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Black market boom in Greek herbs

- by Dabs Banner

No self-respecting Greek salad recipe would fail to include large dashes of Mediterranean herbs such as oregano and thyme and holiday visitors to the Greek islands will often see market stalls piled high with sachets of sage.

Hand-picked herbs wild herbs from the hills and mountains was, until recently, a thriving cottage industry on many Greek islands.

Holiday visitors were often sold cheap packs of wild oregano, thyme and other mountain herbs by street vendors who plied their wares in many of the Greek island holiday resorts and beaches.

But the practice came to a sharp halt last year when tough restrictions were imposed on picking wild mountain herbs in Greece and permits were made compulsory for commercial harvesting.

The new laws were aimed at protecting the wild plants that were in danger of being stripped from Greek hillsides. They made it illegal for locals to gather herbs othere than for domestic use and a criminal offence to sell wild herbs to holiday tourists without special permits.

But the new regulations have also triggered a surge in illegal picking and trading with concern growing at amount of cut-price Greek herbs now being traded on the 'black market'.

Police on mountains near the Greek- Albanian border recently found a makeshift camp of more than a dozen men, several mules and 4.5 tonnes of illegally picked mountain sage ready to be transported over the wild mountain trails.

In another incident, pickers were arrested in the southern Peloponnese with a lorry load of 200 kilos of wild oregano and mountain tea, a very popular infusion in Greece.

And investigators report that a snap survey of a market in northern Salonika, discovers that half the plants being sold in sachets were not cultivated legally but had been picked wild from the Greek mountainsides.

Ban on commercial picking of wild herbs

Under the new laws only herbs and plants picked for personal and domestic use are permitted unless the gatherer has written permission from the Greek Forestry Division.

Forestry officials instist 'the eradication, cutting, gathering and transporting all kinds of aromatic, medicinal, dyeing, flavouring, apiculture, floriculture and ornamental plant seedlings, bushes and shrubs from public or private forests and woodland and grassland without prior permission' is now a criminal offence.

Similar laws have also banned people from gathering more than two kilos of wild mushrooms or digging up Greek forest litter without a license.

There is nothing to stop Greeks picking wild herbs for their own use, but they are allowed to pick no more than 0.5 kilo per person per day and with a total ban imposed in areas where there is risk of damage to biodiversity or to the local ecosystem.

Despite an abundance of herbs and the perfect conditions for their culture, Greece has fallen well behind other Mediterranean countries in growing herbs on a commercial scale for culinary and medicinal use.

Greece has a remarkable biodiversity with 7,500 indigenous plant species of which around 20% are aromatic and pharmaceutical herbs, according to the Greek Agricultural Organisation DEMETRA.

But very little is grown on a commercial scale and Greek exports of herbs for the kitchen are well behind the European leaders in the sector which include Germany, France, Bulgaria, Italy and Poland.

Greek herb growers undercut by illegal traders

Now Greek environment officials are worried that the surge in clandestine trade may not only have a negative effect on the wild flora of Greece and the Greek islands but that it may also hit the growing trade in Greek herbs grown commercially.

Greek growers who specialise in aromatic herbs claim prices are being savagely undercut on the black market thanks to the trade in illegal plants and leaves.

But Greek herb growers are striking back. Last year, Greek growers set up an association to oversee their operations and the Greek government is to prepare a national catalogue to serve as a scientific reference on endemic plants

Since 2012 Greek mountain tea, a blend of 17 varieties, has been sold under the brand name Tuvunu and is now being exported as far away as the United States.

Around 300 farmers from all over Greece supply the tea leaves but the association rejects proposals from suppliers who cannot prove
that their wild mountain tea has been picked under licence.

Regular walkers in the Greek islands will appreciate the delight of the aroma of wild herbs blown on the breeze along mountain trails, especially in the spring and early summer.

Protecting the wild herbs that grow on many forested hills across the Greek islands is no doubt a good thing. But it has meant that many locals can no longer supplement their income by selling bags of locally picked herbs to holiday visitors.

And it does appear to have led to a boom in illegal gathering of mountain herbs for shipping across the Greek borders into the rest of Europe.