Thai workers, maybe the last of the Mohicans picking lichen on the island of Hailuoto off Oulu, are crouching down on the ground.
”One must not walk on the ground where lichen has not been watered yet”, instructs Markku Sipola, the managing director of Polar-Moos Oy. Dry lichen is easy to break, and only the first quality produce will bring a good price.
Or it did once. In the 1960s and 1970s, the lichen business was altogether more profitable.
At that time, there were five larger and a couple of smaller lichen enterprises. At present, there is only one left: it covers 80 per cent of the entire country’s lichen exports.
The export of Finnish lichen has declined to one-fifth from the peak year of 1972.
”One of the reasons for the situation is the fact that cremation has become common in Europe”, Sipola notes.
Lichen is exported from Hailuoto to 12 countries. The greatest quantities are bought by German-speaking Europe, where lichen is a popular decorative material in graveyards.
”For example in Germany, graves are decorated with lichen for the autumn and winter. When it is dark and wet, the glow of luminous lichen is nice”, Sipola notes.
However, today an increasing number of families are content with decorations with no lichen.
Another source of dissatisfaction for the entrepreneur is the fact that Sweden exports lichen almost at giveaway prices.
”There lichen can be picked even without the landowner’s permission, while the middlemen do not pay any employer’s contributions”, Markku Sipola frets.
Lichen picking traditions date back many decades in Northern Ostrobothnia, but the work is no longer good enough for Finns. However, it is a pure coincidence that the pickers happen to be from Thailand.
”I asked a Thai restaurateur in Vaala whether he knows any people who would be interested in picking lichen. He recruited some of his own relatives to come and help us”, Sipola says.
Today the number of Thai pickers is already 24. They always stay in Finland from June to October.
The employer pays for their travel to Finland, while each employee pays for his or her return trip home.
Thanom Mäkelä, who has come to Finland through marriage, thinks that Finns do not like lichen picking as it is hard work.
”In a way this rerminds me of planting rice. We are used to hard work”, Mäkelä notes.
Another reason could be the low pay, Mäkelä suggests.
”If one thinks of Finnish salaries, not good”, Thanom says in Finnish with a broad smile.
Packing lichen into cardboard boxes, Ampol Kasa says that he is satisfied with the wages. In Thailand he would earn approximately EUR 200 to 300 per month, while in Finland his wages can be EUR 1,000 to 1,200 every month.
”When I go back home, I will have savings of EUR 2,500 to 3,000”, Kasa says.
The Thai pickers have saved Sipola’s business for the time being, but where could he find a successor to his enterprise? Sipola’s maternal grandmother already began to sell lichen to middlemen in the 1930s, and the entrepreneur would not like to interrupt the long tradition.
What about the Thai pickers? Could any of them carry on the business?
”It is all right with me as long as they have the required language skills”, Sipola notes.