Conserving Medicinal Plants, Sustaining Livelihoods

Conserving Medicinal Plants, Sustaining Livelihoods
Photo: Ishan Tankha/UNDP India

Since 2008, UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India and the Global Environment Facility is promoting sustainable use and conservation of medicinal plants in the three ecologically-fragile states of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh. An estimated 316 species in India are under threat of extinction.

Highlights

  • India is the world’s second largest exporter of medicinal plants after China.
  • WHO estimates that almost 65% of India’s population depends upon traditional medicines for sustenance and healthcare needs.
  • Since 2008, UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Global Environment Facility has been promoting sustainable use and conservation of medicinal plants in the three Indian states of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh
  • Sustainable harvesting techniques, introduced as part of the project have improved the quality of the produce and increased the incomes of the villagers
  • Twenty-one Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas have been set up, conserving 32 globally significant medicinal plants and numerous other plants

Fifty-two-year-old Janaki Devi from Bastiya village in India’s herbal state of Uttarakhand is uneducated, yet the proficiency with which she prescribes herbal medicines for treatment of diseases in animals, belies her ignorance. So effective is her concoction of local herbs that villagers travel from far and wide to consult her. She, like many other traditional healers, inherited this healing skill from her family. For the past 30 years, Janaki and her husband have used several locally-grown medicinal plants such as Neem, Badhi, Bael, and Gurj to treat village’s livestock.

Up until a few years ago, folk healers had practiced this highly-specialized, yet esoteric field of medicine in isolation, passing down knowledge only through word-of-mouth. Without any documentary record or a comprehensive inventory of India’s numerous medicinal plants, their varied uses and appropriate harvesting techniques, this ethno-botanical knowledge was at risk of being eroded. This, however, is now changing.

A UNDP partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India and the Global Environment Facility is encouraging communities of traditional healers across three ecologically-fragile Indian states of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh to document their vast wealth of knowledge about local health traditions and medicinal plants that are under threat. This is being facilitated through creation of People’s Biodiversity Registers that not only maintain a valuable repository of India’s biological resources, but also safeguard against misappropriation of knowledge and bio-piracy. So far, sixteen Biodiversity Management Committees have been created with support from UNDP; and close to 500 women have been trained to document the biological resources found in the forests and local knowledge associated with it. An exhaustive list of state-recognized traditional healers has also been prepared as part of the partnership.  

“It’s hard work,” says Ganga Sangi Vohra, 57-year-old traditional healer, who runs a roadside tea stall cum clinic in Sukhidang village in Uttarakhand. Vohra keeps a register with details of all his patients and the advice given to them. As he carefully cuts Tipatta, a plant known for curing cough, he rues, “None of my children have learnt anything from me. It is important to know when and how to harvest medicinal plants to ensure potency of medicines.” It is this crucial piece of information- on how and when to harvest- that sustains his profession, and earns him a decent livelihood.

Knowledge about sustainable harvesting techniques has ecological as well as economic benefits. In Bodmallah village, nestled at an altitude of 4,000 feet in the Himalayas, Mohini Devi, 48, meticulously plucks twigs of tejpatta, the Indian bay leaf, one by one, ensuring not to damage the branches. She learnt through the UNDP project that cutting branches hinders the growth of the tree. As part of the UNDP-facilitated training, she also learnt about sustainable harvesting, drying, grading, packing and storing of tejpatta. Better quality of the leaf has resulted in villagers earning greater revenue for the produce. The prospects of higher income and better quality produce has also driven villagers to forego harvest every alternate year- a practice crucial for invigorating tejpatta trees.

India is the world’s second largest exporter of medicinal plants after China. The World Health Organisation estimates that almost 65 percent of India’s population depends upon traditional medicines for sustenance and healthcare needs. The vast majority of medicinal plants are from the natural forests. A bulk of it is traded, generating a turnover of US$ 2.5 billion annually. However, rising demand and destructive harvesting practices are not only threatening the survival of many species, but also the livelihood of the people who depend upon the produce. An estimated 316 species in India are under threat of extinction. Since 2008, UNDP has been supporting the state medicinal plant boards in the three project states to devise and implement strategies that promote sustainable use and conservation of medicinal plants.

One such strategy that has worked wonders for the communities is the setting up of Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas (MPCAs). MPCAs are natural forest areas established and managed by the State Forest Departments in collaboration with local communities to conserve threatened medicinal plants. So far, 21 MPCAs have been set up, conserving 32 globally significant medicinal plants and numerous other plants.  

Rural communities are often the most dependent on medicinal plants for livelihoods and primary healthcare needs. India’s wealth of medicinal plant species have been used in traditional Indian health systems like Ayurveda, Sidhha, Unani and Sowarigpa for millennia. It is therefore imperative to recognize the economic importance of medicinal plants and commit to utilizing this resource wisely for a better future.

Projects and Initiatives
Mainstreaming Conservation and Sustainable Use of Medicinal Plants Diversity in Three Indian States (March 2008 - June 2015)

In partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, the project seeks to promote long-term conservation and sustainable use of India’s medicinal plants through forest management policy and practice at national, state and local levels.

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2013 Annual Performance Report of UNDP-supported GEF-financed Projects
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One Day on Earth (12.12.12): The Herbal Healers- Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh

Stories of Change
Conservation of Medicinal Plants

India has a rich resource base of medicinal plants, plush with about 8,000 different species. According to the Government of India (GoI), traditional medicines are the sole means of health care for about 65 percent of the population.

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