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Sustainable herb development in Albania

In April, HRF President Rob McCaleb's international herb development work took him to Albania, where a much-needed effort to promote sustainable use of wild medicinal plants is underway. Wild harvest of medicinal plants is an important part of the traditional rural economy in this isolated Balkan nation, which has a rich history as a major center of herb commerce between east and west. In recent years, the Albanian herb industry has suffered from political turmoil as well as from grave depletion of wild plant resources due to non-sustainable harvesting practices and habitat loss. McCaleb was invited to participate in the Albanian Private Forestry Development Project (APFDP), which aims to revitalize the Albanian herb industry while emphasizing wise stewardship and conservation of forest resources.

APFDP, which is sponsored jointly by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Chemonics International, has been promoting preservation and sustainable use of Albanian forests for the past five years. The group has already met with success in developing an environmentally conscious wicker furniture industry using sustainably harvested willow boughs. APFDP is staffed by a variety of timber and non-timber professionals, including agroforesters, agricultural economists, agricultural development officers, and training specialists who help members of forest-dependent industries meet international quality standards for their products.

Albania has only recently made the difficult transition from communist rule to a free market economy and remains one of Europe's poorest countries. At its peak in the early 1990s, the Albanian herb industry generated approximately $20 million (US) and employed as many as 70,000 people, from wild harvesters to herb buyers to warehousers and exporters. Due to a decline in raw material sales and the political chaos of the past few years, this number has fallen to around 20,000, and the industry now generates around $10 million (US). However, thousands of Albanian villagers still depend on herbs as a primary source of income. Some subsist strictly as herb collectors, while others supplement their income by collecting herbs in season. Small farmers, for example, may plant their main crops in spring and then turn to herb collection for extra income during the summer months, returning to their fields in the fall to harvest the planted crops.

Few herbs are actually cultivated in Albania, meaning that most are harvested from wild sources. These include such common herbs as raspberry and blackberry leaf, bilberry, nettle, rosehips, chamomile, thyme, oregano, sage, bearberry, licorice, and many others. Albania is also a major source of orchid roots used to make salep, a cappucino substitute popular in Albania and Turkey and an essential thickening ingredient in Turkish ice cream. Gentian, a primary ingredient of bitter apéritif beverages such as Campari, is also heavily harvested from the wild in Albania.

Today, habitat loss (including that caused by legal and illegal logging) and unsustainable harvesting practices threaten many of these common and easily cultivated wild plants. The problem affects not only plants harvested for their roots and bark, but somewhat surprisingly, also those collected for leaves and berries. For example, bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is now endangered in Europe, even though only the leaves are used in international commerce. The decline in bearberry populations is attributed not just to habitat loss but also to the common and destructive practice of uprooting plants in the process of harvesting leaves. Plants taken for their roots, including gentian, licorice, and orchid, present an even greater conservation challenge.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 130 species of common European plants are currently threatened or endangered by over collection from the wild and habitat loss. Many of these are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty designed to monitor and conserve endangered plants and animals in trade while protecting trade interests. Albania is not a signatory to the CITES treaty, so the Albanian herb industry is not subject to CITES regulations.

HRF's recent research mission identified two of the most critical needs of the Albanian herb industry. Of primary importance is the development of a strong trade association that will protect wild herb resources while simultaneously improving the industry's reputation and ability to compete internationally. The second pressing need is for quality management and training in proper herb collection, handling, drying, and storage. "It is always challenging when a single shipment of herbs represents the output of thousands of small collectors harvesting in the wild," McCaleb remarked. "To maintain consistent quality requires education at a level as close to the source as possible - in other words, the harvesters."

During his trip, McCaleb presented a series of workshops for Albanian herb dealers on international quality specifications, quality management, plant conservation, marketing, and business linkages. The dealers in turn will help educate the thousands of individual herb harvesters who are ultimately responsible for herb quality. "We found a strong knowledge of quality and recognition of some of the methods for increasing quality among the dealers," said McCaleb. "The goal is to shift quality management closer to the source. The dealers need to help train the villagers to maintain very high quality standards, and must also be willing to pay more for higher quality herbs." - Evelyn Leigh, HRF

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