Thu, Feb 28, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The battle to save
Europe’s last great wilderness

A railway through Lapland could create new jobs, or destroy the Sami people’s ancient way of life

By Tom Wall  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

The frozen white expanse of Lake Inari stretched off toward banks of dark birch and pine trees marking the distant shore line. There was not even the faintest breeze — the sub-zero air was perfectly still and very cold. A delicate dusting of snowflakes had fallen in the night, a pristine layer of gleaming crystals resting on the thick sheet of snow and ice.

Jussa Seurujarvi, 22, momentarily stopped helping his father, 51, and sister, 16, pull up fishing nets from holes in the ice to take in the long, slow Arctic sunrise, which glowed with pastel strokes of yellows, purples and pinks.

His brow furrowed slightly, as he said with gentle determination: “I want to continue living from this land just as my ancestors have done for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is a way of life for us — it is not just a job.”

His father quickly dispatched five prized white fish and a slimy looking burbot ensnared in the net. Almost every part would be used by the family, with even the burbot’s muddy-green scales destined for his mother’s handicrafts.

“The Sami way has always been that you take what you need — you don’t take any more,” Seurujarvi said.

This is the scared heart of the Sami homeland in the upper reaches of Finnish Lapland. It is a largely pristine landscape of forests, marshes, scree-covered fells and deep, clean lakes.

Often described as Europe’s last great wilderness, it is also home to lynxes, brown bears, wolverines and golden eagles.

Thousands of tourists come every year to enjoy the unspoiled nature and marvel at wonders such as the northern lights; more than 100,000 foreign visitors, including 22,000 British tourists, passed through the region’s capital, Rovaniemi, in December 2017.

Yet climate scientists and locals warn the region is under threat as never before from powerful global political and economic forces keen to exploit its plentiful natural resources and open up lucrative Arctic shipping routes to Asia.

The Sami — who have inhabited these harsh northern latitudes since the last ice age and are the only indigenous people in the EU — fear that proposals to build a 2.9 billion euro (US$3.3 billion) railway to the EU’s first Arctic port, in Norway, could provide mining and logging companies with the infrastructure they need to venture ever further into the wilder, untouched parts of Lapland.

The three municipalities of northern Lapland promote the project to global investors as a way of developing the region’s ore fields and timber industry, as well as exploiting oil and gas reserves in the Barents Sea, which contains 513 percent of the world’s untapped oil and 20 percent to 30 percent of the world’s untapped gas.

They say it could one day carry millions of tonnes of goods to Europe from container ships taking advantage of melting sea ice in the Northeast Passage.

Although government officials working on the proposed route have this month raised concerns about the scheme’s finances, Finnish Minister of Transport and Communications Anne Berner, said it remains a strategic goal for the Nordic country.

“Most railway projects are not financially valid or solid in their initial plans. The Arctic rail is still a part of the strategic long-term plan of connecting Finland to other parts of the world, including central Europe,” she said.

As the sun began its descent below the tree line at 3pm, Seurujarvi took grass on his ski-mobile to feed 25 or so local reindeer he had gathered in the snow-draped forests near his home.

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