Collecting berries in a Russian forest

Komi Republic, RUSSIA: For villagers of Spasporub, a village of 1,000 people in Russia’s northern Komi region, simply not being able to collect the forest’s bounties of berries and mushrooms during its typical harvesting period threatens much of their food security for the rest of the year.

These forest products serve as both sustenance and income for locals. For many villagers who live minimally from day to day, when they are unable to gather these harvests from July to September, their staple food for the year can be scarce.

Russian berries

The importance of forest produce and role of the cooperative

The collection of berries and mushrooms is crucial to the livelihood of the local community in the village of Spasporub in Russia’s Northern Komi Region—both culturally (berries and mushroom picking has been a long-standing traditional activity for families and bonding opportunities for women), and to make up for lack of opportunities or fixed jobs.

For the poorer families of Spasporub this also generates a vital supply of food - which they use to make pickles, jams, jellies and other local specialities - for the rest of the year.

Okasana Grigorievna

Okasana Grigorievna, head of Spasporub’s village administration, says there is no official statistic for the total number of people that go berry and mushroom picking each day, however, “50 per cent of occasional employment in the village is from picking berries and mushrooms and the remaining 50 percent is from odd jobs, administrative jobs and jobs like teaching, etc.”

A few of the villagers—“around 20-25 people”—also work for FSC-certified timber logging company Luza Les.

Russian villagers sell their berries to a local cooperative

After collecting seasonal berries like cranberry, cloudberry and wild mushrooms between July and September each year, before the rains descend, villagers sell them to a local cooperative, the Spasporub Consumer Society. The society buys the berries, stores them in its warehouses and sells them to businesses that come from other towns and villages in the region.

This helps locals earn income from the non-timber forest products they collect. Of the 1,000 people in the village around 700 people are members of the cooperative. This means they pay a one-time fee of 30 roubles and become eligible to partake of any profit made by the cooperative.

Berries

Such cooperatives used to be a regular occurrence in this region but following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, problems of wages, profitability and productivity plagued them, causing many to shut down.

According to the paper, Forest Research – Challenges and Concepts in a Changing World, “NTFP [non-timber forest product] collection decreased from 26,321 tons in 1990 to 490 tons in 2000, and, consequently, for cranberry and cowberry 1,081 and 80 tons (Forest of Russia, 2002). Now people collect NTFP products for personal consumption and/or selling in the cities. They recognize this activity as one of the survival trends.”

Natalia Vasilievna Nizovtseva

The survival of Spasporub’s cooperative is credited to 60-year-old Natalia Vasilievna Nizovtseva, elected head of the cooperative between 1990 and 2013.

“Most cooperatives shut down because they could not adapt to change. I used innovative methods like introducing membership fees and being selective about products we want to buy and sell,” Nizovtseva said.

Today, Spasporub Cooperative Society is the village’s main employer, employing 70 fulltime staff and contributing about 120,000 Rubles (about EUR 1705) in value added tax to the village administration.

Tamara Grigorievna Firsova

Tamara Grigorievna Firsova has been collecting berries and mushrooms since she was six. She is now 70.

On a showery day in mid-September in Spasporub, Firsova is at the cooperative’s warehouse to sell the berries she has collected. On a normal day she collects at least 30 kgs but because of the showers on the day and earlier rains which ruined much of the berry harvest, she managed to collect just 20 kgs.

Still, she considered herself lucky. “The rains kept away many people from the forests today and so even though the berries harvest is less, I managed to collect 20 kgs,” she said.

Berries in a Russian village

Firsova says that the berry picking season was more prolonged when she was young and lasted till the end of October. “However, seasonal changes and regular climate fluctuations have shortened the season to the end of September—that too if we are lucky.”

Firsova is currently retired and helps run a household of three. “My daughter does not have a fixed job, so she and my grand-daughter also help collect berries during season. The income we receive helps us buy essentials for the year.”

Vera Ivanovna Maruk

*Vera Ivanovna Maruk, works for the village administration. However, the 46-year-old also goes to collect berries on her days off. “I’ve collected berries since I was a child so whenever I have some time off, I go to the forest. It’s fun and helps me make some supplementary income,” Maruk said.

The Spasporub Cooperative Society is the backbone of the village economy – it provides jobs to villagers, backs local sourcing, facilitates the sale of food items and significantly contributes to taxes which enhancing the village’s budget.

The other business helping sustain Spasporub’s local culture and tradition is an FSC-certified timber logging company, Luza Les.

Luza Les, which has its headquarters – two hours away – in Syktyvkar, leases forests around the village for logging, from the government. They support the village is through a social partnership, where company transfers a fixed amount of funds to the village administration, which is in turn used to improve social infrastructure (like schools and build an activity ground) and organise community events.

Berries in Russian forest

The paper Forest Research – Challenges and Concepts in a Changing World, has stated, “People link forest management only with timber growing and harvesting, although forests produce numerous goods and services. Forest managers, wisely using forests for people and environment, could significantly increase forest benefits, such as recreation, soil and water protection, food, medicinal plants, resins and other non-timber forest products (NTFPs).”

Okasana Grigorievna, head of Spasporub’s village administration, says sustainably managed forests like those of Luza Les has enabled locals of her village to continue their cultural practice (of gathering fruit and mushrooms from the forests) and helped boost their income, by refraining from logging in forests where villagers go to collect food.

“When we found some areas in our nearby forests which had mushrooms, we brought it up with the company. They left the area as it was so that locals could continue picking them for use,” she said.

Sparsporub community in Russia

Even as climate change becomes more pronounced each year and communities like the ones in Spasporub remain vulnerable, being able to continue their local tradition of foraging for food in the forests and bonding with their community while doing so, provides them some solace.

Tamara Grigorievna Firsova hugs a bucket of her shiny red pickings of the day, drifting into nostalgia.

“The weather has changed since I was a child and harvest seasons are shorter. But going into the forests and collecting berries—just like I did when I was a child—relaxes me.”