Let the river run free

A story of valoisa2the book "Woman in a Northern Landscape"

"I do not accept it.
It makes me angry."

There are pictures of the riverbank in her sittingroom, lots of pictures. From autumn, winter, summertime, - pictures with enormous forests and smooth waters, where the marsh marigold bloom in strong, yellow colours when the early summer sun caresses the riverbank.

There are also newspaper-clippings in thick books, all of them about water and the politics of water. The articles focus on laws, the discussions and plans of new dam buildings and power station constructions. All of them are about Lapland where she was born.

Daily she works as a doctor in the small city of Kemijärvi. But her heart is always somewhere along the banks of the river. Her name is Helena Tiihonen.

When I was a high school student in Sodankylä, the Kemijoki Company started building the Lokka and some years later the Porttipahta reservoirs, and six hundred people had to move away from their homes. But nobody talked about it.

Some of my friends at school came from the area, but there were no discussions, no protests, no fighting at all. It was not an issue. That was Finland, 1967.

They paid people money to leave their land, it was called "a compensation". But what is money after all, compared to the work of many generations? People left their land, their forest, their homes, and many of them got very bitter. Some families moved to Sweden or Norway, they could not live in Finland any longer.


Two years earlier they had started the regulation of the Lake Kemijärvi, a natural lake. The water in Lake Kemijärvi and the River Kemijoki was so low in winter that the river almost froze in the shallow parts. There was a spring flood and this created a big block of ice south of Pelkosenniemi - the village was nearly covered by water.

There was great damage and a lot of bitterness directed at the power company because this time people were not paid any compensation. That was the first sign of the consequences of regulation in our area.

We who lived there knew that the company could not control the situation. I was young, but I remember it very well.

In Finland there is a three-level system of regulatory water construction issues, says Helena Tiihonen. The lowest one, the water court of Northern Finland, Pohjois-Suomen Vesioikeus, can, paradoxically, not only give the permission for construction but also permission to start "preparatory work", for instance felling forest, building dams and canals.

It means we have to prevent the court from giving this permission to the power company, she says. Otherwise they will destroy the natural values of the area concerned before the final permission is given.

In an earlier case it took the highest water court over twenty years to give its final decision. Some kind of compensation was given, but the constructors have got away with very little payment, compared to the damage that has been done to nature and people.

The essential point for why I am so deeply involved in this matter is that I want people to have a say in whether a water construction project can take place or not. I am not so interested in talking about conditions for building and compensation.

The water court is not to be trusted, says Helena. And she seems to know what she is talking about.

The parliamentary official for judicial affairs, Eduskunnan Oikeusasiamies, recently declared it proved that some of the members of the water court of Northern Finland had been "wined and dined" by the Kemijoki company, and they will face charges.

This was a big news issue in Finland. It was never heard of.

I know cases where people from the power company spend a night out in a restaurant with the local politicians and all their bills for the food and drinking were paid. Soon after that everybody agreed that there must be a reservoir in their area.

"We want the river to flow free in all its grace and beauty"


It seems so easy, and nobody cares. It seems to me that the bigger and more open the corruption is, the faster decisions are made. It should have been exactly the opposite case, but that is not so in Lapland.

I do not accept it. It makes me angry.

People need a lot of courage to say aloud that they are against a reservoir or dam construction in our area, Helena Tiihonen continues. If the Mayor in your hometown is positive, and you are employed in a public job, you'd better agree! It is the same situation among the business people. Many of them are against the reservoir, but officially they cannot say so, because it creates problems for them.

This disagreement goes deeply into people's lives: Many families are split where some are pro-water, whilst others become anti-water people. The main reason is not that people do not want to protect nature, it is because of the huge unemployment in Lapland. People need work, and they start thinking that river regulation and dam construction are the only way to solve unemployment.

I come from Pelkosenniemi, a little village along the River Kemijoki. There they are planning to put a huge area under water. They want to start regulating the upper part of River Kemijoki which is one of the three big, unharnessed rivers of Northern Finland.

Only the River Tenojoki, Ounasjoki and the upper part of Kemijoki are unharnessed. So is the River Tornionjoki, but that is along the border to Sweden. It is disastrous. Look at Europe and the number of free running rivers. How many untouched rivers do we have left?

But we are not going to let them do anything without resistance, says Helena Tiihonen, and I believe her. She has been spending many years of her life studying the laws and the technical, econornic and ecological aspects of the plan.

You have to know the laws, you have to know everything down to the last detail if you want to be a fighter, she says. You have to have knowledge to be able to fight your opponents. This is very important.

In Sweden the experts in the environment department study the consequences of any water construction before the politicians and the government make a decision. In Finland they first make a decision, then they look at the consequences, afterwards.

They talk local politicians into an agreement, and pay some compensation to the people who own the land. We have forestry and timber workers, farmers and reindeer owners in the area. But the government withdraws money meant for this kind of activity and make it difficult for these people to stay. The power companies are strong. They make their decisions and force their will upon local people. People feel threatened by these regulation plans; they leave their homes, because they feel forced to do so, not because they really want to. And then the power company says:

Look, the land is empty, nobody lives here!


Helena describes the situation with brave words and the strong movement of her hands.

They start cutting down forest, and plan how to continue their regulation business. They are working efficiently with their policy which is to lay the land empty as soon as possible. In 1991 the Centre Party of Finland, Suomen Keskusta, got into power and they want more regulation and more energy from the natural resources of the area. In 1992 the power company received its permission from the government that they could apply to the water court for a permission to start building a reservoir. It is Vuotos Reservoir on the upper part of the River Kemijoki.

Now many people are part of the Free-water-campaign called Vapaa Vuotos, which means Free Vuotos. They have a clever lawyer - and Helena Tiihonen, trying to stop it.

Every year we row on the river. It is a great festival and people come up from the south and from abroad to join us. We row and make good food, we take a sauna and swim in the water.

We want the river to flow free with all its grace and beauty.

Helena has been writing many letters and documents over the last ten - twelve years. How many letters and documents all together? She does not know. Maybe a thousand, is her answer - maybe more.

These are letters to the publishers of local and national papers and the government; comments to the water court; and complaints to various judicial authorities. She is also carrying out a medical study on the effects of such projects on people's mental and physical health. After all she is a doctor, and her serious concern is people's health, and the possibility of living a good life.

The Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest paper in Finland, has published most of my letters. But the local newspapers sometimes boycott letters from "the opposition". So we try again!

Do you know what people say about me? That I use a lot of the taxpayers' money each time I write. The authorities have to look into my complaints and handle them. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time. But I know what I am talking about, because I have studied this issue carefully!

There is this law about forests in Finland: a general prohibition on cutting down trees so that natural values shall not be destroyed. So I asked the parliamentary official for judicial affairs if this law allowed the power company to cut down trees along the riverbank when they prepare for a reservoir. His answer was: No. The power company must obey the law before the final decision.

Many of us were shocked when the power company got its permission to start planning the reservoir in 1992. But some farmers in the area started to donate their land to the Nationai Association for Nature Protection, Suomen Luonnonsuojeluliitto ry. The organisation is now a part of the process, and they hired a lawyer. Around six hundred persons and nine organisations now own a part of the land. It might be small parts, but we are all owners with legal papers.

I own a thousand square meters, says Helena with a big smile. Do you want to buy a piece of land, too ?

A tree is a natural value. A forest is a natural value. And so is a river-.

They also have a company called the Power of Vuotos, Vuotoksen Voima Oy, that owns a cottage and a sauna on the banks of the Kemijoki river. Three hundred people are shareholders, and Helena is the chairwoman of the board.

To me it seems like some kind of civil disobedience is going on - ?

But what we do is not illegal, says Helena. We are just following the laws and we expect others to do so as well.

We do not need this extra energy. I cannot see any reason why they should take one of the three free flowing rivers of Finland and regulate it. This is not a reasonable way of doing energy politics. We have always used wood from our forests to heat our houses and saunas, and today we can use energy from the earth, the sun, recycle waste from the paper mills, and from the households. They could use the existing power generators and reservoirs better, too.

It is not necessary to regulate the beautiful Kemijoki, one of the last free flowing rivers of Lapland. We need much better political thinking about energy supplies in Finland.

Let the river run free.



Internet addresse for the action committee: http://personal.fimnet.fi/luonto/vapaavuotos;
Helena Tiihonen
Home addresse:  Kaisankankaantie 165
98400 Isokylä Finland
email: helena.tiihonen@sll.fimnet.fi