Dato Chikhardze sets a plastic canister of water down beside his rusty Lada in front of his brick house. He has just drawn the water from a nearby river. Life is basic here in the mountains, and living conditions are tough. Dato, 44, is one of the lucky ones: He has a full-time, if low-paid, job as a teacher at the village school. Only 22 out of 300 residents in the village of Tlugi have full-time jobs.
Every September, three months before Christmas, Dato and the other men from the village set off to make a little extra money. They go into the remote mountain forests around the small city of Ambrolauri to pick fir cones. The seeds from these cones are bound for Europe, to be grown into stately Nordmann fir trees that will eventually enhance the Christmas celebrations of wealthy Europeans.
Well over half of all fir seeds that become household Christmas trees in countries such as Germany, Denmark and Great Britain originate in Tlugi and other villages here in northeastern Georgia. Georgian fir cones are considered to be especially high quality because they produce tall, long-lasting trees with soft needles.
A Billion Dollar Industry
Christmas tree sales in Europe amount to €2 billion ($2.6 billion) annually -- the business generated €700 million in sales in Germany alone last year. It's a highly competitive market, and one that wouldn't be nearly as profitable without Georgian fir cones.
Seven to 10 kilograms (15 to 22 pounds) of Nordmann fir cones are needed for a single kilogram of seeds. Middlemen in Georgia sell these for around €25 per kilo to foreign companies, who in turn resell them in Europe for more than €100 per kilo -- 50 times the amount earned by workers like Dato.
A winding road leads up the mountain to the woodshed where Dato and the other cone pickers deliver their haul every evening during the harvest season. They earn one lari, about 42 cents, for every two kilos of fir cones. In a good year, Dato brings home €1,000 -- four times the amount that he and his wife, also a teacher, earn together in a month.
The pay for a grueling 12-hour day of resin-stained hands and scratched faces is so enticing that hundreds of migrant workers descend on Ambrolauri at harvest time. The huge number of outsiders lowers the per-kilo price -- bad news for Dato and the locals.
The workers put their health and sometimes even their lives at risk as cones only grow in the treetops, and the highest firs can reach 30 meters (100 feet). "I've slipped so many times that I've lost count," says Dato, who also once broke a rib.
Eight years ago, he lost his friend Shora during the harvest season. "His brother showed up at our door one evening, worried because Shora hadn't come back," Dato remembers. The next morning, they found him dead at the foot of a fir tree.
Dato's wife was sick with worry that her husband might meet the same fate, so Dato invested in safety equipment. Most of the fir climbers, however, simply can't afford expensive ropes and harnesses, nor do buyers provide any safety equipment for their pickers. It seems that Christian kindness has clear limits even in the business of Christmas.
There is stiff competition between international investors for usage rights to every section of the Georgian forests. Licenses are sold at auction and, rumor has it, assigned with mafia-style methods.
Many Danish tree nurseries work with the Georgians -- a white logo from a Danish company hangs in Dato's woodshed. One of these nurseries is currently planning to grow a politically correct fir: "A Christmas tree that European families can put in their living rooms with a clear conscience," is how Marianne Bols, the founder of the "Fair Trees" initiative, describes it. Bols wants to see "more transparency in the Christmas tree business," as well as socially responsible production and better working conditions for the Georgian cone pickers.
The Danish organization has distributed more than a dozen sets of safety equipment in the region and provided health and life insurance policies for 30 workers as part of its "fair fir" project. Still, it will be some time before the first Georgian fair-trade firs hit the market, since it takes seven to 10 years for a seedling to grow into a Christmas tree.
Dato believes "there's something wrong with the world, when we're living in poverty and others are making huge profits." He wants to give his wife a bottle of perfume for Christmas this year, and will have to drive seven hours to Tbilisi to get it. There Dato will be able to see the new luxury shops, which have recently started selling imported Danish Abies nordmanniana -- Nordmann fir trees grown from Georgian seeds. A two-meter (six-and-a-half-foot) tree here costs the equivalent of €125 -- twice as much as it costs at some German Christmas tree markets.