Restore, Reclaim, Rebirth: Early Victories and Indigenous Resurgence in the Eurasian Arctic

By Tero Mustonen. 22/07/2016

The Circumpolar Arctic and especially the Eurasian North, both boreal and the tundra, are targets for large-scale mining operations and have been for some time, as the region contains some of the last untapped mineral wealth globally. At the same time, the impacts of climate change are allowing multinational and domestic corporations to re-imagine the Arctic and its waterways as the ‘last frontier’ for transport and infrastructure initiatives.


(Reindeer on the Siberian Tundra. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative)

I work for the Snowchange Cooperative, a non-profit cultural and scientific organisation based in North Karelia, Finland, with an extensive network of Indigenous and local communities across the Arctic. All in all, we have over 2,000 partners from reindeer herders to fishermen to women in the communities of the North.

Here I will share short examples of successes and early victories of this century won by local and Indigenous communities as they resist what is often labelled as the ‘invasion’ of the region by mining corporations. My own house, our community and fisheries in North Karelia are the subjects of these forces, of potential mineral extraction of zinc, iron, diamonds and uranium, so the issues at hand have acute and personal relevance.


Arctic Under Threat

Let us begin our exercise with a short projection of how things are looking as of now. All of us have heard the ‘weather forecast’ of melting ice and the opening of northern seaways to the Orient – there is no need to repeat much of that here. Instead I will discuss briefly some of the issues of the Eurasian North. If the current industrial processes continue, the Arctic will provide, in addition to transport corridors, a vast wealth of raw materials, including fossil fuels and minerals, for the coming decades.

The expansion of mining and megaprojects will continue and is likely to worsen the steady erosion of cultural and human rights of Arctic Indigenous peoples, especially in those countries where civil society’s ability to impose checks and balances on state power remain weak, such as Russia and Finland.

If we continue with business-as-usual, a large number of Indigenous languages, such as Skolt Sámi, Yukaghir, Khanty, Evenk and others will join others in the realm of extinction, as happened to the Akkala Sámi in 2003. This means worlds of knowledge regarding biodiversity, adaptation and cultural heritage, relevant to all humanity, will be lost. We face the end of many rooted Indigenous villages, with their ends being nasty, brutish and silent.


(An indigenous fisherman in Siberia. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative)

This process can be called neo-colonisation, or forced assimilation. If it is allowed to continue we should also brace ourselves for the loss of the Arctic habitats that have sustained these societies for millennia, as the industrial-administrational onslaught continues. This attack on interconnected nature and culture is illegal – it happens and infringes on the un-surrendered rights of the Indigenous peoples of Eurasia and the Arctic North.


Successes Around the Eurasian North

Despite the many and growing pressures Indigenous and local communities of the Eurasian Arctic face, they have won some significant victories in the first part of the 21st Century. It is important to celebrate these, and learn the lessons each can teach us.

In the Murmansk region, Russia the Sámi Council has successfully parlayed and delayed international mining companies by documenting traditional land uses and occupancy, published in the Eastern Sámi Atlas. This has provided the companies and governmental agencies maps that make the invisible visible, and assisted the Indigenous societies in pointing crucial homelands, habitats and areas that should be no go zones for destructive activities. In Siberia, many Indigenous communities who are targets of mining plans, conceptualize the best solution to be to maintain nomadic lifestyles and cultures.


(Reindeer racing in Siberia. Photo: Snowchange)

In Northern Sweden, the Jokkmokk and other Sámi groups have utilized media campaigns, traditional and modern Sámi songs and direct citizen action to defend and delay the plans to develop the Gállok mining site. Some of the Sámi have also partnered with Snowchange to produce a cumulative impact assessment[1] of things that have already happened to make the case that no further damages can happen on the already fragile north boreal.

In Finland the mining affects both the Indigenous Sámi and traditional Finnish villages. The two ethnic groups are related linguistically, but the Sámi are the Indigenous peoples of Finland by law. In 2014 in Utsjoki, the local Coalition Against Mining in the Utsjoki and Deatnu river basin were able to win against an Irish mining company, Karelian Diamond Resources, by employing a twin strategy: direct contact with the CEO and Head Offices of the corporation and local self-organisation, including across the Norwegian-Finnish border of this multinational watershed. Since those times the Sámi Parliament has employed the strategy of negotiations with the state authorities on further mining claims, but given the eroding situation of Indigenous rights in Finland these new attempts of a dialogue have not produced a breakthrough.

The boreal region of North Karelia, Finland is the richest source of Uranium in Europe. It is also rich in other ores such as zinc and iron, as well as diamonds. Domestic mining has involved the extraction of peat turf, which has destroyed large marsh-mire ecosystems. Finland suffers from an underdeveloped civil society, a legacy of the Cold War, which affects our ability to influence these processes.

However, from 2005 to 2013 a large NGO and land owner coalition was successful in warding off uranium miner Areva and, later, a Canadian mining company that wanted to develop the regions first commercial Uranium mine in the Eno area. In Selkie, close to Eno, the local village has been able to install large-scale ecological restoration and co-management of the Jukajoki basin after two large peat-mining accidents led to large-scale fish-kills in the river catchment. This restoration project builds on both traditional knowledge and science, and acts as a ‘shield’ against further mining claims in the catchment area.


Lessons From Arctic Mining Struggles?

Most of Indigenous and local-traditional land uses and ways of life are invisible to outsiders and do not appear in planning, zoning and claims. Therefore mapping of traditional land uses and occupancy, a process that produces actual share-able maps created through deep engagement with local and Indigenous communities, has been a crucial strategy. Mining companies speak the language of maps. Sometimes it is the only language they speak.


(Snowchange Oral History map. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative)

In Russia, in Sweden and in Finland direct contact with the head offices and CEO of mining companies has produced effective results in some cases, especially with companies from the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. Media coverage has also worked if articles have been published in a UK or US newspaper or journal, such as the Guardian. In selected cases, collaborations with scientists on restoration and impacts have been a tactical benefit to the Sámi and others.

But, most of all, a determined Indigenous and local presence on the land has been the best defence of land and life.


Shift in Talk: Restoring Ecosystems, Reclaiming and Rebirthing Traditional Societies and Nomadic Lifestyles

We need new language and way of talking about the future. We in Snowchange believe we need to imagine and then implement concretely the beautiful future we wish to see.

As Naomi Klein, the Pope and many other civil and world leaders have said over the past months – all will be different no matter what we do in the North. Change in itself is not unknown to the different Indigenous nations of the Arctic. We believe that an Arctic in 2045 where all of us survive will be built on diverse approaches, rights, cultures and solutions. That is how nature exists – through and in her diversities.

To halt the big drivers of destruction, such as loss of habitats to mining and climate collapse, we need profound decisions on land use. Intact areas in the Arctic are our best bet for survival. Those characteristically Arctic habitats, such as the tundra, permafrost soils and high Arctic islands, should be left alone. Similarly, the marsh mires and old growth taiga forests, even down to the south boreal, which act as carbon sinks, should be preserved outright.

Ensuring that Indigenous and local-traditional peoples enjoy rights to their lands, waters and culture is key to providing for the new Arctic of 2045 – with all of their diversities.

In some areas this will mean exclusive rights to own, possess and control territory.

In some other cases it may mean joint management. This is the case with first national collaborative management project in Finland. It is located on the Näätämö River in Lapland. There the Skolt Sámi, researchers and the state seek to jointly manage the waters in ways that can address and effectively respond to the sudden and extreme turns of our new climatic reality.


(Traditional Fisherman on the Naatamo River. Snowchange Cooperative.)

In the remote tundras of the Chukchi people in Kolyma River, Sakha-Yakutia, Siberia, it may mean establishment of nomadic schools. Powered partially with solar technologies, these schools may ensure that the ancient connections and lifeways of their peoples are preserved even amidst the permafrost melt.

The Indigenous and local communities of the Arctic are very much about the present. They have always survived the changes they have faced. They will also survive this change. And instead of our greed, we should embrace the wisdom of the waters, lands, air – the seen and the unseen – the Arctic that really is.


Dr Tero Mustonen is a passionate defender of traditional worldview and cosmology of his people, is a Finn and head of the village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland. He works for the Snowchange Cooperative and is Yes to Life, No to Mining Regional Coordinator for the Eurasian Arctic.

This article was produced to celebrate the Global Day Against Mega Mining, 22nd July 2016

[1] Mustonen, Tero and Syrjämäki, Eija: It is the Sámi Who Own The Land: Sacred Landscapes and Oral Histories of the Jokkmokk Sámi. Snowchange, 2013.


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  • Written on: 26 September 2014
  • Posted under: Campaigns

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