Liquorice, an endangered commodity in Kazakhstan
Overexploited, even looted by poachers, Kazakh liquorice is in danger, Traffic International has warned. In a report published in April, the NGO describes a critical situation with the risk of depletion of this slow-to-harvest resource.
This article was originally published on Novastan’s French website on 10 June 2021.
On 7 April, the NGO Traffic International, in association with the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK), released a report highlighting the dangers posed to liquorice reserves in Kazakhstan.
By exposing the methods of the intensive and disorderly cultivation of liquorice in Kazakhstan over several years, the authors of this report attempt to warn about the alarming decline in the quantity of wild liquorice and propose concrete solutions to remedy this environmental disaster.
Liquorice, a unique culture
Cultivated since the 19th century in Kazakhstan, liquorice has long thrived in the wild in much of the country. Dried and then processed, liquorice root is used in around 100 different medicines, medicinal preparations or teas. Today it is the subject of ever-increasing international demand.
The cultivation of liquorice requires very specific conditions. For example, experts from the Kazakhstan Botanical Institute based in Almaty established that liquorice cultivation requires breaks of 6 to 8 years, during which the fields should remain untapped in order to regenerate. On the other hand, according to the same experts, only three-quarters of the liquorice roots should be removed so that the rest of the rhizomes can form new shoots.
According to the Traffic International report, however, a whole wild harvest economy has developed in Kazakhstan since 2011. There, collection has become uncontrolled and illegal. The biological protocols described by the Institute of Botany are no longer being observed.
In the traditional liquorice harvesting areas, the situation now seems to repeat itself every year: wild cullenders are hired without an operating work permit. They raze entire areas and then leave the fields abandoned and looted.
Devastating extraction methods
These liquorice poachers use unsuitable tools that deeply affect the soil and leave little chance for root regeneration. Wild cullenders leave behind destroyed fields in which the immature roots for unsuitable liquorice remain exposed to the sun in immense furrows. Left exposed, the roots wither away when they are not capable of growing back.
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These practices are associated with devastating effects on the ecosystem surrounding the liquorice growing areas. Fires are thus started regularly to weed the surroundings of the fields but, in doing so, they destroy neighbouring crops and deprive entire herds of pasture.
Exports and social consequences
The Traffic International report explains this overexploitation with the financial windfall that liquorice cultivation represents for local economies. Often, local cullenders are supporting whole villages.
However, this illegal workforce remains largely underpaid: 34 tenges per kilogram of liquorice (£0.05) compared to several euros when exported, according to the United Nations data.
According to the United Nation Commodity Trade (UNCT) database cited by Traffic International, the export volume of liquorice root has steadily increased in recent years in Kazakhstan. At its lowest in 2015 with less than 10 tonnes exported, exports reached nearly 90 tonnes in 2019. According to data from Tridge, a specialist on world trade in agri-food, Kazakhstan only holds 70th place among exporters with 2.9 million dollars (2.2 million pounds) of exports, or 0.09% of the total in 2020. The top three are China (27.5% of exports), India (11.4%) and Germany (7%).
A global environmental threat
In addition to the dangers posed by overexploitation of liquorice reserves, the authors of this report add the general deterioration of environmental conditions in the regions where it is cultivated.
The construction of several hydraulic dams would thus profoundly modify the hydrological balance of many rivers, while the intensive ploughing of agricultural land and desertification would threaten the entire environment.
Towards more controls
To fight against these threats, Traffic International proposes a series of concrete measures addressed to the Kazakh government as well as to liquorice producers. In particular, it proposes to strengthen controls during illegal harvests, to strictly apply the recommendations of the Institute of Botany and phyto-introduction, or to geolocate precisely the geographical areas where the harvests take place so that the cultivation of liquorice will not be subject to annual overexploitation.
More generally, the report by Traffic International underlines that the survival of liquorice reserves explicitly requires the establishment of a long-term sustainable development protocol. Specifically, it advocates for the use of certifications developed by the Fair Wild Foundation, the objective of which is to ensure more ecological, social, and economically viable business practices throughout the production chain.
Writer for Novastan
Translated from French by Maïté Saïzonou
Edited by Fiona Katherine Smith