Border police in Florina and Kastoria have arrested more than seven Albanian nationals in the last month for illegal smuggling in the Prespes region, confiscating more than 200 kilos of contraband goods. Instead of the usual drugs or cigarettes, however, the sacks recovered by Greek border patrols contained herbal teas and rare medicinal plants.
Authorities say that groups of Albanians have been crossing over the border into the Grammos mountains on mules or on foot, where they “clear-cut” huge swathes of wild plants to harvest herbal teas, aromatics and medicinal plants, some of which are endemic to the region and grow nowhere else.
According to the head of the Kastoria Environmental Protection Society Vice-President Nikos Panagiotopoulos, the activity is hugely damaging to the Grammos flora since the traffickers gather huge quantities of these plants to sell to cosmetics and pharmaceutical firms.
“The problem of uncontrolled collection of teas and other plants was presented to the Albanian police and other local authority representatives two years ago,” Panagiotopoulos told the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA), while Albanian authorities had in turn revealed the existence of a network supplying pharmaceutical and cosmetic firms.
According to the head of the Kastoria Forests Directorate Stella Kostakopoulou, endemic varieties of hawthorn and cowslip growing in the “alpine zone” of the mountain were the most intensively harvested. Preventing the illegal collection of wild plants had in recent years become a high priority for border police, she said.
“We were largely successful in stopping the ever-increasing tendency of Greeks to go up the mountain in their jeeps and load up on huge quantities of herbs and teas,” she added but it was harder to discourage the waves of Albanians entering the alpine zone, where it was difficult to make arrests.
Forest rangers said the damage was not caused by overharvesting only but also because the illegal harvesters were uprooting and killing entire plants in their hurry to finish before they were caught.
Kostakopoulou said that the law set down strict times and quotas per household for the collection of herbs for personal use, allowing up to five kilos of mountain tea and up to half a kilo of other plants, such as oregano, savory, mint or melissa, while completely banning harvesting of wild Grammos orchids.