Solidarity in the Forest: Why refugees are foraging for fungi in Finland’s forests

By
Lily Fox
BSc Anthropology alumnus


What has the typically Finnish practice of foraging got to do with two of the world’s biggest current debates: environmental change and refugees? This post discusses connection to nature, integration techniques, and the experience of refugees in Finland as an antidote to climate anxiety and feeling unsure how to use your skills to promote social justice.

Solidarity is a feminist response to large scale crises such as these. Not only are many refugees women or sexual minorities, but their specific needs in terms of healthcare and safety largely go unaddressed, forcing them into exploitative or dangerous routes (Pankhurst 2016). Environmental damage and destruction often hits rural and indigenous women the hardest (Burke 2019), while women are the largest proportion of people living in global poverty and so the least able to recover. This article recognises critical social work’s preference for “social inclusion” as a better technique for integration, since it challenges the ‘lack’ on the part of migrants that integration terminology suggests and promotes the idea integration is a ‘two-way street’.

In a rural area of Finland in 2018, refugees began searching for mushrooms as part of a project to empower local people to find a connection with nature and earn money sustainably. Jenna, the social worker who led the initiative, encouraged young Finns as well as refugees and asylum seekers staying at the local reception centre (‘the camp’) to go foraging for mushrooms and berries to eat or sell. Refugees or asylum seekers (unless they have been refused asylum twice) are housed, given basic welfare and can legally work in Finland. This foraging project empowered those who may otherwise find it difficult to gain supplementary incomes, due to lack of Finnish language skills or unrecognised certificates from their home countries. But it also did something more intangible, gently introducing refugees to Finland’s natural environment and the importance it holds for traditional Finnish ways of life.

Reception camps are usually geographically isolated in rural and urban peripheries. In this town, life is quiet; many residents are elderly, and small businesses are closing as nearby towns and cities grow. Refugees here told me how many opportunities there are in Finland, especially for their children, but how difficult they are to access without Finnish language skills (notoriously difficult to acquire) and about the process of adapting to cultural difference, such as the lack of a visiting culture here between friends and neighbours. Likewise, locals using public saunas in swimming pools are confused when non-locals try to sauna wearing their swimming costumes, an issue of cultural knowledge or ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu 1990), as even Finnish children know that wearing clothing soaked in chlorine in the sauna is dangerous due to the chemicals’ volatility in the heat. Nude saunas might be common here but are something most newcomers have to get used to.

These are small issues of mutual adaptation and negotiation, but more serious ‘clashes’ have occurred. There were attacks on reception centres across Finland when the government first began accepting refugees on a larger scale in 2015-16, including arson attacks (Finland Times 2015), and intimidation of new arrivals framed in terms of white nationalism (Aljazeera 2015), although this situation has greatly improved. The phrase ‘white power’ was neatly spray painted on the wall of a house that autumn. Being the only graffiti I saw in this small town, it shows that new tensions were finding voice in fascism; although Finland’s indigenous Sami and Roma populations have always faced discrimination.

That is not to say that most Finns are not welcoming and interested in newer residents, while solidarity networks such as Vapaaliikkuvuus (Free Movement) or the homestay scheme fight for their rights. But in 2018, the country was still unused to having such large numbers of asylum seekers, particularly in rural areas, and this social inclusion project connecting foraging, global inequalities, climate change and belonging was the most unique kind of positive action (or activism) I experienced.


One day, I go foraging in the forest. Walking alone or in pairs, we are led by Jenna, eyes intently focused on the mossy ground beneath. We tread carefully, slowly, scanning amongst fallen yellow leaves for golden-orange hued Chanterelle mushrooms that are well camouflaged against the shed skin of autumn’s leaves. They grow in chain patches, blooming together under dripping branches. These are a market favourite, and in the local supermarket they sell Chanterelle picked from the surrounding area. This is partly why we are out today. Jenna is taking us on a walk to help us identify which ones are edible as well as saleable.

My companions for this trip include a married couple and a mother and daughter from Russia. Many in the camp were crossing this nearest border. I have been invited through my Syrian partner, as Jenna also taught him Finnish once a week. We chat about the forest and mushroom varieties, and as the others drift off, distracted by fungi, Jenna tells me about Lingonberries.

Lingonberries are another favourite foraging item, forming the basis for jams and eaten raw. One activity she organized over summer to encourage local youth connection with the environment was to count lingonberry flowers, ripe and raw berries, and record the data. They noted how the number of flowers normally indicate the number of berries, and though there were fewer flowers than normal, the mossy ground spread beneath us should have been red with fruit. Instead, we saw a few small patches of unripe berries.

This brings us to climate change, as the summers in Finland are increasingly hot and dry, while the winters are shorter. Jenna explained that normally, well below zero temperatures lasting for months enable Finland’s short summer growing season, as the freeze helps the ground to break up and dislodge later when ice and ground freeze melts, allowing for roots to grow in clay soil. Although climate change has been predicted to improve agriculture generally in Finland, that isn’t a guarantee, and it is at the cost of unique ecosystems that require cold, frozen climates (Anon., climateguide.fi,). Thus, there have been instances of berry-pickers arriving from Thailand to return in debt, as the berry count for that year was so low, while numbers of visas issued were reduced in response (Bichelle 2015).

Finland has an everyman’s right to forage and roam, and this has been taken advantage of by commercial berry harvesting, as profitable berries such as cloudberries, bilberries and lingonberries have not yet been domesticated. In recent years, berry-pickers have largely hailed from the Ukraine and Thailand. These workers feed Nordic (and global cosmetics) appetites for the berries in conditions of work Finnish people largely wouldn’t accept, spending 3 months working 13-hour days without a contract, as they are considered ‘entrepreneurs’ making use of the right to roam. Although they earn a high income compared to labouring wages at home, for Finland it is pretty low while the work is physically demanding. Since they are paid for the weight of berries they pick, there is no room for sick days or a bad harvest (Bichelle 2015). This can lead to exploitation, and one man who recruited Thai workers has been charged with human trafficking (see Yle News 2017). 

Natural environments can therefore reinforce distinctions of belonging, and not only via labour practices. Migrants or refugees are routinely placed in peripheries such as forests on the edge of major cities, and systematically dehumanised by policy and everyday racism, their exclusion exacerbated by their ‘hidden’ locations away from urban centres (Drake 2019). Indeed, anthropologist Bettina Stoetzer’s work shows how specific “colonial legacies, experiences of displacement and racial exclusions shape and materialize in people’s relation to the landscapes they inhabit” (Stoezter in Drake 2019), creating feelings of discomfort and further displacement in remote housing in forested areas of Europe. What strikes me about Jenna’s project with refugees is how it links belonging with economic self-sufficiency and scientific monitoring useful in the fight against climate change, all in a small town without much opportunity for minorities or the youth population to engage with political justice. It recognizes the connection between minorities, refugees and climate change. It also eases people into Finnish culture, where saunas, autumnal mushroom picking and owning a traditional wooden summer house is not unusual. For refugees, activities such as these may help them to understand the host country’s natural as well as cultural habitus (Bourdieu 1990).


Many of us around the world despair at our government’s inaction in the face of global crises such as 70.8 million forcibly displaced people and looming climate change disaster, while charity or solidarity networks increasingly fill the gaps left by government policy in community work fighting against social inequality. Such is the development of global neoliberalism. Yet we must feel empowered to make our own change, rather than succumb to anxiety and paralysis fed by political impotence (WeArePlanC 2014). Small-scale activism like Jenna’s project, which act in solidarity with nature and minorities, are therefore inspiration for anyone feeling like they don’t know where to start. Change does not always come from direct action, and not everybody is able to attend protests, particularly if undocumented themselves or vulnerable to COVID-19. But everyone has some skills, interests or insight they could share in communities facing division and social inequality. Whilst current systems encourage anxiety and individual inaction, don’t abandon hope; it is after all small, everyday acts of solidarity that combine to form global movements of change.

References

Anon. (2015) ‘Finland far-right groups attack refugees’, Aljazeera [online], 25 September 2015, accessed 6 January 2020.

Anon. (2015) ‘Arson attack made on Lammi refugee center’, Finland Times [online], October 8th 2015, accessed 6 January 2020.

Anon. (2017) ‘Thai berry pickers speak of seized passports and outsize debt in human trafficking case’, Yle.fi [online], 14 December 2017, accessed 6 January 2020.

Bichelle, R.E. (2015) ‘Thai berry pickers in Nordic Lapland take home berries and antlers’, PRI.org, 16 October 2015, accessed 6 January 2020.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) ‘Structures, habitus, practices’, in The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Pp.52-65.

Burke, E. (2019) ‘Climate change impact is doubled if you are a woman and you are indigenous’, siliconrepublic.com, 18 January 2019, accessed 6 January 2020.

Climateguide.fi. (no date). ‘The impacts of climate change on Finland’s economy, Ilmasto-opas.fi, accessed 6 January 2020.

Drake, A.E. (2019) ‘Rethinking Nature and Migration: An interview with Bettina Stoetzer’, CulAnth.org, 12 December 2019, accessed 6 January 2020.

Pankurst, H. (2016) ‘The refugee crisis is a feminist issue. We can’t just sit by and watch’. The Guardian [online], 19 September 2016, accessed 6 January 2020.

WeareplanC. (2014) ‘We are all very anxious. We Are Plan C, 4 April 2014, accessed 6 January 2020.

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