Plants are central to Nepalese life. Flowers adorn homes, gods and goddesses. Most people grow their own food. And traditional medicine is dependent on plants. Ayurvedic medicine is one of four traditional health systems in Nepal and is a major source of medical care in Nepal. It has its own government department, 2 government hospitals, 216 public dispensaries and pharmacies (Gewali 2008) and a new research and training centre. However, health care is sparse in Nepal: there are estimated to be about 21,205 people per doctor in Nepal, all hospitals are located within urban centres and of the 3468 health centres of health posts in rural areas, most are without proper medical facilities or trained health workers (Tiwari et al 2014). It is in this void that traditional medicine practitioners provide health care to 80% – 90% of the rural population, using hundreds of medicinal plants to cure simple and complex ailments (Tiwari et al 2014).
As a result of both of the diversity of medicinal plants native to Nepal and the high levels of dependency on them, medicinal plants and their conservation is a key issue. The current Minister for Forestry and Soil Conservation, within which sits the Department of Plant Resources, stressed the value of Nepal’s indigenous knowledge about native plants and their traditional uses at a workshop on 9 November. While we celebrate as a victory even the mere mention of plants in a Minister’s speech in the UK, in Nepal, it is recognised as a fundamental part of Nepal’s sustainable development.
The Minister’s stress reflects the reality that the conservation of these plants is a growing concern. High levels of harvesting of wild medicinal plants and the increase in cultivation of selected medical plant species is responding to a growing market from across the world (Gewali 2008). In 1998 – 1999, the total annual trade from Nepal to India, one of the biggest markets, was US$3.2 – 12.8 million (Gewali 2008). In this market, in 2003, a harvester of wild medicinal plants could make Rs 585 cash profit per year, compared to a village trader making 58 times more and a regional trader 4307 times more (Subedi 2003). While the village harvester makes the least amount, medicinal plant collection remains a very important part of income generation for Nepal’s rural communities.
Harvesting of course is not necessarily sustainable and plants collected from the wild constitute the major source: Gewali quotes 70 – 90% of plant species, 50 – 70% in terms of quantity, are plants collected from the wild. Of the 2,400 – 9,400 tons of exported herbal resources, five species made up more than 50% (Gewali 2008). Of these 5 species, 3 are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and 2 are listed on Nepal’s list of protected species against collection or export.
There are initiatives underway in mountain communities across Nepal to support the cultivation of medical plants. A key crop today is Swertia chirata (chiraita). Used for a range of ailments, chiraita treats fever, jaundice and digestion problems as well as coughs, colds, asthma, skin infections and more. Chiraita seed in 2014 cost Rs 25,000 per kg. 1 kg of seed would supply an entire village. The crop is planted on field edges and non cultivated areas of land and takes 2 years to mature. Income per kg in 2014 was Rs 600 in one of the villages we visited. In Kachenjunga Conservation Area in 2013, US$375,000 was generated by local people through the cultivation of chiraita (WWF 2013).With its value rising, interest in chiraita production is growing and as long as cultivation remains sustainable and does not impact on village ability to grow food, there is every reason to support wider cultivation of this important plant, moving pressure away from wild collected sources.
Traditional medicine is however highly dependent on sustainable collection from the wild by local healers. Reducing the pressure on wild plants from collection for cash insures future health care can be provided by traditional healers. They can then provide long term viable health care in rural communities.
This is moving against another tide however. Allopathic (western) medicine is increasingly popular and can provide quick relief. But it is rarely available in rural areas. It makes so much more sense to use the infrastructure of traditional healers to provide health care, with support from primary allopathic care where possible. What do I mean? See my visit to Bjher, Dolpo in the next blog.
In Nepal, plants do more than cure people. They also provide a cash income where there are few alternatives. Key to all this is their conservation. There is a long way to go – illegal trade in medicinal plants is fantastically high in Nepal but with so much riding on their conservation, there is a clear momentum to do more to protect them and their habitats.