By Laura Junka-Aikio. Translated by Richard Foley. Photo by Arto Liiti.

Foreign berry pickers working the forests of Lapland bring the challenges of globalisation to locals’ backyards.

When you’re out picking berries in the woods in Lapland, you are more and more likely to run into foreigners, mostly Thais, doing the same thing. They come to Lapland for a month or two to pick and sell blueberries, lingonberries, cloudberries and cranberries. According to current estimates, tens of thousands may come to Finland every summer in the future.

The phenomenon has sparked passionate debate. The staunchest opponents feel that the foreigners are a threat. They’re seen as depriving the locals of income, picking the best berry patches clean and violating the local berry-picking culture’s long-standing rules of etiquette.

Those in favour of letting the foreigners in often pass the opposition off as nothing but racism and resistance to change. In their view there are plenty of berries in Finland’s forests for anyone who wants them. Without foreigners here to pick the berries, an even larger share of the crop would be left to rot in the woods.

Jarno Valkonen, who works in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Lapland, teamed up with Pekka Rantanen in 2005 to start studying the phenomenon of berry picking.

Valkonen says that the use of foreign berry pickers that began in the 2000s stems from Finland’s joining the EU in 1995, which brought an end to customs duties on berries and saw the active development of the berry business. Now the berries to be found in the Finnish forests compete with berries produced or picked anywhere else in the world. This is reflected in the prices for berries and in the risk tolerance of Finnish berry companies.

“Before, the quantities of berries available for sale depended on what kind of a year it was. Finns pick berries mostly for their own use and only sell them if they have enough left over and the price is decent. Foreign berry pickers have helped even out the effects of fluctuations in the berry crop.”

The problem is that now it is the Thai rice farmer who bears the risk. They take out a sizeable loan when they come to pick berries and not only pay for their trip but also cover all the costs related to picking berries. They have to earn the money they have invested, and to do so they go out and harvest the crop, regardless of whether it is a good or bad year.

Their risk is increased by the fact that the work they are doing is not at present covered by any labour legislation. Although the pickers come to Finland through middlemen and the berries are sold to retailers agreed on in advance, berry picking itself is defined in the law as a recreational activity, which in Finland is covered by what is known as everyman’s right. The right allows anyone to enjoy nature and the fruits of the forests regardless of who owns the land. As the berry pickers enter the country on tourist visas and not for employment, there is no one who is responsible, for example, when a picker’s health fails.

“A while ago a Thai berry picker broke his leg in a car accident right at the beginning of his trip. He had borrowed 1600 euros for the journey, which is a year’s wages in Thailand. Finns collected over 1400 euros for the man so he would be able to pay his debts”, Valkonen notes.

Although this empathy warms the heart, Valkonen calls for responsibility on the part of the berry companies.

“It has been proposed that the companies should set up a buffer fund that would compensate the pickers for any losses they might incur.”

Even though there are plenty of berries in the forests, Jarno Valkonen stresses that on the local level the use of foreign berry pickers is bound to have broader cultural ramifications. For this reason, the voices and resistance of local residents should not be ignored altogether.

Several years ago, Jarno Valkonen and Pekka Rantanen organised an essay contest in which local residents were ask to tell how they felt about berry picking.

“The writers were often angry but a closer look revealed that their ideas were wholly reasonable. Now things have been turned around such that if you criticise what is going on, you are called a racist. By the same token, if you try to change things, the responsibility for the changes falls upon a single berry picker”, Valkonen says with regret.

Some of the people are bothered by the berry picking primarily when the pickers break established customs relating to the berry-picking culture, examples being littering and picking berries near people’s yards. Others have organised themselves through village committees and approached the berry companies with an appeal for uniform practices and rules.

In bad years in particular, many are genuinely concerned about how the berry pickers are faring. Some have even brought them food and warm clothing.

Valkonen observes that in recent years those who have a negative attitude towards the pickers seem to be making their voice heard loudest. In the worst cases, locals have sabotaged the efforts of foreign pickers.

“With the development of the berry economy, Finland has acquired an established form of foreign seasonal labour. It is important to speak openly about berry picking now, while there is still a chance to affect how things are done and the rules of the game”, Valkonen points out.

This discussion is not only important for the future of the berry companies. It will play a part in whether the Thai rice farmer will become the symbol of Finnish xenophobia or part of a broader critique of global inequality.


Berry Tours

Maria Huhmarniemi, visual artist, and Laura Junka-Aikio, political science researcher and photographer, have created a media and object installation titled Berry Tours. The work will be on display in the Arctic Centre Science Centre in the Arktikum in the summer of 2011.

The installation deals with encounters between foreign and local berry pickers in Lapland and reflects on the broader cultural ramifications of changes in the berry business.
The lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) is a common shrub in coniferous forests in the Northern Hemisphere.

The annual crop in Finland may reach as much as 20 million kilos, but far more than that remains in the forests. The best time to pick lingonberries is between the end of August and the beginning of October.

Sweet and rather tart, and rich in vitamin E, lingonberries are used in many different dishes, either straight from the freezer or as jams and jellies.
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