Greece wages losing battle against Albanian herb raiders
After seeing its best minds lured to greener pastures during eight years of economic crisis, Greece is now waging an uphill battle to keep its aromatic plants from being plundered too.
In recent months, herb-pickers from neighbouring 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,” says Yiannis Spirou, owner of a small alpine retreat located at an altitude of 1,400 metres 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, the locals say.
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 currently sell for over 20 euros ($24) per 120 grammes 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,” said local forestry department chief Nikos Papaefthymiou.
“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 — hit nationwide by cost cuts — say they have stepped up efforts to catch the culprits, but the terrain is not in their favour.
“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,” says a local officer.
Eighteen Albanians have been arrested during the past month, with over 600 kilogrammes of cowslip confiscated, along with the pack mules used to carry it.