Belarus government officials see fast money - in snails (Feature)

By Tatiana Schebet'

Minsk - Belarus' government is hoping for quick profits, and a boost to rural incomes, from massive colonies of snails crawling around free in the wild, government officials said.

'They (snails) are here, in our forests, just waiting to be picked up,' said Natalia Minchanka, a government field and stream inspector, in an interview with a German Press Agency dpa reporter.

The international food snail market is, especially the standards of impoverished Belarus, massive. European Union consumers - primarily France, Italy, and Spain - gobble up an estimated 80,000 tonnes of escargot annually.

But European supplies are falling due to long-ravaged woodland environments, and reduced profits in producing the luxury food on labour intensive snail farms, according to market reports.

Belarus' soggy forests and swamps, in contrast, are thought by Belarusian scientists to be home to millions of the most preferred food-suitable species, the Helix Pomatia. More commonly known as the Roman or Burgundy Snail, more than 100 tonnes of 'this delicacy' went 'mostly to France' in 2008, Minchanka said.

Snail densities are according to naturalists highest in Belarus' central - and often damp - Brest, Vitiebsk, Grodno, and Minsk provinces; with the greatest concentrations in old parks, or river and lake basins.

Bred in the wild and feeding in nature, Belarusian snails retailed in a European market are arguably entrants to the escargot elite: organic free range snails potentially retailing for as much as 50 dollars at a high-end EU supermarket.

Nor is environmental impact an issue, state nature ministry officials said. The escargot snail, a 30-45 gramme land mollusk, is not native to East Europe's marshes, and is thought by historians to have been originally brought to what is now Belarus by 16th century Tsarist horticulturalists, as garden decorations.

Heavily-forested Belarus, much of it abutting Europe's largest Pripet marshes, proved an ideal environment for the slimy delicacy, and in four centuries the west European transplant has prospered.

Today an energetic Belarusian escargot hunter willing to slosh his way into a productive escargot habitat can gather as many as 80 snails in a 10 metre by 10 metre forest patch, Minchanka said.

Workers for the state-owned company Moka, the only legal exporter of Belarusian snails, currently perform most of the country's snail harvesting, fanning out during warm months into government-owned woodlands and wetlands, and collecting as much as 380 tonnes of in- the-shell snail in a season, roughly 110,000 individuals each one nabbed by hand, said Igor Silin, a company spokesman.

'Of course not all of those captured are sold, we have an obligation to maintain the stock,' Silin said. 'We only keep individuals with shells larger than three centimetres; the smaller ones are returned to the wild.'

Belarus' government snail policy aims at maintain a stable population, while squeezing as much income as possible into state coffers.

Europe's willingness to buy Belarusian snails is likewise a rare cash-generating opportunity for Belarus' authoritarian government, which has great difficulties exporting most goods to the EU, because of punitive EU trade sanctions for Belarusian human rights violations.

Belarus' Ministry of Nature in 2008 set a 300 ton quota on snail exports, leaving at least five times that number of readily accessible snails to crawl freely Belarus' wet and soggy places, and produce offspring for the next September harvest, Silin said.

Finding enough people to catch even the modest government snail quota, Minchanka and Silin said, is more difficult than seeking out the animals themselves.

Winter collection, by excavating unwitting snails in hibernation out of their underground burrows, is technically possible but a non- starter because of market taste reasons, Silin explained.

'You get a snail out of the ground, the meat is sandy,' he said. 'Foreign customers won't accept that.'

The simple alternative, rounding up more snails between April and September, has been a long-term headache for Moka management, as few Belarusian labourers are willing to spend a work day bending over the floor of a soggy forest, hunting escargot for an EU consumer.

'It's a seasonal business, and no one really wants work like that,' Silin said.

Snails collected by Belarusian pensioners and otherwise unemployed could fill the gap, and provide badly-needed additional incomes to part-time snail hunters, Minchanka said.

The other logical solution to Muka's difficulties in upping snail sales volume, an increase in domestic demand, is an even more daunting challenge, Silin conceded.

'You won't find a single snail on the menu of even the most expensive Belarusian restaurant, our people don't value them,' he said. 'Belarusians don't eat snails.'



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