On the border between Poland and Belarus, the Bialowieza Forest remains the Europe’s largest and last primeval forest—a Garden of Eden of old-growth trees that have been largely protected for over 7,000 years. Encompassing roughly 400,000 acres, the forest boasts some of Europe’s tallest trees and its largest herd of wild bison. The meadows surrounding this UNESCO World Heritage Site are also a vital source of wild, medicinal herbs. While the area is currently fighting illegal deforestation of these ancient trees, introducing more sustainable harvesting practices becomes essential to protecting the long-term future of this forest and meadow ecosystem and preventing overharvesting.
Fortunately, our partnership with the team at Runo Spolka in the nearby town of Hajnowka, Poland has helped us fulfill our mission to only source sustainably harvested herbs, while also keeping the forest meadows vibrant. By holding ourselves and our partners to the FairWild Standard, we can do our part to protect the biodiversity of this special place, while also ensuring a viable livelihood for our collectors.
Medicinal plants have been subject to overexploitation as long as there have been large populations of humans who value them. But many people don’t realize that plants play a critical role in our ecosystems. Not only do they help produce oxygen for the planet, provide food and shelter to animals of all kinds, and contribute to the chemistry of the soil, but they also encourage biodiversity. While Europe remains an abundance of diversity for flora and fauna, its population density is one of the highest in the world, creating an ever-growing void of true wilderness and habitat. This is what makes the Bialowieza Forest and its surrounding areas so precious, particularly for an area with such an abundance of medicinal herbs, lichen, fungi and mosses.
Of the forest area’s 200 medicinal plant species, most are collected commercially by traditional wildcrafters, including the villagers who collect for Runo. Runo’s collection area spans much of the surrounding meadows on the Polish side of the Bialowieza Forest, where herbs like dandelion, meadowsweet and nettle thrive. Runo’s collectors cover some 24,700 acres—a startling 38 square miles of meadowland—and Runo provides 25 collection points for them to deliver their harvest, sometimes up to 200 pounds per person per day. When Runo’s partners came together to start the business in 1991, they quickly gravitated to organic practices and certification. However, it wasn’t until they were approached by Traditional Medicinals in 2008 that they began considering the real benefits of the FairWild Standard and became a FairWild certified operation in 2009.
When Runo brought the idea of adopting the FairWild Standard to the collectors, the response was enthusiastic. As FairWild collectors, Runo’s team is able to receive a better price for their harvest, regular trainings on plant identification and best collection practices, and they benefit from a premium that Traditional Medicinals pays for the community to vote on to use how they see fit. Best of all, FairWild collectors play an integral role in the preservation of the forest and carry on the ancient tradition of sustainable wildcrafting.
But passing on that tradition continues to be Runo’s biggest challenge. Runo’s collectors account for 500 individual collectors and 60 FairWild households. Ninety percent are retirees between 60 and 80 years old, who supplement their income through wild-collecting, while 10% are made up of the unemployed. Some are former factory workers; others, farmers. As the younger generation continues to gravitate to the cities in search of work and opportunity, the older generation is left alone to farm and wild-collect alone in the countryside. Sadly, this leaves herb collection traditions in danger of extinction. Although the collection areas are growing from employing sustainable practices, Runo is seeing the steady decline among the numbers of collectors they’re employing. This makes the need for preserving ancient collection methods and herbal knowledge even more important.
Keeping wild herbs safe from land use changes and from overharvesting requires a strong understanding of sustainable wild collection practices, and our sourcing team combs the globe to find willing partners in fair and equitable practices. Finding companies like Runo is a rarity. We’ve been overjoyed by the Runo collection team’s willingness to adopt these strict standards; it’s an effort that requires a scrupulous eye for detail with a long-term view of future gain for the company itself. Most importantly, it’s an investment in right livelihood, where the environment, the community, and the future of medicinal herbs benefit.