Rewilding Indigenous Knowledge for Environmental Conservation

Climate Change – Snowchange and the Landscape Rewilding Programme have partnered to secure Kivisuo, a biodiversity hotspot in Finland.
Snowchange and the Landscape Rewilding Programme have partnered to secure Kivisuo, a biodiversity hotspot in Finland. | Photo (detail): Mika Honkalinna © Snowchange

Our planetary ecology and climate are being wrecked. As many scholars have pointed out, it is the result of the global plunder and misuse of resources over decades and centuries that has led humanity to its present crisis. Although the era of the big society creates opportunities for a concerted approach to resource management and environmental protection, the implementation is not easy. We also need to address equity and colonialism of conservation in order to have a new working solution.

By Tero Mustonen

Whilst the icons of nature protection – for example pandas, polar bears and rainforests – are in the minds of many people as a solution to the environmental degradation, not everybody knows that these conservation practices and topics have a very colonial history.
 
The oldest “national” park in the USA, Yellowstone, was set aside to protect “primal and pristine nature” whilst industrial revolution was unleashed in the American West in 1800s. Indigenous Assiniboine, Blackfeet, Crow and Sioux as well as other nations had owned and used the park space centuries before the establishment of Yellowstone, but they were removed forcefully when the park was created.
 
Similarly, the Indigenous Maasai traditionally inhabited Serengeti, the world-famous conservation area in Tanzania, before the British Colonial Administration evicted them and created a park there. In September 2020, Celimpilo Mdluli, a Zulu small-scale fisherman, was shot dead at the iSimangaliso World Heritage area in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for “poaching” whilst his community of Nibela is in fact the traditional owner and has rights to harvest in the area.
 
In order to address the planetary crisis, we need to solve such complex issues on an unprecedented scale and in new ways that address past (and present, as is the case with Mr. Mdluli’s death) issues of equity in conservation.
 
Snowchange Cooperative, based in Finland, is a network of traditional and Indigenous communities in the boreal and the Arctic. We launched the Landscape Rewilding Programme, an ambitious and far reaching solution to these issues back in 2018 with the European Investment Bank and Rewilding Europe (Netherlands).
 
In the Landscape Rewilding Programme we have based our approach on the understanding that if we wish to see the change needed in the world, we need to address three key issues: First and foremost, conservation and restoration have to be done differently. Therefore, Snowchange is braiding Indigenous and traditional knowledge with science in our landscape rewilding actions, for example, in creating ecological baseline information, monitoring data and most importantly, by embracing the wisdom present in the communities. We realize the rights of the communities through collaborative research and by creating ranger programmes and co-management on our actions. Second, Restoration and rewilding cannot replace the need to protect pristine core areas if they still exist. We need to find solutions on how the central preserved areas of biodiversity and carbon sinks can be secured by building on the knowledge and traditional governance of Indigenous communities.

Last but not least must be clarified: No more land is being created. Therefore, the safe havens for biodiversity and carbon solutions need to be established through what we call “rewilding”. These are landscape-level actions that nurture degraded habitats back to life using traditional knowledge and science. Whilst communities need to be guiding this process, some of the early results on our sites, such as on the Linnunsuo (Marshmire of Birds) wetland, are astounding – a comeback of over 195 bird species and a pathway to a carbon sink that prevents over 900,000 kilograms of annual new C02 releases.

Indigenous Knowledge as Precious Resource

Across Finland, we have welcomed the role of traditional knowledge, found in the villages, in understanding what and how things have changed. We link this with restoration science and actions on the ground to get to a new understanding of all aspects of past damages and previous ecological baselines before ultimately striving towards the best possible result in rewilding.
 
We cannot pretend that rewilding sites are pristine post-Ice Age primary habitats. However, it seems there are many quantifiable actions that can alleviate the negative impact of climate change on biodiversity.
 
In concrete ways, we have detected that some of our sites, after rewilding, prevent the release of 900,000 kg of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere annually. Prior to rewilding the Linnunsuo peatland site in Eastern Finland was a home of two or three bird species. Today close to 200 bird species inhabit this site. The monitoring and management actions also apply traditional knowledge to determine the numbers and qualities of the birds and other life-forms returning to these sites.
 
On Vainosjoki, a Skolt Sámi river, the Sámi coordinator Pauliina Feodoroff has led a number of teams to restore an Arctic river and a new home of trout and graylings. The work began in 2013  when the Sámi informed Snowchange science staff that the whole river course had been altered back in 1969-1972 by the government (reasons for the alterations vary in definitions – including a “new boat route” or an employment project in villages with high levels of unemployment).
 
Nevertheless, the original hydrology and spawning areas of salmonid fish, including graylings and trouts, were lost in the process 50 years ago. Between 2013 and 2017, scientists and Sámi elders reconstructed the original location of stones, spawning areas and the course of the river. Then, between 2017 and 2020, Snowchange local Sámi teams rewilded and restored the whole river, of five kilometres. Most of the work was done by hand, with shovels and manual labour.

Humans and Nature: Parts of the Same System

Early results indicate that trouts and graylings have accepted the spawning areas, and are re-discovering their range from 1968. This is an important example and action against losses under climate change in many ways. First, cold-water dependent fishes have more time and space in the restored habitats. Secondly, the Vainosjoki work proved that things can be restored and there is a new life to the “lost” habitats if Indigenous knowledge and science work together for new solutions to protect ecosystems. Thirdly, the restoration work contributed to Sámi identity, self-esteem and employment – it was important for the villagers to see that damages can end, there is a new beginning and nature herself is also accepting rewilding actions if guided by the original peoples of the land – the Sámi. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, a UN body that determines the level of climate change and its impact globally, also supports the inclusion of Indigenous and local knowledge in dealing with the impact of climate change.
 
It is important to bring the voices of the most heavily affected – the Indigenous and local communities – to the heart of the UN climate processes, and advance the understanding that humans and nature need not be enemies – they are actually parts of the same system – we as a global society have just forgotten this message for the most part.
 
The future is not all that gloomy - the Landscape Rewilding Programme has in just over two years been able to purchase and start to rewild Finnish and Sámi peatlands, forests, rivers and lakes and restore over 26,000 hectares in a cost-effective manner. We are now in a position to bring the change we want in a manner that we can sustain.