Pirita Näkkäläjärvi Column: Three Reasons To Be Critical About The Planned Arctic Railway

Concerns over environmental impact, possible damage to culture and language, and how it might affect traditional reindeer herding, shape Sámi response to Arctic railway plan.

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Map showing route proposals for new Arctic Railway / Credit: Finnish Ministry of Transport & Communications

The Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications wants to build an Arctic railway line through the indigenous Sámi heartland in Northern Finland.

The Ministry recently announced that a railway routing from Rovaniemi to the Arctic Ocean via Inari and Kirkenes is the one to be examined further.

The Arctic railway is celebrated as a European project that would improve Finland’s logistical position, provide an alternative transport route for Finland’s imports and exports and improve the conditions for heavy industries and tourism in the area.

Studies commissioned by the Ministry however admit that with the current transport volume estimate, none of the Arctic railway alternatives is socio-economically feasible.

Furthermore, the studies lack an assessment of the impact on reindeer husbandry and the Sámi, the only recognised indigenous people in the EU area.

We clearly need to introduce a Sámi point of view to the planned Arctic railway in the public discussion.

1. Arctic railway would contribute to climate change.

For us, everything starts with the Arctic nature: fragile, precious, and the foundation for the Sámi languages and culture.

The first reason to be critical about the Arctic railway is climate change.

The rail line would directly contribute to climate change. Mikkel Näkkäläjärvi a Social Democrat member of the EU Committee of Regions points out that a group of Finnish business leaders publicly expressed their support to the Arctic railway, because the oil and gas reserves in the Barents Sea are twice the previous estimates.

I couldn’t agree more with my cousin Mikkel, as he says that if we want to combat climate change, we can’t increase and promote oil drilling especially in the Arctic area. It is also against the objectives of the Paris climate agreement.

  1. The Arctic railway would bring heavy infrastructure to the fragile Arctic nature.

The second reason to take a critical stance towards the rail line cutting through the Sámi lands is heavy infrastructure.

The planned Arctic railway would bring heavy infrastructure, power lines and service buildings for example along the northern shore of Lake Inari. Lake Inari is the third largest lake in Finland and an area where tourists come to enjoy the wonders of the Northern nature: silence, clean waters and unbuilt environment.

A railway would open the doors to other forms of landgrabbing too. The most worrying is the prospect of opening mines in the Sámi native region to pay for the socio-economically unfeasible Arctic railway and to increase its legitimacy.

The Arctic railway line might also run over priceless ancient Sámi remains. One of the examples is the River Nukkumajoki Inari Sámi winter village concentration close to the Inari village. The River Nukkumajoki winter villages inhabited since the 1500s are one of the most important remains of the ancient Inari Sámi cultural heritage.

  1. The Arctic railway would reduce grazing lands for reindeer.

The third reason to be worried about the Arctic railway is the connection between Sámi traditional livelihoods, all Sámi languages and the Sámi culture.

The traditional Sámi livelihoods are more than a job – they preserve and carry the Sámi languages and the culture from generation to generation. The Arctic railway would make it more difficult to continue the traditional livelihoods, like reindeer-herding.

The grazing lands for the reindeer have already been cut by competing land use such as logging, roads and construction. Building a railway through the reindeer herding cooperatives would further fragment, narrow and decrease the land needed by the reindeer.

Hundreds of reindeer would annually be run over by the trains on the Arctic railway. The Finnish Transport Agency has been reluctant to build fences along the railways at the southern part of the reindeer-herding district. A couple of years ago a representative of the Finnish Transport Agency told Yle that building fences is too expensive and they would cause damage. 

Any route would encroach on Sápmi

The Rovaniemi–Inari–Kirkenes route promoted by the Finnish and Norwegian Ministries of Transport and Communications would encroach on the lands of all the Sámi groups in Finland, including the small Skolt Sámi area around Lake Inari and the so-called forest reindeer-herding cooperatives of the Inari Sámi.

It is however important to remember that any of the alternative routes of the Arctic railway, whether running to Narvik, Tromsø, Kirkenes or Murmansk, would cut through Sápmi and the lands of the Sámi.

From the Sámi point of view, the development of other modes of transportation and logistics in the Arctic is the preferred choice to the Arctic railway.

Pirita Näkkäläjärvi is the 2017 recipient of the Sámi of the Year award. Originally from Inari, she was previously head of YLE’s Sámi-language news. Pirita now lives in Helsinki, and works as a consultant. Follow her on Twitter @biret