Over 90% of plant species come out of wild. By volume around 2/3 of the herbs in commerce from the wild.
Wild collectors typically are on the margins of society, culturally, economically, geographically. Their work and lives are often invisible to the mainstream. Without living in a place for an extended period of time, it is difficult to document the stories of wild collection. I spoke with anthropologists doing extended research with wild collectors in eastern Europe and southern India. From them I got a much different picture than I did from speaking with herb companies sourcing medicinal plants from the wild. Collectors don’t have money to buy other types of medicine for their children or for a roof over their homes. This inequity translates into the medicine. Not simply in terms of the quality – which is significant in itself. The families who source herbs for these international companies make pennies for their labor and yet the tea made from the plants they harvest are sold for $6 a box.
So many of collectors of herbs are marginalized. Marginalized geographically, economically, socially. The cost of herbs in a long supply chain is often quite cheap at the source and so they don’t get paid a lot for their work. This means fewer and fewer members of younger generations are interested in collecting.
A ‘digger’ (collector) from southern Virginia explained to me that two generations ago someone from Wilcox Drugs, an herbal supply company in North Carolina, distributed a book that listed the herbs the company wanted. The list included the plant part, what the plant looked like, and how much they would pay. They left these books at general stores around Appalachia, telling people that if they collected these plants, Wilcox would buy them. They didn’t know then and they don’t know now what the roots they gathered were used for. She didnt know either until an herbalist explained to her the herbal supplements that were produced – and what those supplements sold for.
She was shocked. “We get $3 a pound for roots. We didn’t know to expect anything else,” she said. “When no one values you, you don’t value yourself. You begin to think that’s all you’re worth.”
“Even if it isn’t a lot of money,” she continued, “At least it is something.” Just this past week she brought in $40 for digging which meant that was one week she didn’t need to get a box of food distributed to those with no money. It’s not a lot of money, she said, but at least she was providing for herself.
The issues are the same for collectors around the world.
Why Should I Care?
Biodiversity: Wild plants provide an economic value for keeping forest land intact. We all depend on preserving the biodiversity of the world and even if we aren’t using these products for our own health, ensuring that they are there helps the health of the planet and, in turn, us all.
Social justice/Efficacious plant material: Are people cared for? If they feel they are getting a fair wage for their work, they are more likely to do a better job. It’s that simple.
Traditional Knowledge: Wild collecting is hard work. Everyone we spoke to talked about how fewer people are collecting herbs. Younger people moving to cities. The head of Runo in Poland worries that in the future there won’t be enough collectors. I was shown lists of 50 collectors at different collecting sites in Poland but only 25 or 30 collectors actually bring in any herbs to Runo each year. They tried to pay them well, the director said, but they are unable to pay too much more because then no one will buy their products.
What are the Issues?
There is a direct connection between the quality of life of the wild collectors, the quality of the raw material they collect, and the quality of the finished product. Herbalists talk about the importance of intention through the supply chain and how that effects the efficaciousness of the medicine, but what about the intention of collectors, those on the very bottom of the supply chain, who are paid pennies for their work? These are some specific questions that can help consumers begin to understand what is at stake in wild collection. If companies know these issues matter, they might be more willing to improve the conditions of those collecting wild plants.
How many plants are wild collected vs. cultivated?
Who are the wild collectors? What is the tradition of wild collecting?
Are collectors paid a living wage? Are they paid on time? The more collectors feel they are earning a fair wage for their time, the less likely they will be to cut corners. From a company’s point of view, if they don’t have pay the collectors at the time of delivery, the collectors may very well sell the raw material at a lower price to whomever does have cash on hand, regardless of whether there is a contract or not.
Who oversees the collection processes? Not only is it important to ensure the collectors are harvesting the right herb, it is important to make sure they are collecting the right part of herb, at a time of peak chemical constituents for how the plant will be used.
Sellers often claim wild collected plants are ‘organic’ because they are harvested from the ‘wild’. But how wild? Was the plant harvested by the side of a busy road? Near industrial sites or landfills? Close to polluted rivers and streams?
What about handling practices? Have the collectors been trained about good agricultural practices? Do they wash their hands? Do they have water to wash their hands? Wild collection is hard work, often there isn’t extra water for washing, let alone drinking.
Where are herbs stored? What were those sacks used for previously? Often collectors dry the herbs in their homes or sheds next door. Are the herbs dried in open sunlight? Are they exposed to birds flying overhead, chickens, goats walking over? In Bulgaria we passed herbs spread out alongside the highway to dry and I’ve seen many photos of herbs spread out in traffic circles. Do the collectors have clean, sheltered places for drying the herbs? Though this gets into processing, are they given clean bags for gathering and storing the herbs?
Wild collectors are at the bottom of a long supply chain. Though often invisible to consumers of finished products, the quality of those products depends directly on the quality of how the raw material, the medicinal plants, are handled by those on the bottom. The health of the entire industry relies on the health of these communities. A handful of companies are taking the lead in trying to improve the conditions for wild collectors and the ecosystems on which they depend.