The River Guardians of Koitajoki

Posted: 14th March 2024

Photo: Snowchange

In the remote expanse of Eastern Finland’s Koitajoki Watershed, a pioneering initiative is reshaping the narrative of conservation and restoration. The Koitajoki River Guardian Programme, spearheaded by Snowchange Cooperative, transcends traditional approaches by harnessing the knowledge and dedication of local individuals like Tom Toivonen, who lives near the vital Haravasuo region.

“As a River Guardian, I observe the nature close to my home and I report the key findings on a monthly basis”, explains Toivonen. His focus extends to the Kelsimäjoki river, merging into the Koitajoki river, and the adjacent Haravasuo bog.

The River Guardian Programme, the first of its kind in Finland, stems from the inspiration of similar initiatives across the world, for example the land guardian programmes that have emerged in recent years in North America and Australia. It represents a paradigm shift towards inclusive conservation and restoration, recognising the significance of integrating diverse, local, perspectives for effective environmental stewardship.

Tom Toivonen, a River Guardian.

It is widely acknowledged that the engagement of local people and their knowledge is essential for equitable and effective conservation and restoration. In recent decades, there has been a growing recognition of the necessity to integrate diverse forms of knowledge, fostering a comprehensive understanding and innovative solutions to the multifaceted challenges confronting our landscapes and seascapes.

In November 2022, an open call for River Guardians was shared online and in the local newspaper. To date, 18 River Guardians aged between 10 and 65 have been appointed. The initiative extends beyond individuals, involving groups like the Tokrajärvi village association, uniting communities in their commitment to biodiversity and river health. In some cases family members of the guardians also participate in the work.

Toivonen’s experience echoes the broader ethos of the River Guardian Programme—going beyond occasional observations and picturesque images. Instead, the programme fosters a deeper connection with nature. “Instead of just occasionally catching something in the river or taking nice drone pictures near my home, I get to focus deeper on my areas of interest through the River Guardian Programme,” he emphasises.

Photo: Snowchange.

The River Guardians engage in multifaceted monitoring efforts, from tracking water quality and wildlife to delving into oral histories and family archives. The pilot year of the programme has been based on an organic approach. The starting point was the interests and motivation of each River Guardian, who have developed their own means and methodology for their monitoring work with the support of Snowchange experts.

“I study the crayfish population range by reporting the trap location and number and size of crayfish. Protecting nature is close to my heart, but since my own expertise is very limited, I am happy to be in a community with experts and other locals. For example, there are many fishers among the River Guardians, but I am the only one catching crayfish. We all learn from each other” says Toivonen.

Monthly reports serve as a collective mosaic, each guardian contributing a piece to the evolving understanding of the Koitajoki ecosystem. “The monthly reporting encourages me to make regular observations and to think about the factors impacting the crayfish population and how rewilding changes the water flow on the bog. I am motivated by my small actions becoming part of a much larger dataset, which can have positive impact on nature” says Toivonen.

Photo: Mika Honkalinna, Snowchange.

This collaborative spirit extends to regular meetings, a mailing list, and a WhatsApp group, creating platforms for exchange and shared learning. The pilot phase has generated a mutual learning process based on which next steps are taken in developing the model for future years.

In addition to their monitoring efforts, many river guardians also participate in the restoration work which has taken place on several peatlands and water bodies across the Koitajoki basin. Haravasuo is one of many peatlands that have been ditched for forestry purposes to increase the growth of wood. Ditching not only decreases the peatland’s biodiversity but also affects the water quality of nearby rivers and lakes as it is there where the humus-rich water flowing through these ditches end up. Throughout the autumn of 2023, ditches on Haravasuo were blocked with small hand-made dams made of peat and wood to restore the peatland back towards its natural state. The dams help re-establish the natural quantity and quality of water by keeping the water in the peatland and reduce the leakage of organic matter into nearby water bodies. Meanwhile, biodiversity and carbon sinks increase.

Photo: Snowchange.

As the River Guardian Programme advances into its next phase, it emerges as more than a monitoring initiative. It has become a conduit for intergenerational, in-depth knowledge, supplementing scientific understanding. The database created, enriched by the observations of these dedicated guardians, will prove instrumental in shaping future restoration projects and monitoring their impact. The River Guardian Programme has cultivated agency, a sense of community, and a shared motivation to actively participate in the restoration of the Koitajoki watershed. The programme stands as a testament to the power of local wisdom in steering the course of environmental conservation towards a more inclusive and sustainable future.

To find out more about the Koitajoki Watershed project, visit the project page

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