Category Archives: Background

Background to the Nepal medicinal plant project

Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal: unlocking the potential

Set up in 1998, the Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal was conceived just as the links between natural resource use and community development in Nepal were coming into focus. With its highly diverse flora and the diversity of its people, many of whom retain a strong reliance on native plants, the need for an ethnobotanical home in Nepal was clear.

A small dedicated team of specialists, led by Professor KK Shrestha, has been the driving force of the Society ever since. Having delivered training programmes, published reports and books and coordinated local community development projects based on plant use, the society is now at a juncture. Its objectives

  • To enhance documentation and safeguard indigenous knowledge
  • To conserve plant resources
  • To enable sustainable utilisation of plant resources through coordination, promotion and research activities

are just as relevant today as they were a decade ago. But there are now new opportunities to be developed.

Nepal is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). The 16 GSPC goals for 2020 are stretching for all signatories. Yet Nepal is making progress on arguably some of the toughest targets. Take, for example, Target 3: Development and effective sharing of advice and guidance for plant conservation and sustainable use, based on research and practical experience. With experience in medicinal plant conservation, sustainable use and cultivation and more recent involvement in small scale biofuel projects, ESON has built an effective model of working in strong partnerships with local communities, other NGOs, government and universities.

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ESON could contribute more by building on its current work too. Target 13 is a case in point: The decline of plant resources, and associated indigenous and local knowledge innovations and practices, that support sustainable livelihoods, local food security and health care, halted. If Nepal is serious about delivering on the CBD and the GSPC, ESON, even as a tiny organisation with very few resources beyond its dedicated volunteer staff, is leading the way. With its partners, it is delivering projects to ensure a future for rural healthcare by conserving traditional medicine and its plant resources in remote areas.

The Nagoya protocol is another important area of work in Nepal, as it enshrines the rights of indigenous people to intellectual property rights over local biodiversity. Ethnobotany holds the key for the future of biotechnology, with the ability to save time and resources by working with indigenous people to shortlist potentially useful chemicals. This key brings with it a heavy duty however to ensure that those indigenous communities benefit economically from biotechnological developments. It is all too easy for successes in the laboratory to trail an amnesia about the very communities that provided, usually free of charge, the shortcut to success. If ESON is to provide such a service, it will be beholden to ensure those communities benefit economically into the long term future.

ESON is at a turning point. It is looking to reinvigorate its members and to inspire them to get more involved and help the society make more of a difference in the conservation and sustainable use of Nepal’s amazing flora. In developing a new 5 year plan, it is hoping to reach out to new partners and funders, to inspire them to support it in its work to ensure a future not just for plants, but for people too.

You can support their work by donating to my Just giving page at


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.