On a cold winter's day, shoppers stroll down streets thick with snow. They pass red paper lanterns and Mandarin signposts, eventually coming to a stop at a small paifang, or traditional gate. But this isn't Harbin, or any other city in China for that matter. It's Kirkenes, Norway, a small Arctic town currently jockeying for the title of "Gateway to Asia." In February, the 3,500-person community hosted its first-ever "World's Northernmost Chinatown" festival, in a flamboyant attempt to curry favor with Beijing.
Entrepreneurs and investors envision Kirkenes, which lies at the edge of the Barents Sea, as the endpoint for the increasingly ice-free Northern Sea Route, and the starting point for the Arctic Corridor—a 310-mile stretch of railway that would essentially link Asia with Europe via Kirkenes, in Finnmark County, and Rovaniemi, Finland. Last September, a Maersk container ship traveled the no-longer frozen sea route above Russia for the first time, delivering cargo from the port of Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. Business-savvy Scandinavians want it to go even farther. Kirkenes, they hope, will provide the European Union with its first rail link to an Arctic deep-water port, strengthening Europe's influence in international affairs and reviving the regional economy.
'The Arctic Corridor Creates a Lot of Opportunity'
Many people here are eager for such a revitalization. In 2015, the iron mine near Kirkenes shut down. The closure followed Russian sanctions on Norwegian seafood in 2014, which had hit Finnmark County particularly hard, as the area's famous salmon-farming industry entered a slump. The €3 billion Arctic Railway project, therefore, would help stabilize the region's long-term financial future. "We could ship 10 trains out of Kirkenes every day for seven and a half months," says Kenneth Stålsett, chief executive officer of Sør-Varanger Utvikling which oversees economic development in the region. "That's about 74,000 containers moving through Kirkenes harbor every month."
But the same week that Kirkenes hosted its Chinatown festival, the railway hit a snag. A final report from a Finnish-Norwegian working group deemed the project not financially feasible under current economic conditions, noting the rail line would need to move 2.5 million tons every year to be sustainable—a far-off number. Local media heralded the project as dead in the water. But the Arctic is changing rapidly—which means that the prospects for the railroad could change again as well.
"Climate change is increasing the importance of the Northeast Passage as a connection and transport route between Europe and Asia," the group's report read. "The volume of goods transported and vessels navigating via the Northeast Passage is low for the time being but it is growing every year." Moreover, the Arctic Railway project would be one part of a larger push to connect the two continents. "It is highly dependent on several other large infrastructure projects or visions, including the new port of Kirkenes, the proposed Helsinki-Tallinn tunnel, and the Rail Baltica railway project," the report noted. Absent massive investment, those projects seemed impossible.
Then, China stepped in.
In March, Touchstone Capital Partners, the Chinese investor consortium behind the global Belt and Road Initiative, announced €15 billion in funding for the undersea Helsinki-Tallinn rail tunnel, which will connect Finland with Estonia. The European Union had previously set aside funding for Rail Baltica, which will integrate Baltic states with the main European rail line. The Arctic Railway would be the missing link between the Northern Sea Route and Central Europe.
"Chinese companies come to Kirkenes and see opportunity," says Yingxiang Zhao, a Chinese investor who has lived in in Norway since 2010 and is currently based in Kirkenes. China, he says, understands that this is a long-term project, perhaps requiring 15 to 30 years, but one central to the country's interests. In 2018, China announced its Polar Silk Road initiative, a plan for pan-Arctic transportation infrastructure with a focus on shipping. "The Arctic Corridor creates a lot of opportunity, not only with [transportation]. This area is full of minerals, oil, and gas. It's a very important spot," Zhao says.
'No Consent, No Access'
Though the Arctic Railway may be a boon for Kirkenes, it would be a bust for the Sámi indigenous people who occupy much of Lapland, the northern region of Finland, herding their reindeer across the frozen landscape. Last year, the Sámi Council, an organization representing Sámi interests from four Arctic nations, commissioned a preliminary study digging into the possible environmental impacts of the Arctic Railway project.
"If the railroad is ever to be constructed, it will be the largest single industrial action ever taken in Lapland, and the most costly," says Tero Mustonen, an adjunct professor at the University of Eastern Finland who led the study and also worked on the 2013 Arctic Biodiversity Assessment. "It will impact hundreds of kilometers of fully intact or relatively intact Arctic ecosystems which are, of course the homeland of the Sámi people."
In addition to the 310 miles of rail that would need to be constructed, a service road would also run the length of the corridor. Building the railroad would mean blasting rock, cutting trees, moving debris, and opening rock quarries for every 12 miles of rail. The negative effects on groundwater, wetlands, and fish would be "tremendous," Mustonen says.
Once completed, the railroad would bisect the reindeer grazing areas used by the Sámi.
"The reindeer cannot migrate anymore, as the railway would be fenced on both sides," says Tiina Sanila-Aikio, president of the Sámi Parliament of Finland. To such an end, the region would be opened to even more industrial interests, literally paving the way for mining, logging, and oil and gas companies to move in. With reindeer populations in parts of the European Arctic already on the decline, such activity could be the final nail in the coffin.
In the months leading up to the release of the working group's report, representatives from Finnish Sámi Youth and Greenpeace staged protests around Lapland, donning red clothing and forming lines in Finland's reindeer-herding districts where the railway would be routed. They unfurled large banners reading, "No Consent, No Access."
One of the greatest objections the Sámi people have against the proposed Arctic Railway is that they feel the national government has not properly consulted the Sámi about the project.
"This doesn't fulfill the commitments Finland has when it accepted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People," Sanila-Aikio says. The rule dictates that governments must establish bottom-up participation and consultation of an indigenous population before beginning any development on ancestral land, or utilizing resources within their territory. "We are lacking free, prior and informed consent in this process."
Despite the working group's determination that the project isn't financially feasible in the near future, Sanila-Aikio's fears have not been assuaged, and many politicians still want to see a railway connecting the North with Central Europe.
Timo Lohi is one such person.
A bureaucrat from Sodankylä, an Arctic municipality home to Finland's largest mine, Lohi works as the development manager for Finland's Northern Lapland region and is one of the most vehement supporters of the proposed railway.
"From the beginning, it has been quite clear that at the moment it's not feasible, but in the long term it may be," he says. "In my mind, it depends on how the transport flows between Europe and Asia, and [on] climate change. We can only follow how the transport progresses along the Northern Sea Route and how the planning of the Kirkenes port develops."
In other words, all eyes will be on the ice in the decade to come.
Locals seem divided on the crucial role that China could play in developing these infrastructure projects. Mustonen, for one, acknowledges that the railway could be an enticing investment for foreign powers—and therefore wouldn't break the bank.
"The public discourse in Finland has revolved around governmental funding," Mustonen explains, but the Finns don't have enough money right now to risk the investment of billions of Euros. "However, for China, these are pennies."
In Kirkenes, Zhao remains optimistic. "The relationship between China and Norway is getting better and better. China and Finland already have a good relationship." He points to the Helsinki tunnel, which, again, was financed by the Chinese. He thinks the railway could work the same way.
"We believe that Kirkenes will be the center of the world."