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Meet the scientist restoring Finland's peatlands

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Tero Mustonen knows a lot about peatlands. These are boggy wetlands that hold peat, a deposit of dead plants and other decayed organic material. Over the last century, Finland has lost many of its peatlands, and scientist Tero Mustonen has been leading the way to help restore his country's peatlands, teaming up with local Indigenous communities to do so. For that work, he received the Goldman Environmental Prize last month, and he joins us now to talk about his work. Welcome to the program.

TERO MUSTONEN: Thank you, Ayesha. It's a real pleasure to be here today.

RASCOE: How did you get interested in peatlands? I know you're a scientist, but has this always been an interest for you?

MUSTONEN: Yeah. Many of the Finns of my generation grew up next to a lake, fishing. Or in my case, my family was doing a lot of what we call household fishery. And in our lake systems, the peatlands act like filters. So they cleanse the waters, they are in the catchment area and so on. And I was born in the middle of 1970s. In the first part of my life I saw a very high water quality and great fish in our lakes. But then they started to mine these peatlands, and it really severely polluted the lake. And that's really where the motivation comes from.

RASCOE: So can you describe peatlands to someone who's never seen one? You say they're beside lakes a lot of times. You say they act as a filter. But what do they look like?

MUSTONEN: Yeah, you used to have them plenty in the U.S. as well, especially in the Great Lakes area. But here when you walk on a peatland, it's a very open space, sparsely populated with trees. The trees don't grow very tall. And it's very squishy.

RASCOE: Is it a, like, spongy, like, kind of mossy area, like, greenish, and then you walk on it, and it's just like a wide area of kind of, like, spongy, mossy land?

MUSTONEN: Well, it sounds. Like you have been on a peatland...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MUSTONEN: ...Even though you don't admit that.

RASCOE: So, I mean, restoring wetlands sounds like a really massive effort. How do you do it? How do you get new peatlands?

MUSTONEN: So after the war, Finland faced a really hard question in the sense that we had to pay our war debt to Russia, or Soviet Union at the time, in 1940s. And Finland doesn't have oil and gas. We don't have the kind of economic power that Norway, for example, has. And then the government decided, well, we have huge amount of peatlands, so let's use them for mining, for energy purposes and then for timber growth. Unfortunately, not all of those ditching programs produced any timber forests. They failed.

In our case, where I'm working for an organisation called Snowchange, and then we have this landscape rewilding program, we are restoring these peatlands. And it really depends on the damage that has been done. Some of those mining sites are like moonscapes. Nothing grows there. They are black all the way to the horizon, hundreds of square acres. And there we have to dig, essentially from scratch, new wetlands that start to then operate as a part of natural cycle. The other side of the coin is that if those peatlands have been ditched, we can then act faster. We block those ditches with something called micro dams, raise the waters, and the peatland may have a quicker recovery in those cases.

RASCOE: Why do this? Why is this so important to do?

MUSTONEN: In some ways, the peatlands are the second lungs of the planet. People may think of Amazonia, the Amazon and the rainforest, as a critically important area for climate or carbon cycle and so on. But actually, in the Subarctic and the Arctic, the peatlands are also drawing down carbon dioxide, and they are keeping this carbon on the ground. So they are very central in the fight against climate change. They are also very important for biodiversity. A lot of the birds will go there. And they're also beautiful landscape.

RASCOE: You know, as we mentioned, you received the Goldman Environmental Prize for your work restoring peatlands. How did it feel to be recognised?

MUSTONEN: We are living in a small village in the boreal Finland, surrounded by forests. So we are not the global superstars that usually get these huge recognitions. I'm of course extremely thankful for the prize, and it's never been given to Finland before. But this is not only me. There are hundreds of people in many villages through our work, including in Alaska - so we have been working in a place called Unalakleet, which is on the Bering Strait. They are also extremely aware - the Inupiaq people - about the changes in the Arctic, the loss of sea ice, coastal erosion, all these things. So I guess the idea that I have for the prize is that it's given for this whole community of villages that are really fighting for the planet.

RASCOE: That's scientist Tero Mustonen. Thanks for talking to us today, and congratulations on your award.

MUSTONEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.