Effective conservation of medicinal plants starts at home

In countries like the UK, conservation often follows a ‘top down’ approach where government, or a national NGO, decides that ‘something should be done’. Usually, this follows pressure from international level to set a standard or lead by example. In the UK, it usually means that there is a plethora of action plans, time lines and strategies. It can sometimes seem as if so much effort goes into planning that there is no energy left for real conservation, on the ground.

This is where the approach of community led conservation has distinct advantages and lessons to tell.

In the UK, there are two key risks to the way we usually conduct conservation: one is that the local community doesn’t know what they have is special and second is that they resent ‘incomers’ coming in and telling them what to do with their plants.

In Nepal, the experts are still resident in the local communities. Local health care needs are largely met through traditional medicine delivered by these local experts, traditional doctors – amchis, who have accumulated knowledge of local plants and their uses over the centuries. Tied tightly to the religious belief systems of the local area, this health care system remains highly relevant today and is widely practised and accepted throughout the Himalayan area. With its basis on local plants, the expertise that lies within the amchis provides a very strong foundation for sustainable use and hence conservation of a common, and valuable, resource.

Projects conducted through the Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal since 1997 have been exploring sustainable conservation solutions to the long term future of medicinal plants in Nepal. Threats to medicinal plants in the Himalaya include habitat loss, including deforestation, and habitat fragmentation, overgrazing, burning and unsustainable harvesting. These threats to plant communities are the same throughout the world. However the difference in finding solutions to these threats lies in adopting widescale, long term and adaptive approaches to habitat management and access to resources. More widely known as the ecosystem approach, the approach is often as the latest band wagon for conservation to jump onto. Not at all – in the Himalaya it is an approach that’s been shown to work, where NGOs work with local communities to facilitate and take action.

This is where the lessons for the UK start. And this is what I will be looking at in Nepal in October and November this year. Keep track of what I’m doing here.

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