Guy Norton in Zagreb -
A group of concerned citizens on the Adriatic island Krk held a demonstration at the toll bridge connecting their island home to the Croatian mainland on November 12 to air their concerns about the increasing environmental and financial devastation being wrought by the illegal harvesting of wild plants.
Front and centre of the good-natured protest by an assorted group of olive growers, wine producers, bee keepers, sheep farmers, war veterans and eco-warriors were concerns that the Croatian Ministry of Environment and nature protection has dismally failed to combat a growing wave of illegal harvesting of wild plants on the island, which is threatening not only environmental destruction, but is also imperilling the livelihood of traditional agricultural producers on Krk.
The main bone of contention with the protesters has been the picking of the plant Helichrysum arenarium, better known by its poetic name of Immortelle. A litre of essential oil from the plant which thrives on the rocky Croatian coast and islands can command as much a €1,700, as it is in growing demand in the cosmetics industry, especially in France, which accounts for 90% of Immortelle oil exports. The rising cost of the oil has led to an explosion of interest in harvesting Immortelle and it has been claimed that experienced pickers can earn as much as HRK10, 000 (€1,250) a month – almost twice the official average wage in Croatia.
While traditionally the harvesting of the plant has been carried out under official licenses granted to companies and individuals by the government, the lure of short-term profits has attracted a growing band of illegal pickers who the protesters on Krk claim are leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Licensed harvesters are required to abide by a strict code of conduct that involves seeking the permission of landowners before cutting off the flower heads and upper stalks of the Immortelle, which are later boiled and distilled to produce the prized essential oil – around 7,000kg of fresh flowers are needed to produce a single litre.
Illegal pickers in contrast have been guilty of criminal trespass and have simply ripped up Immortelle by the roots, destroying any chance that the plants will regrow and leading to soil erosion on the environmentally sensitive Croatian archipelago. In August this year, for example, wildlife rangers on a visit to the uninhabited island of Prvic, which is a strictly protected botanical and zoological reserve with no public access, intercepted a band of pickers who had been illegally harvesting Immortelle.
Meanwhile, on inhabited islands like Krk, gangs of pickers from nearby mainland towns such as Ogulin and Karlovac have been illegally camping out in environmentally sensitive areas of the island that form part of the EU’s Natura 2000 protected habitats network, leaving behind rubbish, knocking down traditional dry stone walls and frightening livestock in their search for Immortelle.
In response to the environmental destruction being wrought by roving bands of illegal pickers the environment ministry announced a complete ban on harvesting Immortelle on the Croatian archipelago in September. However, the protesters on Krk claim the prohibition has proved to be a dead letter in practise.
While local olive oil and wine producers on Krk claim that government inspectors from the labour ministry have this year been particularly zealous in checking that farmers have not been employing undocumented seasonal workers, they claim that in contrast inspectors from the environment ministry have been conspicuous by their absence, leaving them powerless to combat the illegal harvesting of Immortelle on their land.
According to reports by the local regional daily Novi List, members of the local police force on Krk are less than pleased to find themselves called upon to man the frontline in the battle against the illegal foragers, as they feel ill equipped to deal with legal niceties of a growing problem that should by rights be dealt with by inspectors from the environment ministry. Local media report that the police have found themselves caught between irate landowners complaining about criminal trespass and destruction of property, and illegal pickers, many of whom are reportedly either unemployed or retired, who have aggressively defended the opportunity to supplement their meagre incomes by picking Immortelle.
In the last couple of years the price that pickers receive for a kilogram of harvested Immortelle has rocketed from Hrk2.5 to Hrk10 and it is estimated that over 2mn tonnes of Immortelle is picked annually in Croatia. But that figure could come under threat from irresponsible harvesting methods.
The battle over the rights and wrongs of the lucrative business represent yet another headache for Environment Minister Mihael Zmajlovic, who since he was appointed two years has been widely criticised for failing to combat environmental abuses in Croatia and for financial profligacy, including leasing expensive cars and moving his ministry into a new, luxury office block development in Zagreb.
While there’s plenty of doom and gloom on Krk about the illegal trade in the country’s natural flora, elsewhere in Croatia there’s hope that the country’s entry into the EU last year might create the opportunity for an increase in the legal trade of commercially cultivated medicinal plants.
At present around 90% of Croatia’s roughly $10mn annual exports of medicinal plants consists of chamomile, which goes principally to Germany and Italy to make herbal teas. But a small band of pioneering companies are producing growing volumes of other plants and herbs such as milk thistle, St John’s Wort, black mallow, lemon balm and cornflowers for export. Given that earnings from such specialised herbs and plants can be over 10 times more lucrative than those for traditional, highly commoditised crops such as maize and wheat, it is hoped that increased production of such flora supported by government incentives could provide an opportunity for Croatia’s financially embattled agricultural sector to compete more effectively on a global level.
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