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Ex-Angry Birds marketing chief's involvement in Arctic Railway ruffles feathers in Lapland

The railway project would cost an estimated three billion euros, and planned to be built along 10 different reindeer herding areas.

Peter Vesterbacka allekirjoittaa aiesopimuksen Jäämeren radan suunnittelusta ja toteutuksesta Arctic Business Forumissa Rovaniemellä 9. toukokuuta.
Peter Vesterbacka signing a letter of intent for a planned Arctic Railway at the Arctic Business Forum in Rovaniemi, Finland on Thursday. Image: Juha Mäntykenttä / Yle
Yle News

The man who helped to make Angry Birds a household name - and who's aiming to dig railway tunnels beneath the Gulf of Finland - Peter Vesterbacka is involved in another massive infrastructure undertaking: construction of the Arctic Railway.

Vesterbacka, the former marketing chief of mobile gaming giant Rovio, signed a letter of intent on the design and implementation of the planned Arctic Railway with a Norwegian development company, in a deal worth an estimated three billion euros at the Arctic Business Forum in Rovaniemi on Thursday.

Story continues after photo.

File photo of map featuing planned route of the planned Arctic Railway in Finnish Lapland. Image: Yle Uutisgrafiikka

Vesterbacka said the rail project will be completed within five to ten years, and if completed would create a quick connection from Rovaniemi to the northeast coastal city of Kirkenes in Norway.

"The Arctic Railway will feature trains that travel at a speed of 350km or faster," he said, saying that the trains will benefit tourists, noting that previous development plans for the long-discussed project have not taken tourism into consideration.

"Freight transport is not the only thing here. If you compare it to the [planned] tunnel to Tallinn, then the proportion of freight is only 20 percent - the rest is passenger travel," Vesterbacka said.

"Passenger traffic will play an important role in the Arctic Railway, particularly [considering] that direct flights from Asia will be landing in Rovaniemi," he said.

Indigenous Sámi oppose the plans

The Arctic Railway has received a good deal of criticism from the region's Sámi population, because it is planned to run across ten different reindeer herding areas.

Vesterbacka said concerns raised by the Sámi can be ironed out through discussion.

"We have already talked to the Sámi and there are many different available options. I am sure we can reach a solution through discussion," Vesterbacka said, noting that parts of the railway line could be dug underground or even above ground.

However, chair of the Sámi Parliament, Tiina Sanila-Aikio said there have been no official talks or negotiations held regarding the plans with the Sámi Parliament.

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Saamelaisnaisia poroerotuksessa.
File photo of Sámi women amidst a herd of reindeer. Image: Kaisa Siren / AOP

Earlier this year a Finnish-Norwegian working group commissioned to investigate the potential of building an Arctic Railway found that the project would not be commercially viable.

After the working group's report was issued, Sanila-Aikio recommended to the Finnish government to ditch the plans.

"The railroad would have such an impact on the Sámi culture that the Finnish state should look at other alternatives than to build on the Sámi's traditional land," Sanila-Aikio said.

Greenpeace also opposed

News of the railway's progress on Thursday did not impress environmental group Greenpeace Nordic either, according to its programme manager Sini Harkki.

She said Vesterbacka's involvement in the project does not mean it makes it any more economically viable, saying that conditions for building the railroad have not been met because the effort doesn't have consent from the Sámi population who live and make their livelihoods in the area.

"The impact of the railway is not a matter of conversation or interpretation. The Sámi are an indigenous people whose right to their traditional livelihoods is secured by international agreements. The [railway] would split and fragment the lands that are important for reindeer herding, ruining the conditions for practicing reindeer herding according to the reindeer herding cooperatives" Harkki told Yle News via email.

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Saamelaiskäräjien puheenjohtaja Tiina Sanila-Aikio
File photo of Tiina Sanila-Aikio, chair of the Sámi Parliament. Image: Vesa Toppari / Yle

Greenpeace pointed out that the "Sámi Council and the Sámi Parliament in Finland have explicitly rejected the project as detrimental to their culture and livelihoods."

"Many laughed" at Tallinn tunnel plans

Vesterbacka said that his planned Fin-Est undersea rail tunnel from Helsinki to Tallinn was initially met with ridicule.

"Many laughed at the Tallinn tunnel three years ago when the plans were presented but now financing of it is beginning to be worked out, the environmental impact survey on it has begun and soon we'll start drilling," he said.

Vesterbacka has said the Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel project will be complete by the end of 2024. The estimated cost of that project, some 15 billion euros, is roughly five times more than the planned Arctic Railway effort.

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