In this article our Finnish partners Snowchange announce the launch of a new, world-leading effort to re-wild the Finnish-Russian Koitajoki River System using a combination of science and traditional knowledge. Gaia is proud to be a partner in this exciting project. Find out more below.

Juha Piitulainen practicing traditional rver seining on Koitajoki, 2019. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative

The Koitajoki River Rewilding Project is a basin-wide traditional knowledge and science-based restoration project that will take place over six years (2020-2026). The project aims to restore a large northern European boreal river basin back to relative ecological health, while stimulating a resurgence of traditional knowledge, oral histories and local governance in villages along the river.

Snowchange is leading the Koitajoki restoration work with technical and communications support from UK-based partners The Gaia Foundation. Gaia will bring experience from successful community-led cultural and ecological revival projects in the Amazon basin and across sub-Saharan Africa.

An international flagship

Keljonsuo- one of the first rewilding sites already secured on the Koitajoki basin. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative

The project’s restoration actions, which will happen on a basin-wide scale and combine traditional knowledge and science with clear and coherent aims, represent a first, even at international level. Success in Koitajoki will provide an adaptable model to inspire world-wide transformations, while transporting Koitajoki from a troubled century into a rewilded future of ecological health, village resilience, food security and well-being.

The restoration actions that will happen in the Koitajoki system in the coming years are part of the wider Finnish Landscape Rewilding Programme led by the award-winning Snowchange Cooperative. This Programme is focused on rewilding Arctic and boreal habitats using Indigenous knowledge and science to create Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs), water protection sites, biodiversity hotspots and carbon sinks.

Koitajoki- the background

Old growth forests – key habitats in the Koitajoki Basin. Photo: Eero Murtomäki, Snowchange

After three years of work, the Landscape Rewilding Programme has decided to move to a basin- and system-level action of rewilding that enables the resurgence of traditional communities and knowledge. Following strategic internal reflection, local villages and Snowchange decided that one of the major wilderness basins of Northern Europe, Koitajoki, would be selected as the target of major rewilding actions over the next six years.

The Koitajoki Basin a transboundary water system, divided between North Karelia, Finland and the Republic of Karelia, Russia. This division is the result of the way in which the Finnish-Russian border was re-drawn after WW2. Today the border cuts the river system in half, but this division is not reflected so absolutely in the ecology or culture of the basin. Finnish and Karelian, related Finno-Ugric languages, are spoken in villages all along the river’s course.

The Koitajoki Basin is the home of Kalevala, the Finnish-Karelian epic poem, as well as the original rune songs that arose from the relationships between local people and the landscape thousands of years ago. Kalevala oral histories and songs are often named the ‘Iliad and Odyssey’ of the North. They have inspired authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, who drew heavily on these stories in many parts of his Middle-Earth works, including in the formation of the Elven languages and the Saga of Turin in the Silmarillion.

The Koitajoki Basin is the last Finnish location where these epic songs were sung in their ‘natural habitat’. But to this day the communities of Koitajoki still preserve many oral histories, hunting and fishing economies and land uses that are descended directly from the ‘Kalevala era’.

Koitajoki forms part of a UNESCO Biosphere area in Finland, highlighting the ecological significance of the area. Despite this, the Koitajoki basin has been severely altered over the past 70 years by extractive industries including forestry, peat mining, hydropower development, ditching programmes, infrastructure and other industrial land uses. Despite these alterations, however, large-scale community-led rewilding and the resulting resurgence of traditional knowledge and ecological gains remain a realistic possibility according to surveys undertaken so far.

Project Actions

Seine fishing locations (marked by red stars) on a stretch of the Koitajoki River. Map: Snowchange Cooperative

In the first year of the Koitajoki Project, the following actions will be taken:

  1. Rewilding Plan for Koitajoki: A world-first traditional knowledge- and science-based online plan will be produced, revealing a) current status and what has taken place b) what needs to happen to rewild and restore damages c) where actions should be directed first. This will initially focus on the Finnish part of the Koitajoki basin. It will be realised as a visually attractive website in English and Finnish, potentially also in Russian.
  2. Land Use and Occupancy Studies of Koitajoki Basin: Whilst the Koitajoki area is well known due to the fame of the Kalevala, very little is known of the past and present land uses and occupancies of the traditional villages of the region. This work stream, in dialogue with the knowledge holders and with archival materials, will produce a land use and occupancy map of the basin.
  3. Russian Survey: By working with Russian and Finnish experts the first ever survey of the Russian part of Koitajoki will be realised by Summer 2021. this will focus on establishing the status, trends and biocultural aspects of Russian parts of Koitajoki, such as lake Vieksjärvi, which are to a large extent unknown at present.
  4. Initiating Community-Led Rewilding: Two sites have been already secured as  spear-head rewilding sites. Restoration actions will commence on these sites as demonstration steps. This will include restoration of wetlands, plant and bird surveys and assessing rewilding from the prism of traditional knowledge.

Support

Kesonsuo Marshmire- a ‘diamond’ in the Koitajoki system. Photo: Eero Murtomäki, Snowchange

The Koitajoki River Rewilding Project is supported by a range of domestic and international donors. Phase 1, lasting until November 2021 has now commenced, with kind support from a range of donors and the Landscape Rewilding Programme.

We are especially grateful to German donor Roland Göhde, Co-Founder and Member of the Board of Göhde Foundation, who has provided a substantial private donation for the project activities.

We also wish to acknowledge one major anonymous funder from abroad. Other supporters include donors and in-kind supporters along the river and in Finland.

More about Snowchange’s Landscape Rewilding Programme

A restored trout stream runs clear in the Jukajoki River system, which neighbours the Koitajoki Basin. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative.

Snowchange has been working with local communities through the Landscape Rewilding Programme for three years and has secured over 600 hectares of community lands (direct ownership) and over 25,000 hectares of basins through land concessions under the restoration work.

It is one of the most innovative and progressive conservation actions globally that is also contributing to major carbon sink renewal, which is vital for mitigating the effects of the global climate crisis.

This trailblazing rewilding work has garnered international attention. For example, the traditional fisheries re-emerging thanks to the project were featured in a major BBC documentary in 2019.

Find out more

If you would like to support our work to revive our living planet alongside partners like Snowchange, please consider making a donation today.