Stories of the Finnish Arctic Expertise

The Rovaniemi Process: The Beginning of the Arctic Era

The Arctic ministers of environment will meet in Rovaniemi on 11-12 October. This is the second time they meet in Rovaniemi. The first time was in 1991, and that meeting launched the Arctic cooperation as we know it.

Finland’s Arctic initiative in 1989 can be considered as the origin for the current international intergovernmental Arctic cooperation. At the time, this was called the Rovaniemi Process.

Finland’s initiative to launch the Arctic Environmental Protection Cooperation was taken in the throes of change: the Cold War was ending and new openings became possible. Many other related things were taking place at the time of the initiative but one obvious trigger was the still famous speech by Mikhail Gorbachev in Murmansk in October 1987.

Gorbachev’s thoughts stressed environmental protection, scientific research and peaceful exploitation of natural resources. These thoughts were completely unheard of from a Soviet leader and the speech was noticed in the capitals of Arctic countries.

The long-standing Prime Minister and then Foreign Minister Kalevi Sorsa was also the vice-president of the Socialist International and Gorbachev mentioned him especially in his speech. The first visible sign of Finland’s initiative seems to be Sorsa’s article in the Demari magazine in March 1987, one and a half months after the speech in Murmansk.

When Finland officially took the initiative on the Arctic Countries Environmental Cooperation 12.1.1989 by sending a letter pertaining to it to seven other Arctic countries, the signatories at the bottom were Kalevi Sorsa and Environment Minister Kaj Bärlund. At that point, the expectation was that the proposed Arctic Conference would become reality rather fast during that government term. However, the implementation was delayed and Sorsa no longer had a visible role in the Rovaniemi Process.

A showcase of multilateral diplomacy

The letter was preceded by careful exploration that the Finnish diplomats did during 1988. Finland hired an experienced diplomat, Esko Rajakoski, to lead the negotiations. He had been a central part of the OSCE meeting preparations in the 1970s and had strong experience in multilateral diplomacy.

The very first task was to find out if it was possible to take the Arctic Initiative. The responses varied. The internal notes of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in the archives of the Ministry of the Environment show that Norway, for example, was not at all interested and the United States was very careful.

The ongoing diplomatic operation was big by Finnish standards and it combined both traditional diplomacy and environmental analysis. The background information included all available facts on the condition of the Arctic environment. The need for an extensive Arctic conference had to be justified especially by the substance regarding the environment and proven environmental challenges, which would require cooperation from all Arctic countries to overcome. It was also essential to be able to identify the issues on which more information was needed and to take stock of the existing agreements and legal matters concerning the Arctic Region.

Based on the findings, the situation was interpreted so that the official initiative could be taken. In a letter on 12 January 1989, Finland proposed that an environmental protection conference would be held in Helsinki between the eight Arctic Countries in the near future.

Rovaniemi is the place to be

The arguments were centred around the threats on the Arctic environment and particularly on transboundary pollution. The nowadays so central climate change was not as visible at that point. According to Finland’s letter, the coordination of the Arctic Region’s protection primarily belongs to the countries on the Arctic Region.

There was a slew of matters to be researched, starting with why to gather in the first place and who should be sitting at the table. At that point, only the Arctic Countries were participating. Representation for the indigenous peoples came later and was not part of Finland’s original idea. Canada played the primary active role on that.

At the beginning, Finland thought that the official meetings would take place in Helsinki. Very soon, the location was changed to Rovaniemi, on whose behalf at least Esko Riepula, the then rector of the University of Lapland, was lobbying. According to the minutes of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, “in a small location, closer to nature than Helsinki, there is a focused atmosphere that can lead to results in a short time.”

During 1989, the discussions proceeded well in all the countries in the Arctic Region and their first official level preparatory meeting could be held in the Rovaniemi City Hall in September. The shared concern for the condition of the Arctic environment was acknowledged, and Finland strived to ensure that there would be future meetings.

Not quite that simple

The meeting decided to establish two task forces to prepare for what would be discussed in the ministry meeting. The first task force considered the state of the Arctic environment and the eventual steps to be taken. The other task force examined the international law in the Arctic Region and the structure of the incipient cooperation.

There was an abundance of matters to be resolved. For example, 12 issues were added to the agenda of the environment task force: the marine environment, climate change and pollution, radioactivity, chemicals and oil, food chains, waste management, protecting the living resources, environmental economics, environmental health, noise pollution, population centres and indigenous peoples.

A joint understanding of what they wanted to do and how it could be done started to emerge. Now the work had to be organised. Graphs of themes and the countries responsible for those themes were drafted. At the same time, different countries had different aspirations and objectives that needed to be considered. Thus, the Rovaniemi Process was in full swing.

Additional preparatory meetings were required. Since the process was international, the meetings could not be held in Finland, because other countries had to commit as well. The key countries for this phase were Canada and Sweden. The official level preparatory meetings were held in Yellowknife, Canada in March 1990 and in Kiruna, Sweden in January 1991.

Why not have an Arctic Council?

In October 1990, Canada, Finland and Sweden issued a joint proposal on the future of the Arctic cooperation. The Arctic environment meetings should be held regularly from there on. Other countries and organisations could be asked to participate as observers and the indigenous peoples should be included in the process. The idea of an Arctic Council was also written down.

Ideas for the Arctic Council had already been proposed in Canada since 1987, and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney brought them up in his speech in Leningrad in November 1989. In January 1991, Canada sent an official letter to all Arctic countries, where it suggested the founding of an Arctic Council.

According to Canada, the Council could address the Arctic economy and culture as well as social and development issues. Subsequently, the more extensive Arctic initiative of Canada and the concise initiative of Finland now existed side by side. The background of Canada’s internal policy initiative was strongly connected with raising the status of the indigenous peoples. However, concrete discussions were only held on Finland’s suggestion.

Since the beginning of 1991, everything finally started to be ready for the first Meeting of the Environment Ministers. Finland held parliamentary elections, the government changed and the politicians who made the initiative were no longer hosting the meeting. Foreign Minister Paavo Väyrynen and Environment Minister Sirpa Pietikäinen welcomed the Arctic guests in the Rovaniemi City Hall in the middle of June 1991.

Arctic structures that last

The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was approved in Rovaniemi, and through it, many of the structures and operations that can still be seen in the work of the Arctic Council. Primarily these include the Environment Working Groups. In addition, the ministers approved a political statement and agreed upon the contents of future operations and timetables.

The pollution threatening the Arctic environment were in the centre of the protection strategy, especially oil, acidification, persistent organic pollutants, radioactivity, noise pollution and heavy metals. Scientific cooperation worked towards gaining more information on the sources of pollution and its transmission and effects on the Arctic Region.

In the meeting it was decided that four new groups should be established to answer these pollution threats: the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), the Emergency Prevention Preparedness Response (EPPR), and the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF). All of them continue their role as an important part of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy AEPS continued on, but disappeared from the spotlight. Finland no longer continued its Arctic initiative. In Norway, the focus was on the Barents cooperation, which started in 1993. The Soviet Union collapsed and Russia replaced it in the Arctic matters. Canada still maintained the idea of a more extensive Arctic Council.

However, nothing happened with the Arctic Council until the governments changed in both Canada and the United States. The government of President Bill Clinton re-evaluated the United States Arctic policy and now saw room for an extensive Arctic cooperation. In Canada, the government led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien renewed the country’s old initiative.

The Arctic Council was established in Ottawa in September 1996.


This is an edited chapter of an upcoming book of Finnish Arctic vision, due to be published in spring 2019. An exhibition about the Rovaniemi Process “The Beginning of the Arctic Era” is on display at the Arktikum House in Rovaniemi until January 2019.

Top: Markku Heikkilä at the exhibition about the Rovaniemi Process. Photo (c) Johanna Westerlund, Arctic Centre

Bottom: The Arctic environment ministers in Rovaniemi in 1991. Photo (c) Lapin Kansa newspaper archives

cropattu10 Ymp ministerien kokous 1991.jpg

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