Essay/Poverty & Development

The harvests of Chernobyl

Thirty years after the nuclear disaster, local berry-pickers earn a good living. What’s the hidden cost of their wares?

Kate Brown & Olha Martynyuk

Berries hang on the wall of a house in a village inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone. Photo by Rena Effendi/National Geographic/Getty

Kate Brown

is associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of Plutopia (2013).

Olha Martynyuk

is a historian at the National Technical University of Ukraine.

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2,900 words

Edited by Corey S Powell

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You can’t miss the berry-pickers in the remote forests of northern Ukraine, a region known as Polesia. They ride along on bicycles or pile out of cargo vans. They are young, mostly women and children, lean and suntanned, with hands stained a deep purple. And they are changing the landscape around them. Rural communities across eastern Europe are struggling economically, but the Polesian towns are booming with new construction. Two hundred miles west of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, thousands of mushroom- and berry-pickers are revving up the local economy. As they forage, they are even changing the European diet, in ways both culinary and radiological.

The rise of the Polesian pickers adds a strange twist to the story that began on 26 April 1986, when an explosion at the Chernobyl plant blew out at least 50 million curies of radioactive isotopes. Soviet leaders traced out a 30 kilometre radius around the stricken reactor and emptied it of its residents. Roughly 28,000 square kilometres outside this exclusion zone were also contaminated. In total, 130,000 people were resettled, but hundreds of thousands remained on irradiated territory, including the Polesian towns of Ukraine’s Rivne Province. In 1990, Soviet officials resolved to resettle several hundred thousand more residents but ran out of money to carry out new mass evacuations.

Last summer, we went to Rivnе to talk to people who in the late 1980s wrote petitions begging for resettlement. In the letters, which we had found in state archives in Kiev and Moscow, writers expressed worries about their health and that of their children, while describing a sense of abandonment. Help never arrived; the Chernobyl accident came just as the Soviet state began to topple economically and politically. In 1991, the whole giant crashed to earth, crushing factories, farms, hospitals, schools, and casting aside a whole way of life called ‘Soviet’ that millions of people, even as they grumbled about it, had held dear. For decades after, local economies in Polesia slowed to a birch-sap trickle. Revitalisation programmes launched by international development agencies and government projects in the mid 1990s failed or were scaled too small to have an impact. Former collective farms, unable to survive without government subsidies, turned to weeds. Young people took off for cities.

We arrived in the Rivne Province expecting to see tumbled-down peasant cottages and overgrown gardens, villages inhabited mostly by the elderly, as in many regions directly in the lee of the plant. Instead, we zoomed along on remarkably good roads, checked into a comfortable new roadside hotel, swam in a just-opened sports-club pool, and drove through freshly built suburban developments with large single-family houses, surrounded by grilles, sprinklers and lawn dwarfs. The whir and pound of saws and hammers building more houses echoed across the former farmland.

Startled by all this economic development, we asked where the money came from. Locals talked of the amber barons. In the past few years, the price of amber rose 1,500 per cent, driven by Chinese demand. Gangs of armed men took control of the lucrative local business of unlicenced logging and digging for amber. The loggers and amber prospectors bring in money; they also leave behind deep trenches and scorched clearings pitted with furrows, stumps and sand, lending swathes of the Polesian forest the look of a Saudi beach party on the morning after. But much of the newfound wealth comes from the pickers whom we started noticing all around.  

Anyone in Polesia can pick anywhere, as long as they are willing to brave the radioactive isotopes. After Chernobyl, Soviet officials strongly discouraged picking berries in contaminated forest areas, which promised to remain radioactive for decades. As the years passed, fewer and fewer people heeded the warnings. In the past five years, picking has grown into a booming business as new global market connections have enabled the mass sale of berries abroad. A person willing to do the hard work of stooping 10 hours a day and heaving 40-pound boxes of fruit to the road can earn good money. The women and child pickers are revitalising the Polesian economy on a modest, human-powered scale. They are quietly and unceremoniously doing what development agencies and government programmes failed to do: restoring commercial activity to the contaminated territory around the Chernobyl Zone.

We followed the pickers into the woods. Their shapes materialised in and out of the dappled sun as they pedalled along wildly undulating roads. The pickers would speak to us only briefly before hustling back to work, moving through the forest like a pack of juvenile bears. They foraged with quick, efficient motions: stoop, shovel, step – silent, except for the brushing sounds of their scoops and the pinball roll of berries hitting plastic buckets. When they filled their baskets, the pickers returned to the road, which is lined every few kilometres with women sitting under beach umbrellas near parked vans. The women would weigh the berries and exchange them for cash.

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Reliance on the forest for a living is an ancestral tradition in Polesia. Because of the mineral-poor soils, traditional farming never thrived here. Instead, Polesians subsisted on game, fish, berries, herbs and mushrooms while making their tools and homes from wood and clay. What is new in the past few years is the industrial-sized scale of berry harvesting. A typical roadside berry-buyer purchases about two tons of berries a day in season, and there are hundreds of buyers. In 2015, Ukraine exported 1,300 tons of fresh berries and 17,251 tons of frozen berries to the European market – more than 30 times as much as in 2014. Ukraine is now one of biggest exporters of blueberries to the EU.

That success is all the more remarkable because Polesian berries are not just any berries. They grow in radioactive soils, which means that they carry some of Chernobyl’s legacy in them. We showed up at a berry wholesaler in the boom town of Rokytne and noticed a radiation monitor who was stationed to meet buyers at the loading dock. The situation there was tense. As the monitor waved a wand over each box of berries, measuring their gamma ray emission, she set aside about half of the boxes. The buyers argued with her, trying to lower the count on their berries: ‘It’s not the berries that are radiating. It’s my trailer. Measure it over there.’

We asked the monitor, a young townswoman, how many berries come up radioactive. ‘All the berries from Polesia are radioactive,’ she replied, ‘but some are really radioactive. We’ve had berries measure over 3,000!’ She could not describe what units she was referring to, microsieverts or microrems; she only knew which numbers were bad. ‘The needle has to be between 10 and 15,’ she said, vaguely pointing to her wand, ‘and then I place it in this machine.’ She gestured toward a small mass spectrometer. ‘If the readout is more than 450, then the berries are over the permissible level.’

Contrary to our assumption, the berries rejected as too radioactive were not discarded, but were merely placed aside. Then they, too, were weighed and sold, just at lower prices. The wholesalers we spoke to said that the radioactive berries were used for natural dyes. The pickers claimed the hot berries were mixed with cooler berries until the assortment came in under the permissible level. The berries could then legally be sold to Poland to enter the European Union (EU) market, even if some individual berries measured five times higher than the permissible level. Such mixing is legal as long as the overall mix of berries falls within the generous limit of 600 becquerel per kilogram set by the EU after the Chernobyl disaster.

No one, certainly no official, ever envisioned revitalising the economy by exploiting berries and mushrooms. Months after the 1986 accident, Soviet scientists determined that forest products were the most radioactive of all edible crops, and banned their consumption. However, villagers in Polesia never stopped harvesting berries and mushrooms (as well as game and fish) from the forests outside the fenced-off Chernobyl Zone. Women sold their produce surreptitiously at regional markets, deftly avoiding the police who learned to identify Polesians by their homemade baskets.

Polesian berries are marketed to western European customers as organic; radioactivity does not affect that designation

Since 1996, international development agencies and state officials have encouraged the normalisation of Polesian agriculture, especially by means of dairy farming. Cows supplied with clean feed produce less radioactive milk, which can then be filtered or processed into cream and yogurt to further reduce its radiation levels. But dairy farming requires starting investments that are out of reach for most Ukrainians. All a picker needs, on the other hand, is a wooden box, a homemade berry scoop, a bike or a few dollars for a ride in a shuttle van. And the returns are big. Pickers can make the equivalent of $20 to $30 a day in a region where the average monthly salary for a school teacher is $80. Inevitably, the Polesians embraced a practice that had never really gone away.

Galina is a professional picker who lives in Rudnia-Radovelska. She explained that her village has no store and no services. Berry buyers are essential, delivering groceries and medicine in exchange for berries. Galina makes $25 a day picking. ‘I’m 52 years old,’ she said angrily. ‘Where else could I make that kind of money at my age?’ In ways similar to official state policy, Galina prefers not to think of the radioactivity of the food she consumes. ‘OK, say the mushrooms have Chernobyl, we still pick them and eat them. We don’t look. We don’t pay attention to where the radiation is. We eat everything without boundaries. You go to a marketplace and hear: “Oh, Chernobyl, Chernobyl”, but we have no Chernobyl. There is no Chernobyl for us. I work, I live, I carry on.’

In August, pickers haul cranberries out of the Polesian bogs. In the fall, they return to gather mushrooms. Making an industry out of combing the woods for forest products is one of those creative adaptations locals have devised in order to persist in the contaminated spaces left to them. They have memorised the radioactive hot spots with berries that get rejected by the market tests. They have set up a rural network to deliver freshly picked wild blueberries to wholesalers bound for Europe. Abandoned economically, Polesians have finally managed to transform their forest products into commodities for the global market. A group of pickers, sweaty and bug-bitten after a day in the forest, saw the irony of their new trade. ‘We send our organic, wild berries abroad, and get berry-flavoured drinks in return. We ship off good pine lumber and they send us faux-wood particle board.’

This is the usual, colonial exchange of raw materials for higher-priced, manufactured goods. In this case, though, the trade signals a positive development for the locals. For three decades, Polesians ate radioactive forest foods themselves. Berries that fall below EU radiation standards can pass into European markets, destined for wealthier consumers abroad. This flow of goods westward marks a small shift in the global caste system, in which poorer populations usually consume the most toxic by-products of the industrial world. Adding a further twist, Polesian berries are often marketed to the western European customers as organic; radioactivity does not affect that designation.

Although the Polesian berries meet EU standards, it remains unclear how healthy life is for those living in the Rivne Province. Official publications of the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency assert that radiation levels in Polesia are too low to cause health damage other than a slight rise in the chance of cancer. However, that judgment is based on reference studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, not on local research in the Chernobyl zones. Wladimir Wertelecki, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego, has spent the past 16 years tracking every recorded birth in the Rivne Province. ‘Hiroshima was just one big X-ray. It doesn’t compare to the doses of people in Polesia who ingest radioactive isotopes every day,’ he says. He thinks that the slow-drip exposure of organs to radioactive isotopes over decades makes for a far more damaging exposure than the single, external Hiroshima dose.

Researchers in Wertelecki’s group and those working on small, usually minimally financed medical studies have found that low doses of ingested radiation tend to concentrate in vital organs that keenly impact on important body functions. Yury Bandazhevsky, a pioneer in studying the health impacts of Chernobyl, has recorded a correlation between the incorporation of radioactive cesium in children’s bodies and heart disease in Belarus and Ukraine. Wertelecki and the Ukrainian medical researcher Lyubov Yevtushok discovered that in the six Polesian regions of the Rivne Province, certain birth defects, such as microcephaly, conjoined twins and neural-tube disorders occur three times more frequently than is the European norm. ‘We did not prove with this study that radiation causes birth defects. We just have a concurrence, not proof, of cause and effect,’ Wertelecki says. Nevertheless, he considers the concurrence statistically strong enough to warrant large-scale epidemiological studies that could prove or disprove whether the birth defects were caused by radiation.

Despite the fact that the nuclear disaster presented scientists with a unique living laboratory, few funding agencies have been willing to finance Chernobyl studies on non-cancerous health effects; based on Japanese bomb-survivor research, industry scientists have insisted that there would be no measurable non-malignant impacts. In Chernobyl-contaminated Polesia, however, few people doubt that ingesting radioactive toxins over decades has a biological cost. Galina, the woman who declared that there was ‘no Chernobyl’, changed her view later when talking about her own health. Trim and fit at the age of 50, she had a stroke followed by two surgeries for ‘women’s cancer’. About her cancers, she said: ‘All of a sudden, they started growing day by day. I asked the doctors if they’d hold up the operation until autumn [after the harvest], but they said I’d be dead by then. Probably, these problems were caused by radiation. It does have an effect, apparently.’ Even less is known about non-cancer health impacts from Chernobyl. Many locals complain of aching and swollen joints, headaches, chronic fatigue and legs that mysteriously stop moving. There have been almost no studies investigating these vague complaints.

Chernobyl is an ongoing occurrence that transpires as long as the radioactive energy released in the accident continues to decay

Swapping local berries for imported berry-flavoured soda helps to share the radioactive burden, spreading it more evenly to non-Polesian populations. European consumers might not be happy about ingesting Chernobyl radiation in their organic berries. They might not be willing to take part in the exchange of contaminants that accompanies the normalisation and commercialisation of radioactive territories. Mostly, though, they seem unaware that they are participating in this experiment. It is hard to know the biological cost of this exchange because there has been little public discussion and almost no medical research on the long-term, low-dose ingestion of radioactive isotopes. Presumably exporting the berries helps the people of Polesia, but for now there is no hard proof.

The economic and social consequences are easier to observe, but they too are hardly clear-cut. For years, writers, artists and philosophers have dwelled voluminously on Chernobyl as the planet’s greatest technogenic disaster, even as the slow decommissioning of lands once earmarked as ‘contaminated’ has been left to policymakers and regulators to discuss in private conference rooms. The mass marketing of radioactive Polesian forest products is an unexpected outcome of policies aimed at finalising the disaster. It is a development that disputes the focus on Chernobyl as a ‘place’. Rather, Chernobyl is an event, an ongoing occurrence that transpires as long as the radioactive energy released in the accident continues to decay.

Chernobyl could be the emblematic disaster of the Anthropocene, the modern geological epoch in which humans are the driving force of planetary change. The widespread appearance of man-made materials, such as radioactive isotopes from nuclear tests and reactor accidents, are archetypal signals of this new age. Our bodies, like the Polesian berries, are receptacles of those materials. More than 60 new nuclear power plants are currently under construction, poised to add more radioactivity to a human-generated environmental cocktail that also includes plastics, heavy metals and industrial chemicals. Far beyond Chernobyl, a return to normal no longer means a return to natural; the whole world is Polesia. 

In inventing technologies that permit the production of toxins and radioactive isotopes, we have left no place to escape exposure to our own contaminants. Polesians know this and have learned to live with it in the way that a person gradually comes to ignore a blaring radio. As Galina admitted: ‘Well, in fact there is Chernobyl, but it’s all ours. A person adapts.’

Research for this article was generously supported by the Carnegie Foundation.

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