Planting New Ideas in Traditional MedicineDolpo, Nepal: Tucked away in the Himalayan range of Dhaulagiri, the high pastures of Dolpo near the Tibetan border are home to many of the most popular aromatic and medicinal plants used by practitioners of traditional medicine. But their very popularity means that such plants are now under threat, despite the remoteness of the area and the restrictions in the 3,555km2 Shey Phoksundo National Park that limit their collection. The fact is that the park has insufficient manpower to enforce the rules on collecting medicinal plants, while the building of two airstrips around Dolpo has allowed greater access to the region for plant traders, whose business is mainly with India.
In addition, the park itself is home to some 3,000 people whose health depends almost entirely on amchis, practitioners of ancient Tibetan medicine. Six thousand more people live in proposed buffer zones on the southern boundary of the park and they are mostly Hindus, relying on what is known as Ayurvedic medicine.
Given this significant local demand, the Nepal office of WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature and the Nepal Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation are running a joint project to determine how the people of Dolpo value and use plants, particularly medicinal ones. The programme is part of the People and Plants initiative - organized by WWF, UNESCO and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in the United Kingdom - to study the role of plants in traditional societies with a view to conserving threatened species.
Two local amchis are taking part in the project at Dolpo, with a view to encouraging people to reach agreements with the national park authorities on the sustainable management of plant resources. The scheme began with a survey that recorded 279 species of economically valuable plants in the area, of which no fewer than 205 are used in traditional medicine. Twelve types were identified as being commonly traded, with official records showing that 50 tons are exported annually - although that is almost certainly underestimating the trade. Already, some of the slopes around the park show signs of over-harvesting and commercial collection inside the park itself is increasing. Even the abundant jatamansi (Nardostachys grandiflora) plant could eventually disappear because of its high market value, its slow growth, and the destructive method of its collection, which involves pulling up the whole plant.
The People and Plants project is beginning a number of small field experiments this year to determine the effects of various levels of harvesting on selected species of medicinal plants. It is hoped that general guidelines on intensity of harvesting and other management techniques will emerge. But it is clear that the plants cannot be managed effectively without full cooperation from local communities, which have extensive knowledge of their distribution, abundance, ecology and methods of harvesting.
One possible solution is for the park authorities to confer certain rights and responsibilities relating to medicinal plants on particular communities, so that people see it as being in their own interest to conserve them. It may be possible to prevent destructive harvesting by outsiders if it is clearly understood that the livelihoods of local people will be safeguarded and these valuable resources will be protected.
At the same time, studies are under way to improve the health of the Dolpo communities. While the amchis will continue to play a dominant role, they face many difficulties. Many lack training, access to medical texts and the ability to obtain medicinal materials not available locally. Most serious, perhaps, is the fact that traditionally amchis are not paid for their services, which leaves them with severe problems in supporting themselves financially.
So the project aims to provide assistance by drawing up a blueprint for the sustainable management of medicinal plants and by supporting the work of the local amchis, all 45 of whom attended a planning meeting in the area in June. Among other things, it has been suggested that the amchis should provide village women with some medical knowledge so that they can play a role in the primary health care of their own families. Conservation of threatened plant species may be the primary aim of the project, but it is clear that little can be achieved unless the medical needs of local communities are also given priority.
*Yildiz Aumeeruddy-Thomas is Regional Coordinator of the People and Plants Asia Himalayas Programme based in Montpellier, France.