Christmas tree pine cone pickers face dangers in Georgia

Georgian pinecone picker halfway up a tree Many cone pickers use nothing more than gloves as safety equipment

All across Europe, families are starting to think about buying their Christmas Tree. But what they won't know is that most of the trees come from seeds harvested in Georgia, close to the border with Russia, and that some workers who harvest them are paid little and work in dangerous conditions.

I travelled to Tlugi, a small area in the north-west of Georgia, to see how the the process works.

It is one of the poorest areas in the country, and most families live on less than $3 (£2) a day.

As we walked into the forest, it was obvious that people had been here before us.

There were old fires and some makeshift shelters, with beer bottles and an odd sock lying about.

Then we found the pickers themselves, eight or nine of them.

An old army van parked nearby doubled up as storeroom and accommodation.

It was not clear whether they were working for a company or just harvesting pine cones by themselves.

One man then demonstrated how they pick the cones, from which the seeds are extracted. He put on a pair of gloves and then started pulling himself up into the tree. Within seconds he was 18m (60ft) up in the canopy.

Start Quote

The top of the tree broke and I dropped down for about 40m (130ft), then I don't remember anything after that”

End Quote Shota Tomadze Former pine cone picker

He started to pick off the cones and throw them down to the bottom of the tree, where his colleagues collected them.

These are considered some of the finest cones in the world.

Dangerous

He had no climbing equipment and no protective gear. When I asked the men what safety precautions they take, I was told they use belts to wrap around the tree, but I saw no evidence of them.

Once they have collected enough pine cones, they will sell them to a foreign company which will export them abroad to be grown into trees.

With the help of Georgian pine cone picker Berdia Kublashvili, Angus Crawford explains how to climb a tree safely.

The men get paid the equivalent of about 31 cents (20p) per kilogramme of cones, while a fully grown Nordman Fir will sell for £40 ($62) or more. The profits from that do not come back to Georgia.

Unemployment is high and there are few other opportunities locally.

One man said: "I love my country, I love to live here, but I don't like collecting the pine cones - it's a tough job."

"It's very bad, it's a very low price," said another.

Safety is a real concern. Some of the seed buyers insist all workers wear full protective equipment and give them training, but enforcing the rules is not easy, and there have been casualties.

Shota Tomadze is in his 70s. He finds it hard to walk and is in constant pain. He used to pick cones until he had an accident.

"The top of the tree broke and I dropped down for about 40m (130ft), then I don't remember anything after that," he says.

His son stopped climbing trees after he saw his best friend fall and die.

'Fair trade'

Campaigners believe the pine cone trade could help show this impoverished country the path to prosperity.

One Denmark-based Christmas Tree supplier, Fair Trees, says it aims to give more of the value of the trees back to the local community in Georgia.

A pinecone halved lengthwise The seeds are harvested from deep inside the pine cones

"This is a 1bn euro a year business. I don't think the Georgian government has been aware of that," says Marianne Bols of Fair Trees.

She pointed out that Georgia provides 90% of all seeds for Christmas trees in Europe.

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  • Crossing Continents is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 2 December at 1100 GMT
  • And on Monday 6 December at 2030 GMT

Her company pays the pickers more than the going rate, sends a part of the price of every tree sold back to Tlugi for development projects, and tries to create more local jobs.

She is also trying to introduce the concept of fair trade - ensuring that the process is ethical from picking to selling.

Ultimately, she wants to set up a Georgian tree-growing business.

I asked her if this was not all just a good marketing ploy and she replied: "We, of course, are still making money, otherwise we wouldn't be able to put something back."

Other Danish seed companies claim that they, too, pay higher wages, provide insurance and insist on safety gear.

Patchy regulation

More than eight million Christmas trees are sold every year in the UK. More than half of those are Nordman Firs grown from seed harvested in Georgia.

But Roger Hay from the British Christmas Tree Growers Association rejects any accusation that the workers are being exploited.

He points out that it can take 12 years from the moment a seed is picked until the finished tree is sold.

Growers in the UK buy the trees as small plants and then can spend a decade cultivating them. They are, he says, far down the supply line.

Inside the Fair Trees factory, with red bags full of cones in the foreground The Fair Trees factory tries to reinvest more of its profits back in Georgia

"If the people who are selling the seeds decided to double the price of the seeds, it would make no difference to the way in which we cultivate our trees here."

He is also sceptical about the concept of a what makes a "fair tree".

"In our own code of practice, we require that all seeds are cultivated from sources that are sustainable, and that all workers should be trained for the operations they carry out."

But Georgia is a poor country, with an economy that is still only 60% of the size it was in Soviet times.

Regulation of the Christmas tree industry by the authorities is patchy, as is the enforcement of safety rules. Revenue from taxes levied on the cones does not find its way back to local people.

As the light faded in the forest and it became too dark to pick, the workers picked up glasses of home-brewed wine and slices of corn bread.

They laughed as they told me that even though Georgia produces seed for the finest Christmas trees in the world, in the capital Tbilisi, rich Georgians import trees from Britain and Denmark.

Trees probably grown from Georgian seed that left their country more than a decade ago.

Crossing Continents is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 2 December at 1100 GMT and Monday 6 December at 2030 GMT. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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