Wild Collection

Video: Wild Collection

Wild Collectors

Over 90 percent of plant species come from the wild. By volume around two-thirds of the herbs in commerce from the wild.

Wild collectors typically live on the margins of society, culturally, economically, geographically. Their work and lives are often invisible to the mainstream. The cost of herbs in a long supply chain is often quite cheap at the source and so collectors typically don’t get paid much for their work. This means fewer and fewer members of younger generations are interested in collecting.

Why Should I Care?

  • Biodiversity: Wild plants provide an economic value for keeping forest land intact.
  • 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. They have a list of fifty collectors at different collecting sites in Poland but only twenty-five or thirty collectors actually bring in any herbs to Runo each year. They try to pay them well, the director said, but they are unable to pay too much more because then no one will buy their herbs around the world.

Following Herbs Through the Supply Chain

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 effectiveness of herbal 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.
  • 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? Do the collectors have clean, sheltered places for drying the herbs? 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 and aromatic plants, are handled by those on the bottom. The health of the entire industry relies on the health of these communities.

Learn more: Sustainability and Wild Collection

For a continued exploration of the supply chain, see Cultivation.

Top photo credit: Ben Heron of Pukka Herbs