Environmentalists and Sámi politicians hit out at new Arctic railway proposal

Businessman Peter Vesterbacka is running into widespread opposition to his latest plans to build a high speed rail link through Finnish Lapland to the Arctic Sea.

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Businessman Peter Vesterbacka (L) announces his Arctic railway project in Rovaniemi, 9th May 2019 / Credit: pvesterbacka Twitter

The environmental group Greenpeace, as well as Sámi politicians, have hit out at new plans to build a railway through Finnish Lapland to a port on Norway’s Arctic Sea coast.

Last week, Finnish businessman Peter Vesterbacka announced his own ambitious plans to open a high speed rail link for freight and passengers within five years.

This new plan comes after an official working group already advised the Finnish government that their own plans to build an Arctic rail link were not economically viable.

The main Sámi concerns are about how the railway will cut through reindeer grazing lands, inhibit herd movements and limit incomes, and potentially put an end to this traditional way of life altogether.

There are also wider cultural and environmental sensitivities about large-scale infrastructure projects in the pristine Lapland wilderness.

Peter Vesterbacka says that any problems or concerns can be ironed out through discussions.

“The effects of the railway are not a matter of discussion or interpretation. The Sámi are indigenous people who have the security of international law in their traditional industries” says Sini HarkkiGreenpeace Finland country manager, who says any Arctic railway would be against international human rights conventions.

“The Arctic railway would spoil the pasture areas important for reindeer herding, which, according to the reindeer herders, would damage the reindeer industry” Harkki adds.

Reaction from Finland’s Sámi community 

The backlash from Finland’s Sámi community has been overwhelmingly negative to Vesterbacka’s Arctic railway announcement.

The plan is opposed not just by the Sámi Parliament but also the Skolt Sámi Village Administration and a number of different Sámi associations.

President of the Sámi Parliament Tiina Sanila-Aikio says she “briefly discussed the matter” with Vesterbacka in Kirkenes a few months ago; but that “we haven’t officially discussed” the project, she adds.

The Business Secretary of the Sámi Parliament Sarita Kämäräinen reminds that the Sámi are not stakeholders in the Arctic railway, but rights holders, “whose status and rights are safeguarded by both national law and international law. Just talking to the Sámi is not enough” she says.

And the Sámi Parliamentary Youth Council released a statement which says the rights of the Sámi have been ignored, and is skeptical about Vesterbacka’s claim that part of the railway could be built below ground in a tunnel, or on tracks above traditional reindeer herding routes.

“What kind of tunnel or bridge did you think would fit a thousand reindeer on the other side of the track? Who organizes mental health care for those reindeer herders who are left idle by the narrowing of reindeer husbandry? Where do we fish when the industry that has brought the railway spoiled our fish?” the statement says.

“Vesterbacka reassures us that problems can be solved through discussions. The Sámi Parliamentary Youth Council notes that the Arctic railway is not a negotiating matter, which is confirmed by Finnish legislation”.

Peter Vesterbacka says no decisions have been made about the exact routes of his planned high speed rail link.

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