The Peat Monster

Finland's pristine environment has been ruined, activists say, by an out-of-control energy giant -- turning once pristine lakes into brown pools teeming with "monkey disease."

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

KUIVASJÄRVI VILLAGE, Finland — "I don’t know if you can spot it," says Tero Mustonen, pointing across the lake to where two small, rocky islands break from a clean stripe of Scots pine edging the shore. "The one on the right is the dream island." In front of the dream island, a swan lifts and lowers its wings.

On Kuivasjärvi, a lake in western Finland that’s two hours’ drive from the nearest major city and eight hours by bus from Helsinki, it doesn’t seem strange to find a dream island — a mystical place, Mustonen says, "where the other side and this side meet." Until a highway was built here in the 1960s, the region around Kuivasjärvi was largely isolated, and it remains a rich node of traditional Finnish culture. There are legends about spirits traveling across the lake in winter; fishermen predict storms based on the spots on pike liver; and local Tapio Kalli and his wife Pirjo serve birch tea at their house, meant to cure everything from the common cold to cancer.

But Kuivasjärvi has also endured immense changes since modernity arrived, bringing not only the highway but also new, disruptive industry. As Mustonen rows, the water churning around his oar blades looks like foaming root beer. The lake, which used to be clear, has turned opaque and brown from sediment. Kalli, sitting in the stern of the boat, says villagers have a new name for what happens after you swim in Kuivasjärvi: "monkey disease," because you scratch so much. In the summer of 2013, an algae bloom covered the lake with a frothy green scum.

Kuivasjärvi is one of many waterways in Finland — "tens of rivers and hundreds of lakes," estimates scientist Raimo Heikkila of the Finnish Environment Institute — that have been affected by the whole-scale draining of marshes for peat production. This process helped drive Finland’s extremely rapid post-World War II modernization, but it also left long-term environmental scars. For years, most Finns, especially in rural areas, viewed the benefits of industry as outweighing the costs. Finns generally have always cared less about the environment than their European neighbors; in a 2011 Eurobarometer poll, Finns said protecting the environment was "very important" only 44 percent of the time — compared with Swedes at 83 percent and Danes at 60 percent.

Recently, however, as climate change has brought environmental issues to the fore, more and more Finns from both town and country are coming out against polluting industries. Local groups have launched a series of challenges against the main Finnish peat producer, VAPO, and the government has placed some new restrictions on the company. Mustonen, who has fished in Kuivasjärvi for most of his life and has been pursuing legal action against VAPO elsewhere in the country, represents this new, more indigenous approach to fighting industry. The result, he thinks, could be a "revolution," not just in Finland’s ecology but in its people’s psychology as well. "The traditional mind can’t be separated from a healthy ecosystem," he told me. "If 95 percent of the lakes are gone and the forest is gone, it means 95 percent of our traditional mind is gone. But if we [restore] them, amazing things are coming back."

* * *

The modern Finnish environmental movement was born at another lake: Koijärvi ("järvi" means "lake" in Finnish), in the country’s southwest. In 1979, a group of farmers who owned a large area of the lake attempted to lower its waters in order to expand their fields. But Koijärvi was an important site for migrating birds, and when the draining began, a group of young people, mostly from Helsinki, camped out by the lake, dammed up the drainage ditch, and chained themselves to the farmers’ bulldozers. They were arrested and fined, but their actions eventually led to the formation of Finland’s Green League, a national political party.

The Koijärvi activists, although they worked with a handful of locals, were distinctly outsiders in rural Finland. Finland has been particularly, and often bitterly, divided on the question of who owns the land — farmers, industrialists, summer people, environmentalists? — ever since World War II. The years around the war in Finland marked a period of destabilizing migration, when more than 13,000 people were leaving the countryside annually, according to Matti Saari of Statistics Finland, a public agency. The peat and timber industries provided jobs in the countryside and supported the rapidly growing Finnish economy. Finland has relied heavily on timber-related exports since the end of the 19th century, and it survived the oil crisis in the 1970s by ramping up peat production through its state-run energy company, VAPO (a Finnish acronym for "State Fuel Office").

But these industries also wreaked widespread environmental devastation. The stark loss of natural habitats required to farm timber and extract peat — nearly all of Finland’s old-growth forests and 5 million hectares of marshlands — has caused serious damage to biodiversity. According to the academic and NGO collective Biodiversity Finland, 814 forest species are threatened due to timber activities. The clear-cutting, ditch-draining, and harvesting that occurs in the process of peat extraction sends organic substances and chemicals flowing into waterways and creates the kind of silty brown water quality that can be seen at Kuivasjärvi. These organic deposits, which can build to a thick, muddy plug on a lake’s bottom, encourage certain species, such as algae, to flourish, while discouraging others, such as fish that spawn on a sandy or gravelly underwater surface. Although VAPO has put water-quality safeguards in place over the years, many activists and scientists say they are not sufficient. Runoff from peat sites can increase tenfold during a rainstorm, says Heikki Simola, an environmental scientist specializing in peat at the University of Eastern Finland. "Nobody’s aware of the true impact," he adds.

In rural areas that were left marginalized after the postwar migrations, Finns have tended to be less concerned about the environmental impact of industries like peat. The Finns and Centre political parties, historically the most vocal in favor of the peat and timber industries, find their strongest support in the countryside, whereas the Green League’s base is urban. A 2012 study published in Ecology and Society showed that the Finns most likely to support peatland conservation were the ones least likely to have childhood homes near marshes. Those who lived closer were more likely to be connected to peat through work and more likely to support the industrial development of peatlands. "I think in Finland the ordinary people trust the government," Simola says. "They have taken up the argument that peatlands must be utilized and … that the environmental problems are sort of marginal, compared with the economic benefit."

Recently, though, there have been signs of a shift in how all Finns view peat. This is in part due to a greater attention to climate change. Peat has extremely high carbon emissions — higher even than coal — and the draining of marshes devastates their valuable ability to act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As Finland attempts to meet its European Union targets for renewable energy by 2020 — reaching for 38 percent, up from 29.2 percent in 2004 — it is gradually weaning itself off of peat (which currently makes up about 6 percent of the country’s total energy consumption) and leaning more on other biomass sources as well as a controversial nuclear energy program. The Finnish government now has only 50.1 percent ownership of VAPO, but the company has long been extremely sheltered in terms of subsidies and tax benefits.* But the government recently abolished subsidies, started taxing peat at a higher rate in 2013, and, according to anecdotal reports, has been issuing fewer permits to open new marshlands for peat-mining. (Tensions with Russia, however, could help return peat — a domestic energy source, as opposed to imported Russian natural gas, oil, and coal — to a more favored state.)

At the same time, VAPO is getting prodded and poked by ordinary Finns across the country. Often, these are people who only spend time in rural areas in the summer, yet witness their lakes turning black and eutrophicated and feel a responsibility to help. For instance, Iiro Viinanen, a minister of finance in the 1990s under the center-right National Coalition Party, began speaking out last year against the peat industry’s powerful lobby after seeing damages from peat extraction at Lake Puula, where he has a summer cottage. Mikko Saikku, a University of Helsinki environmental historian, was similarly galvanized to act by the threat of a VAPO development site near his fishing and birding cabin in the Saarijärvi catchment area in central Finland. Along with local groups and birding organizations, he is now a plaintiff in a legal case against VAPO that is currently in the country’s Supreme Administrative Court.

Locals in rural areas, traditionally more reluctant to speak out against industry, are also becoming more vocal opponents of peat. "This is the first time that local people have gotten involved in this sort of thing," Saikku says, "because they can see the damage." In 2011, local groups in Liesjärvi, an area with a national park where VAPO had been extracting peat since the 1980s and where the lake had become silty and eutrophicated, took VAPO to the Supreme Administrative Court, too. The court declared the company responsible and ordered it to begin limited restoration efforts.

* * *

Tero Mustonen splits the difference between outsider and local. A gruff, bearish man with close-cropped brown hair and very thick-lensed wire frames covering his pale-blue eyes, Mustonen is an internationally recognized academic and activist. His nonprofit Snowchange works with indigenous groups, mostly in the Arctic — Sami reindeer herders, Siberian nomads — gathering oral histories about how climate change and environmental damage have affected their communities and then advocating for the importance of that traditional knowledge to Western scientists and policymakers. With a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of Eastern Finland, Mustonen has contributed to U.N. and Arctic Council reports on traditional understandings of climate. But he is also deeply entrenched in Finnish culture and a dedicated fisherman, spending most of the year in Karelia, in the eastern part of the country, where he lives without electricity or running water, and part of the summer in his family’s small cabin on the shore of Kuivasjärvi. As Henry Huntington, a researcher for the Pew Charitable Trusts who studies indigenous adaptation to climate change in Alaska, explains, "Tero is one of the few guys who is [studying traditional knowledge] in his own community. Most of the rest of us get on a plane and go somewhere else."

In 2010, all the fish in Mustonen’s Karelian river, not far from a VAPO peat production site, went belly-up. He launched a series of cases in administrative courts to force VAPO to take responsibility. Most recently, in June, he filed an appeal in a district administrative court to overturn a regional court’s decision in favor of VAPO. Defending the company in an interview, Ahti Martikainen, a VAPO spokesman, cites the initial police report, which blamed naturally acidic soil conditions for the fish deaths, and listed a number of steps VAPO has taken to prevent any potential other damage from their local peat fields, including increased monitoring, structural alterations, and diminished production. "The company takes its environmental responsibilities … extremely seriously," he says. Yet Simola, who provided testimony in the case, says that while acidic soil created more unstable pH conditions, peat was an intensifying factor. "The ongoing peat extraction is currently — I believe — the biggest activity increasing the [naturally occurring] acidity pulses," Simola says.

The Karelian case was well covered in the Finnish media, and after Kuivasjärvi filled with algae blooms in 2013, Kalli, a fisherman who had known Mustonen for years, asked him for help. With Snowchange providing "scientific support," Kalli formed what they are calling a "People’s Movement" to meet with local VAPO representatives, begin repairing the lake, and sponsor scientists to take measurements of the damage, including the presence of organic silt and peat fibers in the water. An important part of the work in both Karelia and Kuivasjärvi has been assembling oral histories — that is, collecting the fishermen’s knowledge of the watershed. Mustonen has used information about important spawning and harvesting sites and mapping data about where bank erosion has been particularly bad to help focus restoration efforts. He is also using some information about pollution in Kuivasjärvi to supplement his suit against VAPO in Karelia. He says the information will be even more important when — as he expects — either he or VAPO appeals the results of the pending decision to the Supreme Administrative Court sometime next year. The goal is to get VAPO to pay for the restoration activities that Kalli and other fishermen have already started at Kuivasjärvi, which include monitoring bird species and filtering runoff that they fear may be preventing pikeperch from spawning.

Because of his prominence as a media figure on indigenous issues — his name appears regularly in Finnish-language papers — Mustonen thinks that regardless of the outcome of the case, it will represent a victory for both urban and rural dwellers who are seeking to preserve Finnish heritage and a strong connection to a healthy environment. "Even if they completely break us, which is very likely, the media attention and the statements the court has to make about traditional knowledge … will be so immense that it’s a benchmark," he says. "We have already won on many levels."

* * *

Mustonen’s battle, in the long term, is to preserve Kalli and other fishermen’s way of life — not merely from VAPO’s peat development but also from a country that is changing rapidly around them. As well as pointing out environmental damage in Kuivasjärvi, Kalli and Mustonen offer a fishing demonstration. Kimmo Myllyniem, a fisherman from the village, and his young son wait on the lake in their rowboat, enduring the drizzle in their head-to-toe rainsuits. They pull in a seine net, a series of fish traps arranged in a cone, so that fish are guided from the largest trap into the smallest and cannot escape.

There is no obvious purpose for revitalizing seining at Kuivasjärvi, where until this summer it had not been practiced for decades, Mustonen explains. But ensuring that the ancient technique is passed on to a new generation is still absolutely crucial to him and the other Kuivasjärvi fishermen. "Far more important" than the court cases, Mustonen says, "was that there was a young boy on the lake this summer catching common bream and northern pike and pikeperch in a fish trap for the first time in 40 years."

*Clarification, Oct. 15, 2014: This article originally stated that VAPO was no longer government owned. The company is owned jointly by the state of Finland and Metsäliitto Group, with the government controlling 50.1 percent. (Return to reading.)

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor and columnist for Washingtonian magazine, as well as a freelancer for the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and Elle. Previously, she was an editor at Foreign Policy, where she oversaw the magazine’s culture section. Twitter: @brittkpeterson