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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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]
The possibility of an Arctic Ocean Railway first emerged 2013 in relation to the transportation needs of the Finnish mining industry, but was officially proposed by the Finnish government in 2017 and gained traction under the country’s recent Arctic Council chairmanship (2017-2019) [9, 10]. In June of that year, the Finnish Transport Agency (Väylä) and Norwegian Railway Directorate (Jernbanedirektoratet) collaborated on a feasibility study of the project which was due February 2018 . Initial negotiations were held with the Sámi Parliaments in Norway and Finland in January 2018, and the report concluded that further involvement and consultation with the Sámi would be needed in any future process on the railway project . In September 2018, following the decision to proceed with investigations into the Arctic Railway project, the Sámi Council, an organisation promoting the rights and interests of traditional Sámi people, released a statement concluding that the Arctic Railway project would have major negative impacts on reindeer herding Sámi communities in the area . Earlier that month, protests against the project took place and a dialogue meeting was held in Inari on September 21st 2019 with representatives of the affected communities, Sámi organisations, the Parliaments of Finland, Norway and Sweden and other stakeholders . Finally, the final report of the joint working group between Finland and Norway on the Arctic Railway was released in February 2019, stating that the project had been evaluated as economically unfeasible, and with it the project was put on hold [9,11]. The latest development in the project followed only a few months after in May 2019, when Finnish multi-billionaire Peter Vesterbacka announced the intent of Finest Bay Area Development Oy to revive the project . Represented by Vesterbacka, the Finnish company thus signed a memorandum of understanding with the Norwegian development company Sør-Varanger Utvikling to look into building the large-scale infrastructure project . With this, Vesterbacka put forward his vision of the Arctic railway as part of a new transport route between Europe and Asia that includes the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel, a large tunnelling project lead by the same company in collaboration with Chinese investors . With these two large-scale infrastructure projects, Vesterbacka’s intention is to transform the Northern region into an economic and transportation hub to “enable future growth and enable more well-being and happiness” . The company’s press release announced that the idea is to incentivise international investment in the project similar to the procedure followed in the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel project, and does not directly address the impacts of the railway on the Sámi population . Furthermore, members of the Sámi community expressed that they were surprised by the announcement, raising procedural justice concerns in the project’s consultation process . At the same time, Vesterbacka claimed to have contacted members of the Sámi community about the revival of the project and aims to make discussions more inclusive and transparent .
The building of the Arctic Railway risks harmfully impacting the Indigenous Sámi people and traditional reindeer herding in the Sápmi region through the loss of cultural traits, loss of livelihoods and land dispossession [6,7]. The railway would cut through through traditional reindeer pastures and migration patterns, preventing reindeer from wandering freely and accessing freshwater and food supplies and putting them at risk of collision, which would consequently have harmful impacts on the Sámi communities dependent on livelihoods from reindeer herding . Other traditional land practices and livelihoods such as hunting, fishing and gathering would also be impacted, according to the Sámi Council . Jenni Laiti, a Sámi artist and activist, voiced that the industrialisation of traditional territory would have a severe impact on Sámi identity, lifestyle and spirit which is intertwined with the land . While the railway project was still lead by the Finnish and Norwegian governments, the Sámi Council officially opposed the project and voiced that a failure to take Sámi rights and voices adequately into account in the decision-making process would be a breach of international law . Jussa Seurujärvi, a reindeer herder in Sápmi who is part of the Muddusjärvi reindeer herding cooperative, summarises the potential impacts of the Arctic Railway as a “continuation of the colonisation that the Sámi have been suffering from for centuries across the borders in the northernmost area of Europe” . In his response to Sámi concerns with the railway project, the new project leader Vesterbacka has claimed that Sámi have been “radicalized” and their responses to the Arctic railway have been an “emotional” issue, while Sámi argue that there are already many existing pressures on their communities and that this is not a solely emotion-driven opposition .
The Sámi community has warned of the potential cumulative effects of the railway on the natural environment in the Sápmi region, alongside other industrial development impacts such as waters and rivers blocked by hydro-power, wind farms and power lines occupying grazing areas, forestry, extractive industries as well as military presence, which are all infringing on Sámi land use . Alongside the railway itself, professor Tero Mustonen from the University of Eastern Finland points out that a service road would need to be constructed along the railway . The building of the railway infrastructure would include blasting rock, cutting trees and moving debris, which would result in highly negative effects on groundwater, wetlands and fish, according to the professor . As the largest single industrial action ever taken in Lapland (Sápmi region), the Arctic Railway infrastructure would further facilitate industrial development and intensified resource extraction in the region [13, 14]. This includes the transport of oil and other industrial materials such as pulp and single use paper product shipments around the world . The railway poses the danger of accelerating climate change in particular by creating more logging opportunities in the Great Northern Forest, a boreal forest landscape which stretches across the subarctic circle and makes up almost a third of the forest on Earth . As this forest area is the largest terrestrial carbon storage on earth, a crucial haven of biodiversity and plays a significant role in keeping weather extremes at bay, logging in the high Northern latitudes is particularly harmful . The region’s wilderness and extensive natural value would be threatened particularly given that changes in the sensitive Arctic ecosystems risks resulting in longer-lasting effects than in southern natural environments . While impacts on the environment, livelihood and culture of the Sámi were recognised by the Finnish Transport Agency during initial studies, it was concluded that further studies had to be conducted into the exact consequences of the railway . At the same time however, the final report of the Finnish-Norwegian working group suggested that the railway would have a positive impact on the environment in the long-term as a low-carbon mode of transport of goods and passengers .
The proposed Arctic Railway Project has been met with much resistance from the Indigenous Sámi peoples, backed by the global environmental organisation Greenpeace. Already in 2013, Greenpeace and the Sámi community established a collaboration to reduce industrial logging of the Great Northern Forest, and since 2018 have mobilised against the Arctic Railway project together . During September 2018, the Sámi youth organisation ‘Suoma Sámi Nuorat’, the Suohpanterror ‘Artivist’ collective and Greenpeace activists demonstrated for several days against the Arctic railway and the past, present and future exploitation of the Great Northern Forest in Sápmi territory . Protesters marked protected boundaries with red poles and banners with statements such as ‘Our Land Our Future’ and ‘No Access Without Consent’ across four different locations along the proposed railway line . Representatives of Canadian First Nations and of the Maori community of New Zealand took part in the demonstrations in solidarity with the Sámi to show that Indigenous peoples from across the world are joining together for a common cause . A representative from the Pukatawagan Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada, made a statement highlighting the parallels between the struggles that Indigenous peoples are faced with worldwide and criticised the Finnish government, a signatory of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for their intent to build a “massive free trade corridor without acquiring the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the Sámi [as] both ethically bankrupt and illegal” . A Greenpeace petition led by representatives of the Sámi has attracted over 10.000 supporters . Most recently, following the news of the attempt to privately revive the Arctic Railway project, a Sámi youth group gathered for a demonstration in front of the House of Estates in Helsinki on the 22nd of May 2019, demanding that the government drop plans to support the Arctic Railway project . Statements saying that the project is not accepted by Sámi communities were also reissued by the Finnish Sámi Parliament and Youth Council following Vesterbacka’s revival of the project .
With the Memorandum of Understanding signed in May 2019, Finnish Finest Bay Area Development Oy and Norwegian Sør-Varanger Utvikling have agreed to investigate how to build the railway and what the potential environmental, societal and economic impacts will be . It remains to be seen how the project will unfold and if and how the companies will acquire the free, prior and informed consent of the Sámi.(See less)