Loot­ers strip moun­tains of plants

Im­pov­er­ished Al­ba­ni­ans cross­ing bor­der to hoard and sell wild teas, herbs

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Costas Kan­touris Yor­gos Kara­halis, AP

THES­SA­LONIKI, GREECE» 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 cross­bor­der 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 of dol­lars 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 dur­ing 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 (740 acres). 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 dur­ing the past few months, Greek po­lice have ar­rested at least 10 Al­ba­ni­ans and seized dozens of kilo­grams of herbs.

In one case in late June, three peo­ple were caught with 300 pounds of iron­wort loaded on two horses and a don­key.

Al­ba­nian ex­porters pay il­le­gal gath­er­ers up to $6.80 for 2.2 pounds of iron­wort and $8 for 2.2 pounds of hawthorn, Greek of­fi­cials say.

“They il­le­gally en­ter Greece and quickly gather the plants to avoid be­ing seen,” said Brig. Gen. 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 have been de­ported.

Many poor Al­ba­ni­ans are cross­ing the moun­tains into Greece this year be­cause of an herb short­age in Al­ba­nia be­cause of 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 told the AP. “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 17,000 tons of medic­i­nal and aro­matic plants and herbs — 186 vari- eties — worth a to­tal of $40 million. They process only about 30 per­cent of that amount in five fac­to­ries and ex­port the rest raw.

The U.S. 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.

“An­nual turnover growth is in the dou­ble dig­its, at around 15 per­cent,” he said.

Gjoka said the Al­ba­nian com­pa­nies em­ploy 10,000 work­ers and an ad­di­tional 80,000 peo­ple as in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors for whom sea­sonal herb pick­ing is their only source of in­come.

Eleni Maloupa, di­rec­tor of Greece’s In­sti­tute of Breed­ing and Plant Ge­netic Re­sources in Thes­sa­loniki, says some of the 14 kinds of iron­wort that grow in Greece are threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion and there is a blan­ket ban on their col­lec­tion, even in small quan­ti­ties.

She said Greek and Al­ba­nian au­thor­i­ties should co­op­er­ate to solve the prob­lem, as Greece has al­ready done with neigh­bor­ing Mace­do­nia.

“The in­creased ar­rests may per­haps dis­cour­age (il­le­gal har­vesters) but I be­lieve we should use all avail­able means, such as drones or cameras, to con­trol the bor­der and il­le­gal plant pick­ing,” she said.

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