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Arctic Railway project to Norway through Sámi territory, Finland

The Arctic Railway would run through traditional Sámi territory between Rovaniemi in Finland to Kirkenes in Norway. It is resisted by Sámi communities and Greenpeace.


The Arctic region is witnessing the effects of climate change most dramatically. New shipping routes are opening up, natural resources are increasingly accessible for exploitation, while the tourism industry is growing [1]. This has made Finland and the Arctic region subject to increasing interest from investors, environmentalists, states and various actors from around the world. Finland held  the Presidency of the Council of the EU (1st of July – 31st of December 2019), and  apparently  made sustainable Arctic policy and climate change mitigation a key priority of its presidency [2]. While Finland promoted its role in the transition of the Arctic within a framework of sustainable development, stability and respect for the environment, the country simultaneously engaged in efforts to exploit the economic opportunities emerging in the Arctic region [3]. The so-called Arctic Railway project, which would connect Finland to the Arctic Ocean by creating an ‘Arctic Corridor’, is part of this plan as it will improve Finland’s transport capacity, logistical position and accessibility [4]. It will do so primarily by enabling easier access to the increasingly ice-free Northern Sea Route, while also facilitating tourism development in the Arctic region, according to the Finnish Transport Agency [4]. Previously proposed by the Finnish government but abandoned for economic reasons in February 2019, the railway project was revived privately by Finnish multi-billionaire entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka in May 2019 [5]. The economic potential for future exploitation of the Arctic region and the opening up of new cost-effective Arctic trade routes make up the strategic importance of the Arctic Railway project, which will connect Asia with the Baltic Sea Region and Europe [1]. The railway would thus enable Finland and Norway to take advantage of melting Arctic ice in the Northeast passage, creating what has been described as “the missing link in a new frontier of global trade” [1, 6]. Next to the problematic environmental risks, the large-scale infrastructure project risks a continuation of colonial legacies impacting the Indigenous Sámi peoples home to the Sápmi region (also referred to as Lapland), which stretches across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia [6]. Sámi livelihoods, culture and identity is closely linked to the land and traditional reindeer herding, which will be negatively impacted by the proposed Arctic Railway project [7,8]   

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Arctic Railway project to Norway through Sámi territory, Finland
State or province:Sápmi land (Lappland, Finnmark)
Location of conflict:Rovaniemi, Finland to Kirkenes, Norway
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Specific commodities:Transport of minerals, fish products, forestry products and other natural resources and goods
Tourism services
Project Details and Actors
Project details

According to the final report of the joint Finnish-Norwegian working group in February 2019, cargo to be transported on the Arctic Railway would primarily include minerals, fish products, raw timber and processed forestry products [9]. Potential cargo would also include the natural resources of the Barents Region and other products that may be shipped through the Northeast Passage in the future [9]. Several route options were investigated by the previous Finnish-Norwegian working group, all of which would have to run either on the eastern or western side of Lake Inari, cutting through reindeer pastures and migration patterns [8]. The route that was proposed as the best option from Rovaniemi to Kirkenes via Sodankylä covers a total distance of 465km [20]. Costs of the project were estimated to lie at around €3 billion (around 3.3 billion USD) while the project was still investigated by the Finnish-Norwegian public working group [20]. However, their final report concluded that the railway line would have to transport 2.4 million tonnes of freight a year in order to make up for maintenance costs, which was regarded unfeasible unless significant changes to the region’s economy were made [20].

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Level of Investment for the conflictive project3,325,980,000.00
Type of populationSemi-urban
Start of the conflict:2017
Company names or state enterprises:Finest Bay Area Development Oy from Finland - Project leader
Sør-Varanger Utvikling from Norway - Project co-leader
Relevant government
The Sámi Council
Suohpanterror ‘Artivist’ collective
Suoma Sámi Nuorat (Sámi youth organisation)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if
The Sámi Council
Suohpanterror ‘Artivist’ collective
Suoma Sámi Nuorat (Sámi youth organisation)
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Multiple Sámi communities (supported by representatives from the Pukatawagan Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada and Maori representatives from New Zealand)
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsPotential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsAccidents and deaths related to reindeer herds
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusProposed (exploration phase)
Conflict outcome / response:Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
Proposal and development of alternatives:The entrepreneur Vesterbacka now behind the project has suggested the possibility of routing the train tracks underground or on stilts to minimise impacts on reindeer herding, however these suggestions remain speculative at this stage [10, 5].

The Sámi Council and Sámi Parliaments of Norway and Sweden have opposed the project, saying that any proposed route will incur serious impacts on the natural environment and Sámi livelihoods, culture and identity.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Up until May 2019, the Finnish government’s decision to set aside the Arctic Railway project and the international attention gained for the rights of the indigenous Sámi population together could have been considered an environmental justice success. While the decision not to pursue the project for the time being was primarily economic-driven, it was met with relief and pride in creating awareness of Sámi voices together with the Greenpeace campaign and Indigenous voices from around the world [10].

However, while the project was being investigated by the Finnish-Norwegian working group, its decision-making process posed serious procedural justice issues, which lead the Sámi Council to issue a statement emphasising the obligations of the Finnish and Norwegian governments to acquire the free, prior and informed consent of the Sámi people [8]. The disregard of the Sámi Council’s opposition to the project in the most recent decision by entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka to privately revive the project continues to reveal serious environmental justice issues. While statements made by Vesterbacka show an intent to take all stakeholders’ views into account and engage in dialogue with the Sámi regarding the project [10], it remains to be seen to what extent this will be honoured as the project unfolds. Statements made by Vesterbacka that Sámi opposition to the Arctic Railway has been based ‘radicalised’ and based on ‘emotional’ rather than rational grounds [10] indicates issues around recognition and respect of Sámi voices.
Sources & Materials

[2] EU2019FI (n.d.) ‘Arctic policy: importance of the Arctic is growing.’ Website of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
[click to view]

[3] Prime Minister’s Office, Finland (2017) ‘Action plan for the update of the arctic strategy.’ The Governments strategy session, 27/03/17.
[click to view]

[6] Laiti, J. (2018) ‘On track for disaster — how the Arctic Railway will affect you and the climate.’ Greenpeace Stories, 31/10/18.
[click to view]

[7] Seurujärvi, J. (2019) ‘Cutting through this forest means destroying our past, our future, and our identity.’ Greenpeace Stories, 28/02/19.
[click to view]

[8] Saami Council (2018) ‘Statement on the Arctic Railway.’ 23/09/18.
[click to view]

[10] Quinn, E. (2019) ‘The Arctic Railway.’ The Barents Observer, Eye on the Arctic, 19/09/19.
[click to view]

[11] Nilsen, T. (2019) ‘Arctic railway not commercially viable, report says.’ Arctic Today, by reporter from The Independent Barents Observer, 11/02/19.
[click to view]

[12] Finest Bay Area Development Oy (2019) ‘Press Release: Agreement on Arctic Railway Planning and Implementation.’ Press release 09/05/19.
[click to view]

[13] Dickie, G. (2019) ‘A Proposed Railway in the Arctic Has Investors Excited—and Indigenous Groups Terrified.’ Pacific Standard, 05/06/19.
[click to view]

[14] Greenpeace International (2018) ‘Industrial railway line and logging threaten the Sámi homeland.’ Press release, 05/09/19.
[click to view]

[15] Kölmel, O. (2018) ‘The Impacts of Logging in the Great Northern Forest.’ Publication, 04/07/18.
[click to view]

[16] Ministry of Transportation and Communications (2018) ‘Study on the Arctic rail line completed: Kirkenes routing to be examined further.’ 09/03/18.
[click to view]

[17] Greenpeace (2019) ‘Building the Arctic Railway would be violation of human rights - Greenpeace stands with Sámi communities.’ Greenpeace statement, 10/05/19.
[click to view]

[18] Yle News (22/05/19) ‘Sámi youth group protests proposed Arctic Railway.’
[click to view]

[19] Virki, T. (2019) ‘Finland-Norway rail link planned to fit Arctic sea routes.’ Reuters, 09/05/19.
[click to view]

[20] Railway Gazette International (2019) ‘Arctic Ocean railway plan put on ice.’ 20/02/19.
[click to view]

Nilsen, T. (2018) ‘Sámi Council: Railway to Arctic Ocean will have major negative consequences for reindeer husbandry.’ The Barents Observer, 24/09/18.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Louisa Mathies, EJ Atlas, ICTA-UAB
Last update05/12/2019
Conflict ID:4823
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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