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The harvests of Chernobyl via Aeon

By Kate Brown

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.

[…]

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.

[…]

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 standardscan 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.

[…]

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.

[…]

[…]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. 

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