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

Almost every Sami family can tell stories of children taken to boarding schools and beaten if they spoke Sami after World War II. Or relatives from the same generation stripped naked and measured by officials trying to establish their racial inferiority.

Although much has changed since those dark days — the Sami now have an elected parliament, and language and culture rights enshrined in the Finnish constitution — they do not have ultimate control of their lands and waters.

Finland, unlike Norway, has not ratified the UN Independent Labour Organization’s convention of indigenous people, which would give the Sami a greater say over their homeland. Nor has the Finnish state apologized for the treatment of the Sami, which both Norway and Sweden did in the 1990s.

Sanila-Aikio said the parliament would not be able to stop corporations using the railway to get even more raw materials out of the Sami homeland.

“Our previous president used to say that the only thing we can really decide is the date of our meetings,” she said, with a sardonic smile.

At present, only logging and gold panning take place in the Sami homeland. Last year, 4,250 hectares of forest were earmarked for felling and 253 gold extraction permits were in place, including 15 new ones for heavy digging machinery.

This is only the start, Sanila-Aikio said.

“We don’t have any mines yet, but they are very close — there are mines all around the Sami area in Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden,” she said.

She calls this process a “slow colonization,” under which their lands are divided by the railway and handed over to outside industries.

“This means the end of the Sami people, because there are no possibilities to practice traditional livelihoods,” she said, her eyes starting to fill with tears. “Then the Sami are extinct.”

There are also fears the project could endanger Lapland’s delicate ecosystems, which are crucial to the fight against runaway climate change.

Finnish climate scientist Tero Mustonen — who has been studying the Arctic region of the Nordic countries for more than 20 years — said that ecologically pristine parts of northern Lapland would be transformed by the railway.

“These areas are providing us with climate security. They are the lungs of Europe and the carbon sinks for the future,” he said via telephone from a climate conference.

Mustonen, a lead author for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that Finland must decide if the promised GDP growth is worth the risk.

“What are the economic benefits of those shipping containers compared to the benefits that rivers and marsh mires have provided to us over millennia in terms of climate security?” he asked.

The peat-rich soil in Lapland’s wetlands traps vast amounts of carbon, preventing it from contributing to climate change, while rivers act as a conveyor belt, bringing nutrients and carbon between the sea and inland lakes.

Mustonen has produced the only study so far examining the ecological effect of the railway for the Sami parliament. He found engineers would have to quarry for rocks every 4km along the northern stretch of the 465km route to shore up the rails and service road, as well as divert thousands of brooks, lakes, rivers and streams.

“The railroad itself will be roughly 15m across, but creating a network of service roads and quarries will leave a crater at least 100m wide across an area that has no infrastructure,” he said.

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