Climate Hero: Tero Mustonen

Image credit: Janne Raassina and Raija Törrönen, University of Eastern Finalnd

Climate Hero: Tero Mustonen

Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.

Since 1999, 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 head of the village of Selkie, North Karelia in Finland, and the President of the Snowchange Cooperative.

Conserving Indigenous wisdom and biodiversity

Snowchange is an independent nonprofit in Finland that extends the entire Arctic with a global outreach. Established in 2000, this organization of Indigenous and local communities, including the Suomi, Sámi, Inupiaq, Yupiaq, Evenki, Even, Chukchi, and Yukaghir peoples, is devoted to conserving traditional Indigenous knowledge, cultural activities, and local biodiversity and ecosystems.

An underlining mission of Mustonen’s work is to make the public aware of how significant Finland and the boreal in Eurasia are to the health of our planet. Not only does it contain one-third of Earth’s soil-based carbon and biodiversity, but the boreal and the Arctic also contain the rewilding potential for 10 million hectares of land.

On a mission to restore and rewild Finland

In 2017, Snowchange launched the Landscape Rewilding Programme (LRP) to accomplish three critically important issues — rapidly rewild and restore extensive peatlands, boreal forests, and Indigenous Arctic lands in Finland, re-start massive carbon sinks, and promote Indigenous and community rights in conservation and restoration (in Finland there are no Indigenous rights to the land).

LRP has restored 31,000 hectares in over 55 sites, including the Indigenous Sámi forests, making it the largest non-state restoration organization in Finland.

Needing traditional knowledge now more than ever

A key factor in the success of Snowchange’s restoration projects is the use of and reliance on traditional knowledge. As Mustonen puts it, Indigenous wisdom can no longer be seen as “stereotypical noble savage romanticization” or dismissed by the scientific community as anecdotal or with skepticism. In the mists of the climate crisis, the voices of Indigenous peoples need to be heard now more than ever.

A Finn living in a traditional village himself, Mustonen understands the traditional view that humans can co-exist in their homelands with nature. He believes this insight is missing from the majority of the conservation and climate systems thinking today.

Mustonen’s work at Snowchange proves the success of bringing traditional wisdom and insight back into today's conservation efforts. Through rewilding projects living landscapes are renewed, and biodiversity is restored. For example, the local bird count grew from two to 196 species in one peatland site.

Recognition for creating a more sustainable future

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 awarded the 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize. It is a testament that ordinary people can create a grassroots movement that has an extraordinary impact on the environment.

Overall success for Snowchange in Mustonen’s eyes is to heal lands, clean rivers, and grow forests “where our community youth and children – the ‘Future Elders’ – will co-learn with the non-humans and nature.” We are all connected - the biodiversity thriving in the boreal forest of Eurasia is crucial to the survival of our shared planet Earth.

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