Rare aromatic plants are threatened with extinction, and entire hillsides in Western Macedonia are being laid bare. Residents of Albania and Roma conduct forays to collect illegally huge quantities of mountain tea, thyme, primrose, and gentian, and other therapeutic plants.

The illegal gathering of plants, mainly at the Greek-Albanian border, is an old story, yet it appears to be spinning out of control, despite the warnings of environmental groups regarding a destruction of this natural wealth.

Behind the illegal gathering there is commercial activity with a large turnover. The herbs are exported, mainly to Germany, for large profits. It is indicative that Darwin’s Flower, primula, a plant known for its tranquilising and broncholytic qualities, is sold dried for 50,000 euros per kilo.

The gatherers easily sell their products, as Albania is one of the largest exporters of medicinal herbs in the world and maintains ties with markets seeking herbs, such as the US, which imports 70 percent of its medicinal herbs from Albania.

Just a few days ago, a 34-year-old Albanian man was arrested near Grammos because he had removed 37.5 kilos of mountain tea. Last Friday, border police at Nestorio, Kastoria, arrested a 55-year-old Albanian for violating forests laws. He had collected about four kilos of aromatic and medicinal herbs. A parliamentary question on the matter for Environment Minister Yorgos Stathakis was tabled by To Potami party MP Yorgos Amyras.

“Residents of Albania, of all ages and genders, are collecting in sacks aromatic and medicinal herbs from the mountains of Epirus and Grammos, while at the same time Roma have “ravaged” mountainsides in Serres, Kilkis and Pella. Armed with large knives and sacks, the unlawful visitors uproot plants and transport them with mules and donkeys to the neighbouring country, or hand them over to accomplices, who sell it in the domestic market,” Amyras said.

“The criminal part of the entire affair is that they do not simply cut them, but they uproot them, so they do not grow again and they disappear. Most incidents have been recorded at Grammos, which has unguarded areas.

“Also at Grammos, there is the largest number of rare aromatic and medicinal plants, and “collectors” now know that. Access is easy from neighbouring Albania, as some villages are only a 15-minute distance by foot, and illegal visitors can enter and exit unhindered,” he noted.

Environmentalists underline that the aromatic plants of Grammos have almost been exhausted and there is a public health danger. Along with medicinal herbs, they collect many nearby plants, which could affect consumer health.

Despite the fact that the gathering of herbs is illegal all over Greece, and a permit is issued only by the local forestry authority for a specific type and quantity, an estimated five tonnes of mountain tea is collected annually from the Prespes region alone.”

Last May, at Drosopigi in the Konitsa region, there was an arrest of a 68-year-old Albanian who had collected two sacks of primula. A 56-year-old Albanian was arrested while transporting, by horses and mules, 12 sacks of various plants.

Experts say that there is such a great demand for Greek herbs because they contain more biodrastic ingredients, due to Greece’s soil and climate conditions.