Dressed in a military jacket and trousers, and sporting a large beige camouflage hat, Lasha Sopromadze scans the horizon with his binoculars. From the summit of 2,000-metre-high Mount Satsalike, the view of the Great Caucasus Range is breathtaking. In the distance, the snowy peaks mark the border with Russia.
But Lasha isn’t looking for beautiful scenery, or game to be hunted. He’s looking for pine cones. ‘I don’t see anything except in a location that is inaccessible,’ says the athletic 40-something resident of the Georgian village of Tlugi.
In the local region, the pine cone harvest takes place every September and usually lasts for two to three weeks. The men who live in Tlugi and the other communities that surround Mount Satsalike look forward to this time of the year, when they can earn money climbing giant trees. Raised by a local family, Lasha learned from a young age to overcome his fear in order to ascend to the top of the conifers, which can reach heights of 30–50 metres.
‘I spent last week in the forest, camping and climbing Nordmann firs. But now it’s surely over for this year,’ he says, following the day’s unsuccessful scouting. This year, Lasha and his two teammates have harvested just under a tonne of pine cones and earned a total of 2,000 laris (around £500). This isn’t a good year. During a good season they can earn 2,000 laris each – twice the average salary in Georgia.
During the rest of the year, Lasha farms a small patch of land located at an elevation of 1,200 metres above sea level. His house is the final dwelling on the dirt road that leads up from the village centre to the mountain pastures and the huge Nordmann fir forest. The wooded, undulating landscape is reminiscent of the Alpine foothills.
Sixty families currently live in Tlugi, compared to more than 300 during the Soviet period. The entire landlocked region of Racha in western Georgia is affected by this rural–urban exodus, which has seen Racha’s total population halve, dwindling from 60,000 to 30,000 inhabitants since the country gained independence in 1991.
Tlugi is located within the municipality of Ambrolauri and these two toponyms are extremely familiar to Europe’s 15,000 or so Christmas-tree growers. ‘Ambrolauri-Tlugi’ is known for providing the best Nordmann fir seeds and they can be found in the catalogues of all good seed companies.
According to estimates from the Danish Christmas Tree Association – the most powerful national organisation in Europe – 45 million of the 80 million natural Christmas trees sold each year on the Continent are Nordmann trees, and 80 per cent of them are said to come from Georgia, either from Ambrolauri or the Borjomi region further south. The Caucasian nation exports between 25 and 70 tonnes of Nordmann seeds annually, with more than 80 per cent going to Denmark.
‘The Nordmann has a graceful silhouette, and long, thick needles that it keeps for three months,’ says Marianne Bols, the head of Fair Trees, a Danish company that works to apply fair trade principles to the entire Christmas tree production chain: from the harvesting of the seeds in Racha to the cultivation of the conifers in central Denmark and their distribution in various European countries.
The Caucasian fir was first scientifically identified in 1835 by the Finnish biologist Alexander von Nordmann. It grows naturally on the eastern edge of the Black Sea: in Georgia, Russia and northern Turkey. But not all Nordmann trees are born equal. ‘The seeds from Ambrolauri produce beautiful Christmas trees that grow very compactly, which is not the case with other origins, even in southern Georgia,’ says Karl Moser, a German seed dealer who usually travels to Racha every autumn for the harvest season.
During the Soviet period, the harvesting and export of Nordmann seeds was a state monopoly. The quantities collected were much smaller but the activity involved the entire population of Tlugi. ‘Families went with their children to the mountain at this time of the year and many women climbed up the fir trees,’ recalls 54-year-old Violeta Katsitadze nostalgically as she sits in the living room of her old wooden house. In the entrance hall, drying beans and peppers have been laid out, ready to be canned for the long winter months.
‘Our generation was closely connected with the forest – it was a place where we met each other and relaxed in the evenings. Now this is no longer the case; it’s mostly young men who go up there and only during the harvest period to earn money,’ she says.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the collapse of the Communist system led to a deep economic recession in Georgia. Lacking alternative sources of income, many villagers climbed trees in search of the precious seeds, sometimes risking their lives. Several deaths led to a gradual increase in the use of safety equipment.
Ramaz Chelishvili, 43, works for the Danish company Levinsen, Europe’s leading purveyor of Nordmann seeds. Equipped with gloves, a harness and an orange helmet, he climbs with practised ease to the top of a tree and begins to remove the pine cones. After detaching them, he throws them down to the ground, where they bounce and roll in the undergrowth before being picked up by his teammates.
‘It takes us 20 to 30 minutes, maximum one hour, to harvest one fir tree. On each tree, we collect an average of ten kilograms of pine cones but this can fluctuate from one season to another,’ says the picker, who lives in Tkibuli, a declining mining town in the neighbouring region of Imereti.
According to an estimate from the Fair Trees company, the total number of seasonal workers varies from 300 to 400. They are paid according to the weight of pine cones harvested. The price can vary according to the season and the purchasing company, but a kilogram usually pays between one and 2.5 laris. Only the Fair Trees company offers a fixed price of five laris per kilo. The low pay is a recurrent grievance among the pickers, who went so far as to go on strike in 2013. National legislation in Georgia doesn’t regulate wages and provides little protection for workers.
‘During the strike, we managed to negotiate a higher price but the victory was short-lived,’ recalls Lasha with spite. ‘Remuneration fell again in the following years because we didn’t have a strong spirit of solidarity in the village. The companies called on people from other regions who were ready to work for less.’
As the Levinsen pickers finish up for the day, other employees pick up the bags of pine cones and gather them in a glade, where they will be stored temporarily. Next to the stacks, Levinsen’s manager, Ulrik Nyvold, is sitting on a quad bike – a car accident left his legs paralysed. ‘We supervise the harvest, which is carried out by the Georgian company Jadvari, with which we have been working for many years,’ he explains. ‘They take care of recruiting the pickers, organise all the logistics and then clean the seeds in their Tbilisi factory before exporting them by truck.’
A small tablet is fixed to the bike, which Nyvold uses to geolocate the different forest sectors being harvested. Each area is associated with a specific ten- or 20-year licence, auctioned off by the Georgian authorities. In total, 24 licences cover the 5,000-hectare Tlugi forest.
With five licences, the Levinsen-Jadvari alliance is the main player, but Nyvold is far from satisfied with the system. ‘We paid a lot for these licences,’ he says. ‘I would have hoped that the environmental police would have monitored the activities in the forest more carefully so that no-one would come and harvest in our areas!’ He’s referring to the so-called ‘pirate harvest’, known to take place in Tlugi and the other Nordmann fir forests around western Georgia. Seeds are illegally collected, often by lower-paid workers climbing without safety equipment, and end up feeding a parallel market in Europe.
‘There are two types of market,’ Nyvold continues, ‘one for seeds for which there is no independent control to guarantee provenance, but which still bears the Ambrolauri label, and one for seeds with documents proving their traceability and quality. This is our case and it involves expensive certification procedures. We sell our seeds from Georgia at £115–120 per kilo; the others are traded at £55 or £65 per kilo.’
This lack of control from the Ministry of the Environment is also a major concern for the municipality of Ambrolauri, which levies a tax of 60 tetri (100 tetri = 1 lari) on each kilo of pine cones collected by the companies, based on the quantity declared by each licensee.
‘If someone declares five tonnes here and exports seven tonnes, there is no mechanism to uncover fraud. We are asking the government to tighten controls because we think we can double our revenues from this tax. This will allow us to invest more in local infrastructure,’ says Zviad Mkheidze, mayor of the city of Ambrolauri, as he sits at his desk, behind which hangs the municipal coat of arms: a bunch of grapes topped by three mountains and a Christian cross.
Crossed by the Rioni River, Ambrolauri is a sleepy settlement whose only curiosity is a huge bottle erected in the middle of its main roundabout. On its giant label is marked ‘Khvanchkara’, the appellation of a locally produced semi-sweet red wine, famous across all of the former Soviet republics. In addition to winemaking, which is the main economic activity of the valley, local officials are hoping that tourism and organic agriculture will help to develop and repopulate the surrounding villages. ‘More jobs would also be created if the drying and processing of seeds were carried out locally and if nurseries were created,’ says the mayor.
This prompts a bigger question. What if Georgia produced its own Nordmann fir trees instead of just exporting the seeds? The overall turnover of the Christmas tree sector in Europe is estimated at £1.4 billion. Capturing even a tiny fraction of this lucrative market would have great economic benefits. In 2011, the Georgian government commissioned the auditing firm PwC to carry out a feasibility study on creating a local Christmas tree industry. The report concluded that it would be a significant challenge, as the country lacked the capital and advanced horticultural know-how to compete with European firms.
‘We believe, however, that there are opportunities to develop the domestic market and sell Christmas trees to neighbouring countries such as Russia, Armenia or Azerbaijan,’ says Karlo Amirgulashvili, head of the department dedicated to biodiversity and forests at the Ministry of the Environment. ‘But of course, this is a free and open market for entrepreneurs – state bodies can only raise awareness among private stakeholders.’
New initiatives are also emerging from civil-society organisations. In 2016, Giorgi Janitsa, a 31-year-old horticulturist, founded the NGO Green Life in Tbilisi, with the support of the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. ‘Our aim is to popularise the Christmas tree in Georgia, because many people don’t know it actually comes from our country!’ he says.
The project is based near the centre of Tbilisi, just behind the huge Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, built between 1995 and 2004, symbolising the reawakening of Orthodox faith after seven decades of Soviet atheism. The church opened a professional horticultural college in the premises of the Holy Trinity. Students take care of the green spaces surrounding the cathedral and participate in Green Life activities. They tend the Nordmann fir seedlings that are lined up in their hundreds in front of the school building.
‘These small fir trees are about two years old. We sell them in pots during December,’ says Janitsa. ‘The aim isn’t to compete with Denmark but first of all to participate in the fight against deforestation in Georgia, which is a serious issue. This is why we are asking customers to replant these seedlings in their garden or in a forest.’
On the other side of the school, metre-high Nordmann firs grow in larger pots. These are unsold trees from a previous year, collected by the school. Paradoxically, like the majority of Christmas trees sold in Georgia they’ve been imported from Denmark. They cost between 120 and 200 laris, a huge amount for consumers living in urban centres and an unaffordable luxury for households in rural and mountainous areas. While living in the homeland of Europe’s most popular Christmas tree, most Georgians put up a plastic tree made in China in their living room when the festivities begin. Maybe one day, that will change.