The winner of ”the green Nobel prize” Tero Mustonen saves the world hectare by hectare
Tero Mustonen is the first Finnish person to be awarded with the prize by the Goldman foundation based in San Francisco, US. Since April 2018, he has led the restoration of 85 severely degraded former industrial peat mining and forestry sites throughout Finland—totaling 52 000 hectares. As a result, the sites have transformed into productive, biodiverse wetlands and habitats.
Rather than boast about his achievements Mustonen concentrates on making change possible. The 200 000-dollar prize will be used for restoration work. Environmentalist and professional fisherman has clear dreams and concrete goals:
- Raising the appreciation of Finnish fish
- Acquiring and re-wilding calving sites for the wild forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus)
- Preventing the extinction of landlocked salmon (Salmo salar sebago) by re-wilding its spawning habitats
"Most Finnish people know the Saimaa ringed seal but not the landlocked salmon in Lake Saimaa. It is an endangered species that we aim to rescue."
The platform for advancing these goals is the cooperative Snowchange (Lumimuutos) whose founder and president Mustonen is. Apart from fishing professionally he teaches in the University of Eastern Finland.
Tacit learning from fantastic personalities
Snowchange has its roots in TAMK when Mustonen was one of the teachers in the degree programme of Environmental Engineering at the turn of the century.
“I had the opportunity to visit the UN climate negotiations in 1999. I called the then head of the programme, Marjukka Dyer, and suggested that TAMK would pay for my tickets and in return I would give a lecture series on the topic.”
Climate politics was the beginning of a five-year career in TAMK. As the head of the progamme was broadminded, it was possible to implement big ideas. Dyer’s specialization was water, but she was also a great humanist. At the time, TAMK had many engineering teachers who had taught in the preceding Institute of Technology (“Teku”). Mustonen calls them “engineers with a heart” and mentions Veikko Veneranta as an example.
“These great personalities had a deep sense of humour and were very personable. My pedagogy grew from their example. There were also students who eventually became teachers at TAMK, for example Eija Syrjämäki and Mika Nieminen.”
The Northern aspect was central to Mustonen’s work as a teacher. He would take the students into the Kauppi forest and to lake Näsijärvi. He encouraged the students to move onto their discomfort zone.
As part of his work, Mustonen coordinated the Northern Environment Student Forum (NESF). which was an international educational project. Among other things, it enabled students to travel to Canada and Russia.
To complement the NESF work, Mustonen founded Snowchange for scientific and research activities. The initial idea was to produce research material and conferences. Snowchange made it possible for environmental engineering students to interact with Nordic indigenous people and to make observations on the changes in the Nordic regions. Many students were also given a chance for an international internship within the projects.
The work did not go unnoticed. Snowchange was awarded the most significant Finnish prize for environmental efforts, the World Wildlife Fund Panda. When Mustonen left TAMK in 2004, he was given access to all the material collected in Snowchange at that point, and the organisation begun its actions as a cooperative. The work that had been carried out had created a useful research tool which is still in international use today.
“By combining the local knowledge of the Northern regions with science we gain a broader interpretation interface where the historical changes help us to understand the scale of the present changes.”
Snowchange broadened its activities, among other places into Siberia. Restoration – or re-wilding – became another important focus. It begun with case round river Jukajoki where peat production had destroyed the fish and the microfauna. During ten years, Snowchange was able to restore the river and the surrounding wetland so well that salmon returned to spawn in the area. A similar approach was adopted with other projects around Finland, and by spring 2023 some 52 000 hectares are being restored. It is this programme that was recongnised with the Goldman award. It is a fast and inexpensive way of bringing benefits to an area that has lost its biodiversity.
“This model emphasizes carrying out environmental protection together with the local people, not managing them from the capital city.”
At the heart Snowchange is valuing nature as it is. The reputation Snowchange has around the world is that of an action and solution oriented organisation. For this, Mustonen, gives credit also to the colleagues in TAMK.
“For me, the time in TAMK was about tacit learning, forming my world view. I am grateful for that. Nature is not something that can be merely measured, it is a wholistic experience. I was given the chance to take part in developing a strong and smart international approach.”
Behind the action resolute love for nature
Mustonen was born and grew up in Tampere but spent much of his time in the countryside. He soon became a brave citizen of the world when at the age of 17, inspired by his scout leader, he travelled to the USA to work as a wilderness guide near the Canadian border.
Fishing has always been part of Tero Mustonen’s life. This has made him aware of the transformation taking place in nature. The changes in the fish and the eutrophication in the lakes. In the 1980s, businesses could basically do what they wanted with land. There was no evaluation of the environmental effect s and hardly any restrictions.
“I grew up seeing how extracting peat destroyed the landscape and how biodiversity was lost.”
About one third of Finland is peatland. Draining and digging these areas release more carbondioxide into the atmosphere than burning coal.
“Now we have to correct mistakes made earlier. My driving force is love for nature. If there is a problem, let us fix it.”
It is Mustonen’s wish that in future especially the use of land would be given more attention.
“Our society has not addressed the issues of pollution caused by decades of drainage. At the moment nobody is in charge. We have 188 000 lakes in Finland and at least tens of thousands of them have been affected by the way we treat land.”
As a concrete measure he suggests agreements on land use.
“In this day and age, it is paramount to have agreements on how natural resources and land are used. Waterways and old growth forests defend us against climate changes. We must ensure total preservation of natural values. At the same time, the guidelines should honour the landowners.”
For Finnish city dwellers Mustonen has some suggestions on how they could reflect on their relationship with nature and how to help the environment.
“Only 5% of the forests in Finland are in a natural state. Finnish forests are mostly privately owned, and an increasing number of owners live in cities. So what are the values guiding the ownership? Is it important to get an income from them and how? The way you look after the forest makes a difference. It is worth studying methods of continuous cover growth and it is possible to get financial aid for protecting old growth forests.”
For young students Mustonen gives important advice for developing their relationship with nature.
“Get out there. Spend as much time outdoors throughout the year, both in your studies and in your free time. You can sleep during the lectures. The modern society too easily distances us from nature.”
When asked about his own personal relationship with nature that answer comes without hesitation.
The Goldman Environmental Prize recognizes environmental heroes from roughly the world’s six inhabited continental regions. Through acknowledging achievement and leadership shown on a grassroot level the foundation seeks to inspire all of us to work towards protecting our planet.
Text: Emmi Rämö
Translation: Taru Owston
Pictures: Goldman Environmental Prize