Tero Mustonen, Finland, Europe

Restoration of the severely degraded land and its return to a biodiverse habitat is the goal of many environmentalists around the globe.

For over 20 years, Dr. Tero Mustonen has worked with Indigenous communities on conservation efforts across Alaska, Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Sámi territories, and Northern Russia. He is the former head of the village of Selkie, in Finland, and the President of the Snowchange Cooperative, an independent nonprofit that extends the entire Arctic. This organization of Indigenous and local communities is devoted to conserving traditional Indigenous knowledge, cultural activities, and local biodiversity and ecosystems. Tero is scholar of Arctic biodiversity, climate change and indigenous issues, teaching at the University of Eastern Finland.

In 2017, Snowchange Cooperative launched the Landscape Rewilding Program with a goal of rapidly rewilding and restoring large areas of peatlands and forests in Indigenous Arctic lands of Finland while promoting Indigenous and community rights in conservation and restoration. The success of Snowchange’s restoration projects is based on the use of and reliance on traditional knowledge. As Mustonen puts it: “Without Indigenous peoples and their wisdom, there would not be nearly enough preserved biodiversity.

”About one-third of Finland’s surface area is made up of peatlands. Peat is a surface layer of soft soils comprised of decomposed plant material submerged in wetlands, which never fully decomposed because of a lack of oxygen but compresses over time, capturing water as well as CO2 from the atmosphere. Peatlands store large amounts of carbon from decaying plant life. After World War II, Finland drained over half of its marshlands to create land for industrial timber and agriculture, as well as peat mining. To that end, peat is dug or burnt, and, in the process, it releases centuries’ worth of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It contributes to water pollution by discharging organic materials and acidity, as well as releasing nitrogen and phosphorous into nearby watersheds, lakes, and rivers. All of this can harm fish and drive biodiversity loss. Finland is the EU’s largest peat burner.

After observing the impact of state-sponsored industrial peat extraction on peatlands and mass deaths of fish in his area, Tero launched a rewilding program to restore the degraded wetland ecosystems. Snowchange acquired on the open market former industrial peatland sites, which sometimes resembled moonscapes, planning to restore them. Tero and his team developed a peat rehabilitation program combining traditional knowledge with modern scientific data. Natural water levels on peatlands were restored using bulldozers, diggers, and small earthen dams. Once complete, they allowed nature to gradually restore the rest. So far, Tero Mustonen led the restoration of 85 severely degraded former industrial peat mining and forestry sites throughout Finland — totaling 130,000 acres — and transformed them into productive, biodiverse wetlands.

To choose sites for restoration, Tero and his team consider both the local community’s priorities and ecological needs. Once restoration is completed, they monitor the amount of CO2 they draw from the atmosphere each year. Thus, they are revitalizing one of the largest and most important carbon sinks on the planet and converting biologically degraded zones into crucial areas of biodiversity. One of major benefits of restoring wetlands, is return of the habitat for migratory birds flying north in the spring and returning to southern climates 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 215 different birds, while on another site the local bird count grew from 2 to 196species.

In 2021, Mustonen and his team won the prestigious St. Andrews Prize for the Environment for demonstrating how Indigenous knowledge and the best science — together — can deliver solutions to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss not seen before. For his work in Finland, Mustonen was also awarded the 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize. By reinventing Finland’s historic approach to former industrial sites, Tero is fighting climate change at the ground level and creating a model for rewilding that can be applied the world over.

We, in Vallejo, are surrounded by the wetlands and former wetlands on the city’s north edge. The success of the restoration of the wetlands around Cullinan Ranch is an example of our local community involvement and success in restoration and revitalization of previously damaged and drained wetland.

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Climate Hero: Tero Mustonen -Lindsey Jean Schueman