Sat, Jun 02, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Herb raiders plunder Greek farms


After seeing its best minds lured to greener pastures during eight years of economic crisis, Greece is waging an uphill battle to keep its aromatic plants from being plundered too.

In recent months, herb pickers from neighboring Albania have descended on Greece’s mountain meadows, illegally making off with vast quantities of herbs that can fetch a tidy profit in European markets.

“Organised groups camp out on the mountain, living in makeshift shacks,” said Yiannis Spirou, the owner of a small alpine retreat located at an altitude of 1,400m on Grammos, a mountain near the Albanian border.

“They collect large quantities and take it back home on mules,” he told AFP.

The most prized variety sought by the raiders is Primula veris, more commonly known as cowslip.

It is not exclusive to Greece, but it does not grow on the Albanian side of the mountain, locals said.

Common in pasture lands, this yellow-flowered plant is believed to combat respiratory and urinary infections, as well as fatigue.

Dried cowslip flowers and roots sell for more than 20 euros (US$23.37) per 120g on eBay, while a batch of 25 plants goes for 34 euros on Amazon.

“It’s the first year that we’ve noticed this trend being so widespread,” local forestry department chief Nikos Papaefthymiou said.

“Access from Albania is easy and there are several people engaged in this activity. We have given instructions to all the relevant departments and we are trying to address the issue,” he said.

Greek police, who have been hit nationwide by cost cuts, said that they have stepped up efforts to catch the culprits, but the terrain is not in their favor.

“We patrol on a daily basis when this plant is in bloom but it’s hard to make arrests. As soon as they see us coming, they return to Albania,” a local officer said.

Eighteen Albanians have been arrested in the past month, with more than 600kg of cowslip confiscated, along with the pack mules used to carry it.

Yet sentences for this sort of activity are light and the culprits are usually deported to Albania within days. With easy money to be made, many soon return.

“We have arrested the same person twice,” the officer said.

“They tell us that they can make the equivalent of a full year’s salary in Albania in just a month” of picking, he said.

“They claim that they sell this plant for 10 to 20 euros per kilo to bulk traders in Albania, who then export to Germany and the United States,” the officer said.

Rumor of princely prices printed in the media, further exacerbate the problem, said Rigas Tsiakiris, a forestry expert and adviser to Greece’s agriculture ministry.

“The harvest of such great quantities in this way causes major damage to the ecosystem,” Tsiakiris said.

“In many cases, the plants are uprooted piecemeal; it’s an environmental crime,” he said.

The herb thieves do not limit themselves to harvesting cowslip. When they find the opportunity, they also make off with other aromatic plants such as orchids and tea.

“One day I went to my field and discovered that over 300kg of tea had been stolen,” said Spyros Babakos, a 31-year-old organic tea farmer near the Greek-Albanian border.

“They uprooted the plants, destroying over 2,000m2 of my crop,” he said.

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