While berry-picking forms a seasonal joy for Arctic residents, the rest of the demands the fruits of their labor – and that of Thai migrant workers – year round.

Come autumn, across the northern hemisphere’s temperature latitudes, the trees turn vibrant shades of red, orange, and gold.

In the Arctic, it’s the tundra that takes on these vermillion hues, rolling out a red carpet that blankets the soggy earthen floor. Lakes and rivers start to freeze up again. Gradually – though less each year – the Arctic Ocean hardens again as it dons its icy winter coat. With climate change, the lengthening of summer means that each year, by the time the temperature finally starts to drop again, winter is becoming an ever more distant memory.

The autumn tundra outside Narsarsuaq, Greenland in September 2017. Photo: Author.

By September, polar bears have been stuck on land for months in places like Hudson’s Bay. They await freeze-up so they can get back out to sea, where they hunt seals from ice floes. Getting back onto the ice is a matter of life and death for these animals. Even though they graze upon the berries that pepper Arctic landscapes, one study showed that unlike their brown bear cousins, polar bears are not able to derive significant nutritional benefit from them. For these carnivores, it’s meat or nothing.

In contrast, small furry Arctic ground squirrels feast on the tundra’s cornucopia of “berries, seeds, mushrooms, and leaves.” They are doing so in preparation for a long hibernation that will send their bodies into a deep freeze, with their temperatures dropping to a remarkable -2°C. In a seasonal spurt of gluttony, these hardy creatures scurrying around from eastern Siberia to Alaska double their body weight. The resourceful frugivores will also store some of the tiny fruits and fungi in their burrows. Come spring, the frugivores will eat the tasty morsels, likely a bit stale by then, before reemerging into a warmed-up world. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the phrase “squirrel away,” wonder no more.

Berry-picking: a tradition, pastime, and delightful treat

And what do the people living in the Arctic do when the days begin to shorten and the winter winds start to blow?

From the Siberian Yupik living up and down the Bering Strait to ethnic Russians dwelling in Soviet mining cities, Arctic residents – Native and non-Native alike – go out and collect the last remaining berries hanging on the bushes. The season for bilberries and prized cloudberries will have passed by September, but some lingonberries might still linger if hungry berry-pickers haven’t already put them into their baskets. Berry-picking is so cherished by some Arctic Indigenous Peoples that their languages have a single verb for it. As Jen Rose Smith, a dAXunhyuu (Eyak, Alaska Native) geographer, tweeted:

In many parts of the Arctic, families have their own designated berry patch passed down across the generations, generally from a grandmother to a mother to a daughter. Traditional and local knowledge about berries remains vital, yet the practice has become more industrialized, too. These days, trucks and motor boats are used to both extend a family’s berry harvesting area and to reach berry patches, especially unclaimed ones, before anyone else. As documented in a study in Human Ecology on Indigenous knowledge and berry picking in Canada’s Northwest Territories, one Gwich’in woman expressed:

“We don’t go for berries much by boat anymore…when I was small, we didn’t even have a kicker [a boat with outboard motor]. All I remember is that when we had to go somewhere we had to paddle we paddled… and we didn’t think anything of it — to paddle to get berries. That was the way life was back then.”

The old way to get berries: on foot. Photo: U.S. Library of Congress, ca. 1900-1930. Nome, Alaska.

There are still some unspoken rules, though. As this blog documents on the ethics of berry-picking in Norway:

“There have been times where we have walked an hour or two to a field only to be duped by a person on a quad-bike driving from field to field.  This is greedy and very frowned upon.  Beating one person to one field on foot is one thing, beating 20 people to 20 fields on the same night because you are illegally going off road with a four-wheeler, is another.  The culprits are dealt with the only way Norwegians know how.”

Would you like your cloudberries served with cream or blood?

Berries are the cherries on top of a traditional, meat-heavy diet, providing important vitamins in a delightful burst of sweetness that cuts through the flesh and grease. They’re eaten both on their own and turned into all sorts of other concoctions, from jam served with a heaping spoonful of sugar (or mascarpone and cognac) atop blood pancakes in Sami cuisine, to akutaq in many Alaska Native cuisines.

Meaning “something mixed,” akutaq is a childhood favorite for many Alaskans. The dish consists of berries mixed with frothed reindeer, caribou, or moose fat, some seal or whale oil, and random bits and bobs chucked in, from sourdock greens to salmon. Former U.S. president Barack Obama enjoyed cloudberry (salmonberry) akutaq on his trip to Alaska and even learned a Yup’ik dance celebrating the fruit. The dish was also served this past Monday on Indigenous People’s Day during a traditional Alaskan Feast held at Anchorage’s Covenant House, which provides services to youth.

Akutaq’s evolution from a treat made entirely out of locally sourced ingredients to something that might call for factory-made shortening or sweetener illustrates how locals weave the outside world into their traditions. And just as Arctic residents have discovered the joys of sugar and spreadable fat in a tub, the rest of the world has acquired a taste for Arctic berries, whether procured from leather-clad, icy-eyed Russian women selling berries out of buckets on train platforms or purchased from an IKEA store in the South China Sea.

A woman selling blueberries and smoked fish to passengers on the train from St. Petersburg to Petrozavodsk, Russia. Photo: Author, July 2015.
Another woman selling buckets of blueberries and cloudberries to passengers on the train from St. Petersburg to Petrozavodsk, Russia. Photo: Author, July 2015.

The globalization of the cloudberry

On IKEA’s website, one can find jars of “SYLT HJORTRON” for sale, filled to the brim with golden, translucent cloudberry jam. The description stresses the “rarity of cloudberries,” but the fruit of the Rubus chamaemorus plant can’t be all that rare given the dozens of jars I saw on sale for a mere HK$49 (~US$6) at one of the Swedish furniture store’s five locations in Hong Kong.

An abbreviated list of cloudberry names:

  • aqpik (Inupiaq, in Alaska)
  • ᓯᑯᑕᐤ (sikutaw, in Naskapi, spoken by some Algonquin people in Quebec and Labrador)
  • bakeapple (Newfoundland and Labrador)
  • averon (Scotland)
  • hjortron (Sweden)
  • luomi (northern Sami)
  • moroshka (Russia) (full list of names here)

The forests and swamps in Finland alone pump out a billion kilograms of berries each year, but only 2-10% are actually picked. A survey of companies in the Nordic wild berry industry determined that “the raw material supply is one of the main bottlenecks hindering the success of the Nordic wild berry industry.”

The plight of the migrant berry-picker

To overcome the bottleneck, producers in Sweden and Finland must secure berry pickers willing and able to crawl through swamps to satisfy global markets rather than to fill family pantries. That requires bringing in migrant workers. Since the 1980s, people from Thailand (a country whose people are already impressively scattered throughout Arctic communities from Utqiagvik, Alaska to Longyearbyen, Svalbard to Qaqortoq, Greenland, as I’ve written before), have traveled to northern Scandinavia to pick berries.

Initially, the berry-pickers were the relatives of Thai women married to Swedish men who came for two to three months on tourist visas. Now, they are formally recruited by Swedish and Finnish companies. The Thailand-Arctic connection thus forms a weird sort of global tango in which Scandinavians spend their holidays in Thailand (in a tragic statistic, the largest number of people killed in the Christmas Day tsunami after Thais were Swedes), while Thais spend their summer monsoon seasons picking berries in Arctic swamps.

The work is not easy. It has also mutated from being an enjoyable way for relatives to make extra money to a sometimes abusive industry. An interview with a Thai berry picker exposes the hardships migrant workers face:

The next morning, our group of about ten people went back to the same place. But shockingly, the berries we saw the day before were all gone. We couldn’t find berries anywhere. There were none. I had no idea there were so many Thai workers who went to Sweden that year for the same reason. I felt disappointed…

…After that, we woke earlier and earlier and drove farther and farther to look for berries. Some days we drove as far as 500 km, which was the same distance between my home town to Bangkok. Then we had very short time to pick the fruit because we had to hurry back to the labour camp before the weigh-scale counter closed. The women were very tired and discouraged. I painfully lost my toenails from walking up the high mountains. A younger woman spoke to me in tears, ‘I am too tired. I can’t go on.’ She had lost almost 30 kilos of weight.”

An interview with a Thai berry picker published in an International Labour Organization report on the exploitation of Thai workers in Sweden by Chitraporn Vanaspong (2012)

Asian consumers push demand for cloudberries

Labor from Thailand, along with countries like Poland and Lithuania, is helping to meet rising demand for Nordic berries in Asia. In the Arctic, berries are a source of food, fun, and tradition. In a study of berry picking across Alaskan villages, one interviewee in the 80-person eastern Aleutian village of Akutan called berries “something to do, something to eat.”

In contrast in Asia, berries represent a commodity offering nutritional and health benefits not only in the forms of jams, but also lotions and soaps.

As demand for a product spreads worldwide, its consumption is disconnected from its seasonal patterns. While people in the Arctic anticipate the joys of berry picking in late summer and early autumn, people thousands of kilometers away, oblivious to the the hard work that goes into picking “nature’s candy” off the brambles once a year, come to assume that berries should exist year-round.

Cloudberry jam for sale at an IKEA in Hong Kong.

Exemplifying the Asian craze for berries, one of American strawberry producer Driscoll Farms’ largest markets is Hong Kong despite the city having no traditional use of the fruit nor the climate to grow them. (In Mainland China, however, people enjoy a traditional snack called tanghulu typically consisting of hawthorne berries skewered on a stick and coated in a hard sugar syrup, but nowadays more often imported fruits like strawberries).

The traditional Chinese berry snack, tanghulu, is visible on the right. I tried the snack at a shop outside this traditional restaurant in Nanjing, China in March 2019. Photo: Author.

Driscoll Farms is looking into vertical farming to allow intensive, indoor, climate-controlled production of strawberries in the densely populated subtropical city. Yet cloudberries still cannot be cultivated domestically, whether horizontally or vertically. They thrive in very particular conditions that are hard to recreate industrially, namely boggy swamps where enough snow falls each winter to insulate the plants until the following year.

For the time being, then, the only way to expand the global market is to fly in more migrant labor to comb through the bogs of northern Scandinavia. This year, despite the coronavirus pandemic, the Thai government made an exception permitting cloudberry workers to to travel to Sweden and Finland to carry out their work. The news was so big that even Chinese state media reported it. The Thai laborers made it in time to pick blueberries, lingonberries, and bilberries, but not cloudberries. Fortunately for those spherical orange gems, Finnish producers were able to rely on domestic suppliers. But going forward, Finnish cloudberry producers are planning to diversify their sources of migrant workers so they don’t face such bottlenecks again. Pandemic be damned, cloudberries will be picked.

In the future, much as some scholars argue that the discovery of fossil fuels helped save Arctic whale populations by reducing pressure on them for oil (though sociologist Richard York disagrees), the development of cloudberry cultivation could reduce pressure on Nordic berry patches and the need to import Thai labor. One can only hope that the consequences of farming cloudberries would be far less than the consequences of burning fossil fuels.

The invisible hand that picks the berries

Come October, the vast majority of Arctic berries will still remain on the bushes, waiting in vain to be eaten by a squirrel or picked by a human hand. Neither will come. Instead, the berries will drop off the bushes and fall onto the ground, dissolving into the hardening tundra.

But some patches will be wiped clean, perhaps by a family, perhaps by a bear, or perhaps by migrant workers. As more people and animals compete for the same accessible, desirable patches, it is inevitable that new tensions will emerge. Imagine if one summer, your family’s traditional area was picked clean by people flown in as part of a tight global supply chain involving “a closeknit network of wholesalers, wild berry companies and local managers in Sweden on the one hand, and Thai staffing agencies and local brokers in Thailand on the other,” as Linn Axelson and Charlotta Hedberg write in their study of the transnational industry. It would be upsetting and bewildering. Such a scenario would not, of course, be the fault of the migrant workers, but rather the invisible hand of the market coming to snatch all the berries away.

Situated within a historical context, the exploitation of a yet another Arctic commodity for global consumption repeats the cycles of past decades and centuries, whether for walrus ivory, furs, or whales. Global demand distorts the seasonal rewards from the unforgiving work that subsistence lifestyles demand – a set of skins, a whale, a bucket of berries – into commodities available year-round, and unsustainably so.

Categories: Global Arctic

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