We are thrilled that the 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize has been awarded to Tero Mustonen, president and founder of Gaia’s longstanding partners, the Snowchange Cooperative.
Tero has been recognised for rewilding 62 industrial peat mining and forestry sites in Finland – transforming 86,000 severely degraded acres into thriving ecosystems that nourish wildlife, support local subsistence fishing, and capture carbon. Crucially, Snowchange have pioneered a collaborative approach to this work that brings together scientists with Finnish traditional and Indigenous knowledge holders.
“As a scientist and fisherman working with Indigenous and local communities, Tero has developed a truly cross-cultural model of climate change mitigation and adaptation near the Arctic Circle. What began with a small amount of public support is now overwhelmingly embraced by Finnish citizens. By reinventing Finland’s historic approach to former industrial sites, he is fighting climate change at the ground level and creating a model for rewilding that can be applied the world over.” The Goldman Environmental Prize
From mine to ‘Marsh of the Birds’: the story of Snowchange
In 2011 the small fishing community of Selkie in eastern Finland won a famous victory against a peat mining company and set about rewilding the deeply scarred land. An acidic leak from a disused mine had killed thousands of fish in the Jukajoki river, and local fishers called on the Snowchange Cooperative to gain financial compensation and restore life to the 120-hectare wetland that had been stripped of peat.
Bringing together traditional knowledge and science, the former mine site has since been transformed into a bountiful home for rare birds and mammals. More than 195 species now visit or nest in the wetland known as Linnunsuo, ‘Marsh of the Birds’. This success story catalysed a nationwide initiative to restore boreal forest, marshmire and waterways.
Looking north: the beginnings of our partnership
Snowchange is run by Finns devoted to the revival of traditional culture in the circumpolar Arctic and Boreal North, with a network of local and Indigenous Peoples including the Saami, Chukchi, Yukaghir, Inuit, Inuvialuit, Inupiaq, Gwitchin, Icelandic, Tahltan, Maori, and Indigenous Australian.
In our climate-changed times, the eyes of the world are turning to the North. As once-predictable weather conditions fluctuate and extractive companies seek to exploit the melting of sea ice and permafrost, Snowchange is advancing a ‘new narrative’ that goes beyond conservation to champion the restoration of Earth.
This path is one that Gaia has been walking with communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America since the mid-1980s. We first met Snowchange in Tofino at the International Society of Ethnobiology Congress, then at the 2014 IUCN World Park’s Congress in Sydney. There, we discovered our shared commitment to the recognition and revival of ecosystems that have sustained life for millenia, and since then our collaboration has grown through exchange visits, the coordination of the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network and media initiatives on Arctic science and indigenous knowledge.
“We have observed the work of The Gaia Foundation closely in other regions of the globe done with dedication and direct cooperation with communities, which is identical to our own approaches in many ways. In a century of unprecedented change new alliances, new narratives and new solutions are globally needed, to survive all of what is under way.” Tero Mustonen
Read the origin story of our friendship
“Success is a very big wetland”
Since we began partnering with Snowchange six years ago, their hard work has restored a rich tapestry of wild places across Finland. Birds are nesting, fish are spawning and communities are reconnecting with these emerging havens that also have a crucial role to play in the climate emergency – peatlands are the largest natural carbon stores on Earth.
What’s more, Snowchange’s trailblazing approach has become a world-leading model for bringing together traditional knowledge and science. The benefits of co-management go far beyond measurable environmental outcomes: it has changed how local-traditional knowledge is recognised and valued.
“Snowchange researchers and traditional knowledge holders stood as equals in the decision-making and governing efforts: The team used traditional knowledge to guide the process of restoring the landscape to its former health, while science was used to measure and evaluate ongoing rewilding and report the results to the global community. Using traditional knowledge gleaned from centuries of experience living in a particular place proved essential to choosing bottom-up solutions that work”. Jane Palmer, who interviewed Tero for Mongabay in 2022
Read more about Snowchange’s approach in Mongabay
Fishing for the future
Tero and Snowchange are also making sure that this unearthed ecological knowledge does not get lost again.
For example, Tero has been training apprentice fisherman Lauri Hämäläinen in Finland’s ancient ice-fishing traditions. As Finland and other arctic regions experience increasing destabilisation from climate change – expressed in melting ice and record winter temperatures – these traditions are more important than ever, he says:
“From the Mediterranean to the Arctic, small-scale fisheries tend to be ecologically sustainable, connected with local families and communities and contribute to the food security and environmental monitoring of freshwater and marine ecosystems. Supporting them is a win-win.”
As part of his education, Lauri has been supporting the rewilding efforts that will sustain his craft, and the food security of his community, in the future.
Watch Lauri learn ancient ice fishing
The people of Selkie were also photographed for Gaia’s 2018 storytelling campaign We Feed The World, which celebrated the small-scale fishers and farmers who feed 70% of the world on less than a quarter of our agricultural land. You can scroll through the images below:
Congratulations, Tero. We can’t wait to see the ripple of this recognition on the inspirational efforts of Snowchange, and all those you work alongside.