Plants and people in the Dolpo, Nepal

I’ve never been the Dolpo valley but I am going! Trekking for 23 days, reaching 5,000,m passes and experiencing what looks like the most amazing landscape. We were drawn to the Dolpo by an article in the Geographical Magazine of the Royal Geographic Society, describing the salt trade routes taken by Tiebetan traders through the Dolpo.

In addition to all this however, the Dolpo is home to more than 1,500 flowering plants. And of these about 400 are used in traditional medicine.

The remote people of the Dolpo depend on traditional medicine provided by amchis, traditional healers, trained using Tibetan texts and knowledge handed down through the generations. They collect and prepare the plants they need, they diagnose and treat illnesses. They and the people they treat are all dependent on the local medicinal plants.

Sustainability is a crucial issue. The major threat to the sustainability of medicinal plant collection in the Dolpo is not the small amounts collected and used by the amchis. The amchis are steeped in environmental awareness of the landscape and the habitats the plants grow in. Amchis identify 6 broad habitats from forest, through grassland to rocky mountains, snowy mountains, wetlands and agricultural land. They also define 3 types of distribution; found everywhere, found somewhere and found in few places. Collection is seasonal, ruled by the Tibetan calendar, and aimed at achieving maximum medical efficacy. They collect sustainably because their lives depend on it. The major threat is the large and growing interest in about 20 plant species which are collected in large volumes from the district.

Besides sustainability, amchis face other serious issues. Access to knowledge and training is declining. Many have not received full training because of a lack of access to medicinal materials, capacity to follow formal studies or money to purchase medicines and materials from the lowlands. Amchi ethics are based on Buddhist and Bonpo concepts of universal compassion, which does not allow them to charge patients for their services. Yet they need to purchase plants and materials from the lowlands. In the past they exchanged them for other highland products.

A WWF and Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal programme in the 1990s set out to develop local capacity to manage resources sustainably by working with amchis and local people.

By visiting the area, I want to understand a bit more about the Doplo, its people and its plants. There has been progress. I want to help with the next steps. How can Nepal’s mountain people continue to access the medicinal plants they need and protect them for future generations? What lessons do they have for us in the west, where our links to medical plants have largely been broken.

Acknowledgement: I don’t know anything about the Dolpo yet. This blog owes its existence to Medicinal plants of Dolpo: Amchis’ knowledge and conservation by Yeshi Choden Lama, Suresh Ghimire and Yildez Aumeeruddy-Thomas in collaboration with the amchis of the Dolpo. WWF Nepal 200



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.

Why and how did a geographer get involved with medicinal plants in Nepal?

As a child I was fascinated by people, landscapes and wildlife. This was a fascination that led me, rather circuitously into plant conservation.

Plants and ferns have always been a big part of my life. I was always surrounded by plants at home and when I went to university, my plants came with me. They usually survived and some thrived on an annual pilgrimage to university. If you combine plants and the study of geography you end up with biogeography – why do plants grow where they grow and how has human activity shaped where they grow? From a PhD exploring how the landscapes of the Peak District in England were used in prehistory, via the archaeologically rich, yet palaeoecologically poor landscapes of Kilmartin Glen, I arrived at Plantlife, keen to do more to conserve plants where they should grow, as part of a living landscape, maintained by human activity and not denigrated by it.

And this is where I realised we‘ve lost the connection, in many cases with how landscapes can be managed to support plant diversity. We’ve got used to seeing wide landscapes of near monocultures. Think of the grouse moors of north east Scotland, the sitka plantations across Scotland, and the arable and pastural fields of the east coast. Yet, plants need the bits inbetween – the mosaic of habitats that we used to create through hedgerows, drove roads, woodlands, river banks and mountain sides. And in these inbetween bits, we always used to find plants that we used as medicines, food, fodder and fuel. How many people nowadays would know where to find a natural source of aspirin? How many people would appreciate the calorific value of a pignut, or where to find one?

Yet in Nepal, a country economically much poorer than Scotland, these connections are still made and in the case of medicinal plants, provide a local health service that sustains large parts of the population. Without these links to medicinal plants, many of Nepal’s communities would have no access to health care. This knowledge and these connections bring a different view of the world: what really is valuable and how can local communities maintain their access to those valuable resources? Although threatened by habitat loss and in some cases over collection, getting the whole community involved in conserving these plants is proving a good way to ensure plants are effectively conserved on the ground. However, getting the community involved isn’t just the answer. The best approach would be to combine the approach we have in the UK – usually government led, with support from other organisations including NGOs with the approach in Nepal, NGO and community led. Combining the two approaches, may well be the best tool we have to conserve plants, health care, food and fuel security. Governments and NGOS can provide a national vision of what is possible and what can be done. Local communities provide the wherewithal, the energy and commitment to get conservation actually working on the ground.

While this may be the best approach, is it an impossible dream? That’s what I want to find out.

Become a sponsor

In November 2014, I will be working with the Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal, based in Kathmandu for a month. I’ll be visiting projects in the Langtang region and talking to local communities about how they conserve medicinal plants. As well as finding out what works, and what doesn’t, I’ll be assessing success in Nepal and lessons to bring back to the UK.

Current sponsors:

Royal Scottish Geographic Society

Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal


I am looking for sponsorship for the project. Specifically:

Ethnobotancial society of Nepal: support my work through donations to ESON.


Printers: could you provide small printed notebooks and pens for distribution amongst the  people we’ll be  working with. I can supply a line image and strapline for both.

Get in touch with me here:


Conserving medicinal plants of Nepal

Woman with medicinal plant, Tatopani A Hamilton

The World health Organisation estimates that about 80% of the world’s population relies on traditional plant based medicine – wild medicinal plants. This is not a bad thing. These resources are locally collected and those who collect them have a vested interest in sustainable collection. Arguably relying on locally sourced medicine, accessed through local knowledge is a very sustainable health care model.

The problems only arise when demand rises, usually from trade.  The trade in medicinal wild plants has been identified as one of the biggest threats to medicinal plant communities in Nepal. Addressing it is vital.

The Ethnobotanical Society Of Nepal (ESON) – Allacy project in 2007,   Community-based Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Potential Medicinal Plants In Rasuwa, Nepal Himalaya, highlighted the value of a community led conservation approach. Local traditional medicine practitioners, local communities and ESON worked together to identify key actions to implement sustainable collection and ensure access for the local community to medicine going into the future. The approach has potential to be of value in all conservation circles, but it shows its most obvious benefits when it comes to medicinal plants.

There is an interesting parallel in the approach to plant conservation most usually adopted in countries like the UK. Plant conservation is not seen as a national priority. Where action is galvanised, it is often led by a ‘community of interest’, like Plantlife supported by its 8,000 members.

If we can bring the two approaches together, we have a strong model to roll out sustainable use of locally sourced plants, a locally accessible health care system and long term trade potential for wild collected plants. One of the keys however in achieving that final step is to value adequately the collected plants.  A start has been made through the Fairwild Standard While this standard points a way forward, we need to see much wider adoption of community led conservation before we will see a change in the status of wild plants.

Image: (c) Alan Hamilton

Building a future for wild plants

%d bloggers like this: