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Global Ideas

From fir trees to fair trees

Cone-pickers at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains risk their lives collecting seeds for the native fir trees that adorn many a German living room at Christmas. Producers are now taking steps to improve safety.

Marianne Bols' Christmas story begins in Georgia. In 1989, the then 21-year-old, her husband, and her father-in-law - a Christmas tree grower - travelled to the small town of Ambrolauri, at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. She was tasked with exporting Georgian seeds to her native Denmark.

In 2007, almost two decades after her first trip to Georgia, Bols founded the organization Fair Trees. It was her way of contributing to a region where little had changed in the years between - and where little has changed yet.

"Getting from one tree to another is dangerous for the cone-pickers," Bols told Global Ideas. Quite literally risking life and limb, they climb out onto thin branches to reach cones that grow at dizzying heights of up to 40 meters (131 feet). These contain the seeds that will one day become Christmas trees.

Trees growing close to each other

Home of the Christmas tree: The Caucasian fir tree cone is popular in Germany

For all the perils of their work, these Caucasus Mountains workers earn between 20 and 80 euro cents per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of seeds. By contrast, Caucasian firs sell for 40 euros ($42) or more.

Fair Trees is trying to live up to its name, and reward Georgian workers in various ways.

For each tree sold, 0.675 euros go into a fund for the region around Ambrolauri. So far, that has been used to fund six student grants, set up a mobile dentist and buy wrestling mats for schools.

"For the Georgian national sport," Bols said. It has also paid for climbing equipment for its team of 10 cone-pickers, and training on how to use this equipment.

Reluctant safety

Other seed producers also prioritize safer working conditions. Danish company Levinsen and Abies, a leading exporter for the European market, equips its workers with ropes and security equipment.

Company manager Borge Klemmensen says they have been organizing training workshops for cone-pickers for years. But not everyone who works in Georgia's fir tree forests wants help from outside

"People don't want to use the security equipment," Klemmensen related, adding that workers are used to scaling such heights without harnesses, and that sometimes when they have finished collecting from one tree, they make it sway and then leap to the next.

Things changed somewhat when the seed supplier sent Danish climbers into the forest, and a Georgian mountaineer to translate. "The climbers we employ accepted the safety system," Klemmensen said.

Three men stand side-by-side in a forest

Cone-pickers Saba Kublashvili, Zvia Kublashvili and Robert Nacuriana (left to right) in the Georgian forest

These days, he fires cone-pickers caught jumping from tree to tree without safety gear. And because he is present in the forests during the three-week September harvest period, he sees what is going on with his own eyes.

Wholesalers call it Harakiri

Klemmensen describes cone-picking as a traditional farming business, which he says accounts for the high numbers of those who work without security gear or work contracts.

These unregulated pickers sell what they collect to wholesalers at much lower prices than organized - and safer - companies. This often doesn't become apparent until years later, when nursery plants or trees fail to grow as they should.

Markus Schauerm, a wholesaler from Bavaria, calls it a game of Harakiri, in which every dealer is responsible for his or her product. "You can't just pray that your trees will look good," he said, adding that the labeling of both seeds and trees is crucial for the industry.

Quality is one thing, but ultimately price dictates whether or not a tree is sold. Trees produced by Fair Trees, which are also certified organic, are no more expensive than their competitors. Although the company is still in its infancy, last year its traders sold 95,000 trees.

Cross-section of a fir cone

Fir cones: The origin of the seeds is important to German traders

For each tree sold, growers working with the company are obliged to plant a sapling grown from Fair Trees seeds. This now holds a modest 5 percent of Germany's market share.

Germany's association for Christmas tree growers says between 23 and 24 million are sold across the country each year. Some 75 percent are Caucasian firs - many of which derive from Georgian seeds.

And that is important to both German and Danish traders, as cones from the region around Ambrolauri are said to contain the best seeds in the world.