Loot­ers strip moun­tains of wild tea, rare plants in Greece

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

In the rugged, herb-scented moun­tains of north­west­ern Greece, where the bor­der with Al­ba­nia is a snaking in­vis­i­ble line, trou­ble is brew­ing over tea - the wild herbal va­ri­ety. Greek au­thor­i­ties and con­ser­va­tion­ists say bands of im­pov­er­ished Al­ba­ni­ans are mak­ing reg­u­lar cross-bor­der fo­rays, il­le­gally har­vest­ing don­key-loads of herbs and medic­i­nal plants. They mostly pick moun­tain tea also called iron­wort - hawthorn and even prim­rose, but they are also de­stroy­ing rare and en­dan­gered species in the process.

The loot­ers then sell the herbs for ex­port to phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal or cos­met­ics com­pa­nies, a business that nets Al­ba­nian whole­salers tens of millions an­nu­ally. It’s il­le­gal in Greece to pick more than a tiny quan­tity of wild herbs for per­sonal use in tra­di­tional in­fu­sions. That ban doesn’t ex­ist in Al­ba­nia, one of Europe’s poor­est na­tions. But, more sig­nif­i­cantly, the plants are usu­ally up­rooted in the loot­ers’ haste to pick as much as pos­si­ble and be off un­de­tected. This stops nat­u­ral re­gen­er­a­tion, threat­ens del­i­cate ecosys­tems and leaves en­tire moun­tain­sides de­nuded.

Al­ba­ni­ans con­tend the herbs are there and the Greeks don’t pick them, so why shouldn’t some­body profit? Chris­tos Toskos, an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist in Greece’s Kas­to­ria bor­der area, says the depre­da­tions have in­creased over the past five years, with in­cur­sions now com­ing on a daily ba­sis. “There is very large de­struc­tion in ar­eas cov­er­ing thou­sands of acres,” he said. Vas­silis Fil­iadis, who grows his own herbs in Kas­to­ria, lamented the fate of an old wild iron­wort patch in the Gram­mos moun­tains.

“It cov­ers about 3 square kilo­me­ters. In past years, the moun­tain tea grew there like a sea. The plants formed waves,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “I went this year and was shocked, it’s all been up­rooted.” Greece’s flora is among the rich­est in Europe, with about 6,500 na­tive plant species. In tar­geted op­er­a­tions over the last few months, Greek po­lice have ar­rested at least ten Al­ba­ni­ans and seized dozens of kilo­grams of herbs. In one case in late June, three peo­ple were caught with 136 kilo­grams of iron­wort loaded on two horses and a don­key.

Al­ba­nian ex­porters pay il­le­gal gath­er­ers up to 6 eu­ros a kilo­gram for iron­wort and 7 eu­ros a kilo­gram for hawthorn, Greek of­fi­cials say. “They il­le­gally en­ter Greece and quickly gather the plants to avoid be­ing seen,” said Bri­gadier-Gen­eral Pana­gi­o­tis Ntzio­varas, head of po­lice for the bor­der re­gion of western Mace­do­nia. Those caught have been given sus­pended prison sen­tences of one or two months and been de­ported. Many poor Al­ba­ni­ans are cross­ing the moun­tains into Greece this year be­cause of an herb shortage in Al­ba­nia due to freez­ing tem­per­a­tures last win­ter, said Filip Gjoka, pres­i­dent of Al­ba­nia’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Medic­i­nal & Aro­matic Plants and owner of an herb and spice trad­ing com­pany.

He said they some­times take whole fam­i­lies and camp in the moun­tains with their horses or mules. “There are a lot of herbs in Greece, where they are not col­lected due to la­bor force short­ages or lack of in­ter­est,” Gjoka said. “We here col­lect those herbs, and these peo­ple take the risks to sup­port their fam­i­lies. They can bear a few months of jail since there are no other jobs.” In 2016, 24 Al­ba­nian com­pa­nies ex­ported some 17,000 tons of medic­i­nal and aro­matic plants and herbs - 186 va­ri­eties - worth a to­tal of $40 mil­lion. They process only about 30 per­cent of that amount in five fac­to­ries and ex­port the rest raw. The US is a main im­porter, while oth­ers in­clude France, Germany, Spain and even Aus­tralia. Kas­to­ria agri­cul­tur­al­ist Dim­itris Natos said the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket for herbs, par­tic­u­larly for use in cos­met­ics and foods, is ex­pand­ing rapidly. — AP

ATHENS: Bunches of moun­tain tea are on sale in a shop in Athens.—AP

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