for many migratory birds. Many of these water bodies, are suffering the impacts of state-sponsored industrial extraction of Finnish peatlands and forests.

“We have lost 95 percent of our boreal forests and most of the lakes are affected by human alterations,” says Mustonen, who has made it his mission to reverse this loss. “As we are water rich, the pollution has been going downstream for 30 to 50 years. In [Finnish] law there is nothing that requires the industry to handle the legacy of those downstream impacts.”

In 2000, Mustonen, who is also the head of the village of Selkie in the North Karelia region, founded Snowchange Cooperative, a pan-Arctic and boreal forest network of community associations that are devoted to conserving traditional Indigenous knowledge and cultures, and fighting climate change and biodiversity loss. “We need to restore our landscapes, but we are also fighting for our lives because the boreal and the Arctic are warming very fast,” he says.

In 2018, Snowchange launched a rewilding program to restore degraded wetland ecosystems and promote Indigenous and community rights in conservation and restoration. (In Finland, Indigenous people still don’t have rights to the land). The organization purchased several degraded, former industrial forestry and peatland sites, chosen based both on the local community’s priorities and on ecological needs. Mustonen and his team interviewed locals, researched the historical ecology of the peatland sites, and developed a peat rehabilitation program combining traditional knowledge with modern scientific data.

Then they began to work on restoring the natural water flows on these lands using bulldozers and diggers, building small earthen dams, and sometimes manually digging channels to redirect water flow into these lands. Once water courses had been restored, they stepped away and allowed nature to do the rest.

When the restoration program began in 2018, it had eight industrial peat mining and forestry sites totaling 988 acres to work on. By 2022, under Mustonen’s leadership, Snowchange had transformed 62 sites across Finland, totaling more than 86,000 acres, into productive, biodiverse wetlands and habitats. Snowchange is now the largest non-state restoration organization in Finland. In many of the slowly rewilding areas, migratory birds flying north in the spring and returning to southern climates in the fall are again stopping by. One site the group has been monitoring was visited by over 185 different birds, including rare species such as the greater spotted eagle, Terek sandpiper, and tawny pipit.

“I hope our landscape rewilding program demonstrates the power of using traditional and Indigenous knowledge with science,” Mustonen says.

He worries though, that climate disruption might undo some of this work. “Now we are jumping into a warming world where you have significant shortening of the cold periods and more warm and dry periods. If you have drought in restored peatland, it can [dry up and] become a carbon source,” he explains. “[Climate change] is the single thing I think about every day.”

Snowchange is also actively working to get Finland to stop extracting and burning peat. (The country has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2035 but only plans to halve peat use by that time.) “We can’t afford to touch any more peatland for industrial use,” Mustonen says, suggesting that the country’s remaining peat-rich sites, which are located in high-biodiversity areas, could be managed for ecotourism. Peatlands, he says, “are the second lungs of the planet after the Amazon rainforest. Every day we are breathing we are enjoying the benefits of the peatlands.”

For his leadership in helping revitalize one of the largest and most important carbon sinks on the planet, Mustonen has been awarded this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize. He will be the first Finnish person to receive this prestigious award. will be honored at a ceremony in San Francisco this evening, along with five other activists from across the world. The other winners are:

Chilekwa Mumba.

Chilekwa Mumba, a community organizer from Zambia who organized a lawsuit against the British mining conglomerate Vedanta Resources for environmental damage in the country’s Copperbelt Province caused by its subsidiary, Konkola Copper Mines. In April 2019, the United Kingdom Supreme Court found Vedanta liable for the damage. This was the first time a British company was held liable for the environmental damage caused by subsidiary-run operations in another country and it set a precedent has since been applied to hold fossil fuel giant Shell Global liable for its pollution in Nigeria.

On a low green hill in the south of the state of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, Amanda Aparecida Mateus, 43, cultivates a variety of vegetables, grains and fruits.

Alessandra Korap Munduruku.

Alessandra Korap Munduruku, a member of the Munduruku Indigenous group of Sawré Muybu, who organized community efforts to stop mining development by the British mining company Anglo American in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. In May 2021, the company formally committed to withdraw 27 approved research applications to mine inside Indigenous territories, including the Sawré Muybu Indigenous Territory, which contains more than 400,000 acres of rainforest. The decision protects a critically threatened area of the Amazon — the world’s largest rainforest and a globally significant carbon sink — from further mining and deforestation.

Delima Silalahi. Photo by Edward Tigor.

Delima Silalahi, the executive director of Kelompok Studi dan Pengembangan Prakarsa Masyarakat (KSPPM), a nonprofit dedicated to traditional forest protection in North Sumatra, who led a campaign to help six Indigenous communities secure legal stewardship of 17,824 acres of their customary forests. In 2022, the Indonesian government reclaimed the tropical forests from a pulp and paper company that had partially converted it into a non-native, industrial eucalyptus plantation and handed its management over to the communities. The villagers have already begun reforesting the area with native species.

Zafer Kizilkaya.

Zafer Kizilkaya, the president and founder of Akdeniz Koruma Dernği (the Mediterranean Conservation Society), who worked with local fishing cooperatives and government agencies to help expand Turkey’s network of marine protected areas along 310 miles of the Mediterranean coast in 2020. Turkey’s marine ecosystem has been severely degraded by overfishing, tourism development, shipping traffic, and the effects of climate change. These protected areas — which include an additional 135 square miles of no trawling and no purse seine zones, and 27 square miles of no fishing zones — help mitigate these challenges.

Diane Wilson.

Diane Wilson, a fourth generation fisherwoman, the director and founder of Calhoun County Resource Watch, and the executive director of San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, who in 2019 won a landmark case against Formosa Plastics, one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies, for the illegal dumping of toxic plastic waste on Texas’ Gulf Coast. The $50 million settlement is the largest award in a citizen suit against an industrial polluter in the history of the US Clean Water Act. As a part of the settlement, Formosa Plastics agreed to reach “zero-discharge” of plastic waste from its Point Comfort factory, pay penalties until discharges cease, and fund remediation of affected local wetlands, beaches, and waterways.

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