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Onkamot, Finland


The Onkamot Lakes ICCA comprises two interconnected lakes, Pieni-Onkamo and Suur-Onkamo, located in North Karelia, Finland, specifically in Rääkkylä, Tohmajärvi and Joensuu municipalities. This ICCA aims to position large basin-wide community-led restoration as a mechanism for ICCAs. It promotes community governance and leadership in the face of earlier environmental loss and subsequent community-led restoration. While not legally designated as a protected area, the lakes host several sites of strict protection according to IUCN standards.

Origin story and history

According to linguistic scholars, the name of the lakes, “Onkamo”, traces back to prehistoric times. Onka is likely derived from Sámi language and implies a bay or narrow strait. The final name “Onkamowas established in 1500 AD, when both the Karelians and Sámi were present on the lakes and historic records begin. Since those times, the Sámi people have not lived on the basin.

Over time, we can identify six major eras on these culturally significant lakes:

  1. Karelian era, Pre 1656: Characterised by runic singing, hunting-gathering economies, native religion of the Karelians, sacred stones and trees, and the arrival of the Greek Orthodox faith.
  2. Rupture Wars, 1656-1658: Marked by population shifts as the Karelians fled to Russia and the Savo-Karelians, supported by the Swedish Crown, settled in the area.
  3. Savo-Karelian era, until 1920s: Defined by hunting, fishing, agriculture, and the spread of the Lutheran faith.
  4. First Modernisation, until 1930s: Environmental alterations led by iron ore lifted from the lake, lowering of the lake for agriculture, expansion of farming, ditching of peatlands to drain for agriculture, and the establishment of commercial fisheries.
  5. Modern era, 1940s – 2008: Characterised by large-scale ditching of peatlands for agriculture commercial timber harvesting, and fish farming.
  6. Age of Recovery and Restoration, 2008-Present: Marked by the formation of the largest restoration and protection process in modern history, led by villages and lake residents, enabled full catchment restoration and recovery over 15 years. Through the protection of habitats, it addressed almost 100 years of top-down natural resource governance, amongst only top ten lakes whose catchment areas have been restored and include also several strict IUCN protected areas. In 2023, Snowchange Cooperative assumed responsibility for the management of the lakes and, during the General Assembly of Onkamo on 15th October, residents voted to seek ICCA status for the whole lake system unanimously.

The Onkamot lakes are known as a heartland of cultural fisheries including seining (active pulling of nets both in the summertime and during long boreal winter on the ice, in order to trap schooling fish), fish traps for burbot and long-lining from 1600s onwards. The lakes have dozens of locally known apaja or fishing spots that are part of the national list for UNESCO of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Finland. As a physical memory of the biocultural relations with the lake, the landscape of Onkamo contains sacred stones. Alttinakivi, a Stone of Alttina, is a sacrificial stone associated with the religion of the Forest Finns and Karelians prior to the arrival and full conversion to Christianity. The cultural heritage combined with the outstanding natural diversity values centred in the community-led restoration make the Onkamo lakes an exceptional case of a whole lake system ICCA in Northern Europe.

Habitat Types, Biodiversity, and natural resources

Spanning the municipalities of Rääkkylä, Tohmajärvi and City of Joensuu, the Onkamot Lakes constitute a biologically rich boreal waterbody. The biggest lake holds 113 809 862.71 m3 of freshwater. With an average depth of approximately 3.6 meters and a maximum depth of 10 meters, these lakes are relatively shallow boreal waterbodies.

Formed during the last Ice Age, these lakes contain NW-SE directional long capes, or headlands extending into the lakes, which are important habitats and geological formations. The lakes' basin is also characterized by coniferous taiga forests with deciduous species interspersed with peatlands. Located on the border between middle and south boreal biotypes, these lakes are a part of the Saimaa-Vuoksi Lake basin, making them interconnected to the largest lake in Finland and the fourth largest freshwater lake in Europe. Notably, the lakes serve as crucial stopovers for migratory birds such as Arctic waders (black-tailed godwit, whimbrel, ruffs) and duck species (long-tailed ducks and Arctic geese) traversing the Arctic and European flyways.

The Onkamo Lakes are known for their biologically productive role that has supported communal fisheries since as far back as 1500 AD, when records begin. Therefore, the main uses of natural resources associated with the lake include household artisanal commercial fisheries. Fish species of special importance are salmonid such as vendace (Coregonus) and smelt. Additionally, the lakes attract recreational activities and tourism, further highlighting their ecological and socio-economic significance.

Management Authorities

The responsibility for overseeing Onkamo lakes' affairs transitioned to Snowchange Cooperative following a unanimous decision during the October 2023, General Assembly meeting. Previously, the local lake association (Pro Onkamojärvet ry) oversaw the lake issues. Snowchange manages communal restoration sites and coordinates with local landowners, national officials (ELY Center) and local municipalities (Rääkkylä, Tohmajärvi and Joensuu) about all Onkamo related activities.


Decades of intensive resource utilization between 1950 and 2020 (see maps) have posed significant challenges to the Onkamo lakes, including water quality deterioration, algae blooms, and eutrophication. However, since 2000, concerted efforts led firstly by an association of all users and owners and now by Snowchange Cooperative have enabled a nationally relevant recovery process through rewilding and restoration that addresses many of the issues described.

Support needed

The community representatives who enabled the transformative first decade of work from 2011-2022 are getting on in age, underscoring the need for continued recognition and support for their historic achievements. The recognition of the community-restored and protected lakes not only represents a milestone for Finland, but also sets a precedent for community-led conservation on a scale previously unseen in Europe. This ICCA also presents a new example in the ICCA context – an interconnected large system of aquatic habitats.

Final remarks

The large basin-wide restoration and the restored sites transcends economic interests to prioritize ecological preservation. The Onkamo lakes ICCA offers two significant additions to the ICCA context: a whole boreal lake system and an ICCA where the community has successfully enabled protection and restoration of an affected area.

This case study was originally published by UNEP-WCMC in 05/24. The content was provided by the custodians of this ICCA. The ICCA has been self-declared and has not yet been through a peer-review process to verify its status. More details on this process can be found here. The contents of this website do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of UN Environment Programme or WCMC.