Trading in contraband

While tiger parts, ivory and sandalwood smuggling continue to attract all the public attention, what India is losing is its medicinal wealth to wellorganised smuggling networks run by thousands of Veerappans all across the country. Mum’s the word on the trade practices, while forests, whether in the north, south, east or west are stripped off their treasure. One can collect any quantity of these plants from the forests and pay the least to the primary collectors who have no way out of the trader’s grip. Government policies that seem to have a blind eye for domestic trade have only made things easier for the smugglers. The situation does not differ in different parts of the country, only minor specifics do. Overexploitation and unscientific harvesting of medicinal plants have led to the virtual decimation of several valuable species in the wild. Habitat degradation, illegal trade and loss of regeneration potential of degraded forests have further accelerated the rate of extinction. This has critically affected traditional Indian systems of medicine (ISM) such as ayurveda, siddha and Unani, which rely on medicinal plants. The only way to arrest further loss of medicinal plant species and ensure survival of these centuries-old practices of healing would be to encourage sustainable harvesting of plants from the wild and cultivation, especially by small farmers and communities who have been involved in herb gathering traditionally. LEENA CHAKRABARTI travels to forests of Uttaranchal and back alleys of the herbal markets in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, while VIBHA VARSHNEY finds out effects of illegal trade on ISM and why cultivation of these valuable plants is still not a business.

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Trading in contraband

Madurai and beyond

Once the trap is set, the tribal people can only go deeper into the forests to repay their loans and fill the coffers of agents, traders and forest officials


Three hours from Madurai is Shenbaha Thopu. Rich in forest wealth, the peripheries of the forests are inhabited by 24 families of the Pallyan community who have traditionally been involved in the collection of non-timber forest produce (NTFP). Now something else has become a part and parcel of their lives: exploitation of their herb-gathering knowledge by a monopolistic agent, Selvam, and the local forest officials. Some 197 species of medicinal plants are smuggled out of the forests. The tribal people set out to the forests, which has a ‘protected area’ status. They trek 20 hours at a stretch for four to five days on an average, sometimes to altitudes up to 900 metres. Their expenses for food, liquor and batteries for radios, which is their only link to the world outside, amount to Rs 500 per week per family. The fortune they bring back is submitted to only one person — Selvam — for a measly Rs 350- 400 per family. In other words, the families are short of Rs 100-150 when they embark on their next trek. It is here that Selvam sets his trap. He offers a loan, which can be paid with the next week’s collection. The vicious circle is set; loans keep mounting and the pressure to collect more, too. All this while, the tribal people remain oblivious to Selvam’s trap. “He never rejects a loan request and we usually repay it through the sale of medicinal plants,” says a member of the Pallyan community, with utmost regard for the agent. Species like Gymnema sylvestre (gur mar), which is threatened in the wild, are sold for Rs 10 a kilogramme (kg), while Selvam sells them in the market for 40 a kg. But going to the other traders is a strict no. Fencing in In another village, a two-hour drive away from Shenbaha Thopu is Thaniparai in Rajapalyam, which has 1,600 hectares (ha) of protected forest area. The forest ranger is conspicuous by his absence for months at a stretch and his office is the “guard’s residence”. The situation here is no different from that in Shenbaha Thopu. Sundaram is the master here. Though he appears no different from the tribal people in appearance, the power he wields distinguishes him. The law and the forest officials, he gives a hoot. “What laws? There are no laws here,” he says. He has a warehouse where he stores medicinal plants. “This helps me control the flow of herbs to the market and hence regulate the prices,” he says haughtily. Does this mean that the gatherers are exploited? No, he insists. He pays them a quarter of the profits he makes after selling the plants to the traders. However, a small Down To Earth survey reveals that the tribal people get a paltry one-tenth of what Sundaram actually gets from the traders. Currently, there are three divisions of the forest community. The first one comprises two families whose members were given the job of forest guards when they were asked to shift out of the forest area when it was declared protected. They now inhabit the extreme periphery of the forest area. The second group comprises families who have been promised the same. They inhabit the immediate fringe of the forest area. The third group comprises of those who are yet to be offered anything, hence they continue to live within the forest area. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they swear allegiance to Sundaram. Though there is an oral agreement between the forest department (FD) and the Society for Tribal Development (STD), a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), to allow collection of 10 species of plants from the forests, the local people collect as much as 20 times more than the agreed number. STD has been unable to break Sundaram’s stranglehold and explain to the local people about the exploitation of the forests and themselves. Sundaram’s modus operandi is similar to Selvam’s. He too lends people money “whenever they need” and they repay by selling their collection. “There are families that still owe me Rs 2,000,” he says. To pay back the loans and the interest, too, the gatherers keep going deeper into the forests. There is no way out for the gatherers. They do not have direct access to traders. Confides Vanraj, a member of the Thaniparai’s Pallyan community: “When I tried to sell a fraction of my collection directly to a trader, Sundaram’s men and the forest officials threatened to harm me physically.” “Once we feel we have collected Rs 600-700 worth plants, we return. But Sundaram never pays us more than Rs 350,” says one of them. But Sundaram justifies the price he offers because herb traders pay him on the basis of dry weight, while the gatherers get value for the fresh weight and the herb and plant quality is much below that demanded by traders. The reality is quite different. A survey conducted in 1997 points out the difference between what the herb gatherers get and the processed material’s worth. Take Solanum xanthocarpum (kateli), for instance. One kg of the plant fetches the gatherer Rs 1.5, the wholesaler Rs 7 and the exporter Rs 15. The price of the final product that is derived from one kg of the material is worth Rs 1,200 (see table: Money matters). The collection from Thaniparai, Shenbaha Thopu and forest areas surrounding Madurai finally finds its way to the Virudhnagar and Madurai markets. And then to destinations outside the country, too, through the Tuticorn port, which unlike Cochin is not considered a major port handling export of medicinal plants. “Medicinal plant traders and researchers around Madurai are unable to comprehend the fact that Tuticorn does not have the recognition as is available to Cochin port which handles more of spices than medicinal plants,” says W Thomas, professor, American College, Madurai. According to an estimate, during 1997-98, almost 188 varieties of raw drugs derived from 169 medicinal plants were traded in the Madurai market alone. An annual figure of about 250 metric tonnes of dry material is traded annually. Some 10,000 herb gatherers rummage the rich forest areas of Madurai bringing booty for 10-odd traders who dominate the market in Madurai.

K Kamraj

Herbal heist Hand-in-glove with the forest department, traders of medicinal plants and herbs make hay while communities who depend on herb gathering for survival scrounge for a living


IT IS a common sight near every forest area to see loaded trucks making their way through the dark cover of the night. The first thought that crosses one’s mind is that they are weighed down with timber. Wrong. Many times, what is being carried out is the herbal treasure of the forests. Everyday, tonnes of material worth millions of rupees are smuggled from the forests to markets within and outside the country. As agents and traders — through exploitation of local people — strip the forests of their wealth, the FD expresses helplessness. Meantime, the list of threatened species keeps increasing. To say the least, trade in medicinal plants is a ‘free-for-all’ zone. “I can collect whatever I want and in whatever quantities I think feasible,” asserts an agent, who refuses to be named. The forest officials can be bought off easily, allege the same traders. Meanwhile, the local people, mostly tribal, who are dependent on the forests for sustenance, have no other option but to abet illegal trade. In most cases, herb gatherers venture into the forests to collect plants demanded by the agents (who are also money lenders). They submit their collections to him for a paltry sum (and also borrow from him to tide over their needs). The agent then sells to traders who sell it further. The forest officials are, needless to say, hand-in-glove with the traders. The major markets for these products include Bara Bazar in Kolkata, Khari Baoli in Delhi, Avenue Road in Bangalore and G B N Street in Chennai. Says one trader in Madurai: “I sell about a tonne of Saussurea costus (kuth) in the peak season.” This species features in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and the Negative List of exports issued by the Union ministry of commerce. In other words, export is prohibited. But domestic trade at such sizeable quantities and export are doing nothing to improve its ‘critically endangered’ status. It is only pushing it to the last possibly category: extinction.

CITES Annual Report-1996,

Legal loopholes

CITES, which was ratified in 1982 by over 150 countries that includes India, regulates international trade in species threatened with extinction. The three appendices to CITES list the species for which these regulations currently apply. At present, 11 Indian medicinal plants are included in the appendices, wherein only one namely S costus, which is synonymous with S lappa in trade, is included in Appendix I (see table: Threat status). For species that feature in Appendix II of the CITES list, a certificate of cultivation is required for export. But that is easily available either by greasing the palms of the officials concerned or by forging documents. Traders confide that most pharmaceutical firms buy from them, but there are no bills involved. The plants are used in their products to maintain the efficacy but the names are not printed in the constituent list of the product. Export and import of medicinal plants in India are regulated by the Exim (Export-Import) Policy of the government of India and CITIES. A regulation under the Exim policy is the Negative List of exports of 56 plant species issued by the ministry of commerce in 1992. This was reduced to 29 in 1998. Traders, however, allege that even the shortened list does not portray a true picture and have been lobbying for the removal of some species from the list. Says D B A Narayana of the Dabur Research Foundation, Sahibabad, Uttar Pradesh, “There should be a period after which the plants should be removed from the list.” The recent order by the Union ministry of environment and forests has only made matters easy for the traders. Barring a mere 114 species, the government has freed export of all medicinal plants from the wild. Now the traders don’t even have to show a certificate of cultivation. It is acknowledged that the decision comes after hectic lobbying from the traders, after which the Union ministries of commerce and environment and forests finally conceded. The question, however, is: how far is this one-eyed approach going to take the country? Opening everything for trade from the wild without any supporting conservation or cultivation mechanism is only going to rape the forests (see ‘Free for all’, Down To Earth, Vol 9, No 14). There is no parallel domestic legislation that curbs exploitation of these species in the wild. The 1972 Wildlife Protection Act does not contain adequate provisions related to medicinal plants. Only six plants are listed in the Schedule VI of the Act of only kuth is a medicinal plant. In domestic trade, it isnot compulsory to show the source of origin of the plant — whether it is cultivated or collected from the wild. They do feature in the state’s list of NTFP that cannot be collected from the wild, but all this does precious little to hinder illegal trade. Cases have been reported where villagers have been exploited to further illegal trade. For instance, in 1993, the government had come under severe criticism by the forest panchayat of village Khaljhuni in Himachal Pradesh regarding commercial exploitation of NTFP. The laborious process of gaining government permits would comprise 13 per cent of the total costs incurred by the villagers in extracting NTFP. The situation encouraged illegal extraction in addition to increasing opportunities for corruption on the part of bureaucrats at the villagers’ expense. This confirms the statement made by Shailja Chandra, secretary, department of Indian systems of medicine and homeopathy, Union ministry of health and family welfare. “There is a lot in the papers but nothing is really being done. We lack a policy and proper direction,” she says. This is a clear pointer to the 1988 Forest Policy, which clearly states: “The rights enjoyed by forestdependent people should be fully protected, their domestic needs of fuelwood, fodder and NTFP should be the first charge on the forest produce.” However, the Forest Policy is not a legal document and state governments are not bound by it. The people are hence unprotected.

Touch and go

Saussurea lappa features in Appendix I of the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
But illegal trade continues unabated. The following is a list of seizures
of the plant or products made from S lappa between 1989 and 1996

Anon 2000

Face-saving practices

As the forests get plundered, officials maintain that there is no illegal trade in their region or there is a shortage of staff, especially to manage the country’s porous international borders. Seizures are few. To say the least, they represent only the tip of the iceberg. It is not as if the authorities are not tipped off. They allegedly do not entertain such reports. At times, seizures are carried out as a face-saving exercise by the FD, as was done in September 1999 in Raxaul in West Bengal. A consignment of 7,114 kg of Rauvolfia serpentina (sarpagandha) roots was hauled at the Kolkata dock but only a small penalty was imposed. For the traders, it was just “wait and watch”. Once the effect of the confiscation wore away, they were back to work again. In fact, in such cases, it is usually the herb gatherers who are made the scapegoat. As a forest official puts it: “Seizures do not occur often. On an average, it is just one out of hundred.” For instance, the seizure list of S lappa or products made from the plant is dismal (see table: Touch and go). And this is just one of the hundreds of species that is highly trad-ed. Similarly, a singular seizure of Taxus baccata, which is found only in the Himalayan region, yielded 450,314 kg of the leaves in faraway Tamil Nadu. Taxus leaves yield a drug called Paclitaxel (taxol) used in the treatment of breast, ovarian and lung cancer as well as AIDS.


Depending on forestsAll India Trade Survey of Prioritised Medicinal Plant Species

The fact that medicinal plants are living resources, exhaustible if overused and sustainable if used with care, is little understood by traders, agents and officials concerned, while for the local people involved in the trade it is all about daily bread. In India, it is estimated that collection and processing of medicinal plants contribute to at least 35 million workdays of employment annually to the poor and underemployed workforce. According to the Bhopal-based National Centre for Human Settlements and the Environment, 50 million people live in and around forest areas and rely on collection of NTFP for survival. A study in Tamil Nadu shows that on an average more than 100,000 people enter the forests of the state each day to collect forest produce, which includes medicinal plants. Studies in Rajasthan have indicated that approximately five million tribal people sustain themselves through collection, processing and marketing of NTFP. Their knowledge of the forests is vast, and they are skilled in their job. “Even though the gatherers are uneducated, they are highly knowledgeable about the traditional wisdom related to the medicinal plants,” says P Surendran, director, Society for Tribal Development (STD), Madurai. Yet they continue to be treated as unskilled labourers. A survey of the traditional healers in West Kameng district, Arunachal Pradesh, showed that the price that the collector gets for a kg of Taxus wallichiana (talisapatra) is Rs 4 whereas at the nearby market it is sold for Rs 35 per kg. The price multiplies at each level. “The regrettable thing is that now many people who have no experience or knowledge about medicinal plants are getting involved in the collection and have gradually dominated the scene in many forest areas,” says Thomas. These newcomers, employed as casual labourers by the traders, cause large-scale and irreversible damage. Ignorant of the value of medicinal plants, they harvest them in the most unscientific manner. But for the trader, this arrangement is more profitable than buying from traditional herb gatherers. All that the trader pays is a minimal wage and nothing for the plants per se. If he were to buy from the local people, he would have to cough up the price of the plants and though it is a pittance as far as the price of the herb is concerned, it is much more than the wages he pays to his own gatherers. A few years of this practice is enough to strip the entire forest wealth. TRAFFIC-India has come up with specific data on medicinal plants that are traded in the country. Species like Aconitum heterophyllum (ativisha), for instance, which is considered critically endangered, fetches an average price of 2,690 per kg. Its availability is decreasing in the range of 26-50 per cent annually (see table: National overview).

Chaotic best

An unorganised market definitely makes better business sense to the traders and agents. There are no bills involved, no policies, forest officials are easy to please and local communities have no option but to further their business interests. This leaves most of the communities of herb gatherers at the mercy of the traditional money-lenders turned primary herb traders and forest officials, who are considered demi-gods by them because they are allowed access into the otherwise ‘protected areas’. Meanwhile, all that the government is interested in doing is banning certain species or liberalising trade without any support mechanisms. There are hardly any studies indicating what is endangered and where. Policies are framed arbitrarily keeping in mind the bigger players, including the traders’ lobby. Millions of collectors have little incentive or skill (in the case of casual labourers) to practice scientific and sustainable harvesting. The fresh trend of involving those who have no prior association with collecting forest produce is endangering the resources further. The Uttar Pradesh forest plan, for instance, mentions that people involved in collection should be imparted proper training but then the entire exercise finishes with giving the contract to the Bhesaj Sangh, the state cooperative body. Whether the people used by the cooperative to collect the produce are trained or just employed to serve the demands are left for the unqualified forest guards to check.

A Himalayan tragedy

People who have no idea about forests step in to further trade, while the indigenous herb gatherers get exploited further

A herb smuggler’s paradise

In April 1999, a director of a reputed environmental organisation in Dehradun was tipped off about 12 trucks waiting at the check-post in Dehradun. They were carrying in various quantities medicinal plants that did not feature in the list of NTFP allowed to be collected in the region comprising Uttaranchal, then a part of Uttar Pradesh. A strike had forced the trucks to halt. He tried to garner support from various quarters to take action, but to no avail. When the strike ended, the trucks loaded with the banned materials made their way through the check-post and beyond. “It is useless trying to talk to the people in the forest department or even to organisations that claim to be proactive in conservation issues,” he says. This is just one incident. Everyday tonnes of plants and herbs find their way out of the herb-rich state of Uttaranchal. The reasons are the same as elsewhere: a well-established nexus between forest officials, traders and the agents. While the forests continue to get plundered, the FD has its own story to say. Every year, the FD auctions land for contract to collect certain species and pay the gatherers a stipulated amount and FD a stipulated sum of money. For more than a decade now, the contract has gone to Bhesaj Sangh, whose members include forest-dependent local people. FD’s role ends with the signing of the contract. “How they execute is their sole prerogative,” says Sunil Pande, deputy conservator of forests, Dehradun circle. So far so good. But the problem starts right thereafter. Firstly, once Bhesaj Sangh sends the gatherers into the forests, there is no check on what is collected. The one person who is supposed to keep a tab — the forest guard — prefers to stay away or is hardly qualified for the job. The FD keeps harping on the “shortage of staff” excuse, while the medicinal wealth finds its way out of the forests through many routes. Secondly, the money paid to the gatherers by the cooperative is much lower than the rate offered by private traders. The prices offered for Picrorhiza kurrooa (kutki), for instance, by the cooperative was Rs 22.25 per kg whereas private traders offered Rs 56 — an encouragement to collectors to sell the produce through illegal channels. The experience in Kerala is no different (see box: The Kerala experience). There is more than one channel available for further destruction of the verdant Uttaranchal hills. “Traders from Dehradun or Delhi now employ people who have no links with the forests. The motive is to collect as much as they can,” says Balendu Prakash, director, Vaidya Chandra Prakash Cancer Research Foundation (VCPCRF) Dehradun, who uses medicinal plants in the treatment of cancer. The causal labourers gather herbs in the most unscientific, destructive and non-sustainable methods. The exact quantity of the herbs being harvested cannot be ascertained. The traders insist that there is no problem as far as getting raw materials isconcerned. In the words of one trader in Dehradun. “There is no problem of getting raw materials. If it gets rare in one area, we can always get it from another.” A few years more, and getting raw materials will surely become a problem. Across borders The border stretch between India, Nepal and Bhutan, especially through the states of West Bengal and Bihar are freefor- all herb trade areas. The Calcutta drug market is the hub for raw materials coming from the east and northeastern part of the country as well as Nepal, China, Myanmar and Bhutan. Species in high demand include critically endangered species like Coptis teeta (mamira), Aquilaria malaccensis (agarwood), sarpagandha and talisapatra. States like Arunachal Pradesh provide the maximum supply, especially of ginseng and Taxus leaves. “It is such a huge borderline that it is just not possible to keep a tab on what is happening across the entire line,” says Abhijit Roychowdhury, inspector, Wildlife Protection Authority, Kolkata. The check-posts at the borders are expected to have at least one person who is competent to identify the species that are being traded, but then the everready reply is shortage of staff. Consignments usually pass through the borders unheeded through many channels. In order to import or export commodities, one requires a permit. But forged certificates are easily available. Traders, who find it very easy to con the check-posts that exist in the region, exploit the close social contact between villagers located on either side of the borders. Herbs are put in gunny bags and brought into India or taken to Nepal by the local people, says Hirak Nandy, consultant, World Wide Fund for Nature-Kolkata. Or in most cases, the villagers hide contraband within materials of daily use and pass it on to the villages at the other side of the border. The other channels used are of reexport and substitution of names of banned species with the ones that can be legally traded. The collection from forest areas in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are smuggled into Nepal from where it re-exported to India with a certificate of cultivation. Procuring certificates of cultivation for species in Appendix II of the CITES list is another mode resorted to while carrying out inter-border trade. They are collected from the wild usually by the local people and sold to agents, who then plant it in nurseries across the country. The traders then ‘manage’ a certificate of cultivation. A raw drug trader in Kolkata assures that it is very easy to procure such certificates or forge the export permits. The bigger traders or wholesalers from various parts of the country also come directly or send their agents to certain towns in the northeastern region of the country to procure material collected from the forests in these states. Traders from Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal go to places like Pasighat, Dibrugarh, Guwahati and Silchar in Assam and wait in various hotels known for medicinal plant trade in the state. They lodge themselves till they garner a truckload. Each truck contains about 2-5.5 tonnes of medicinal plants, say traders on conditions of anonymity. They are products that face a demand of 18-30 tonnes per trader. Depending on the content, each truck load is worth Rs 2.5-5 lakh. At times, plants and herbs that can be traded legally is used as a cover for the material for which extraction is banned. As trucks loaded with medicinal plants make their way to different parts of the country more traders continue to flock the hotels for the next consignment.


The Kerala experience

J Holley and K Cherla

The Girijan Cooperative Society in Kerala is responsible for managing over 120 non-timber forest produce that includes a sizeable number of medicinal plants. However, present assessments show that the cooperative is plagued by problems similar to the one Uttaranchal faces. A comparison of the prices offered by the cooperative and the private traders show that the prices offered by the latter are much higher. According to an International Development Research Centre report on the medicinal plant sector of India, the prices (for species in high demand) between the one offered by the cooperative to the collector and that by the raw drug trader varied between 767 per cent to 1,757 per cent. 

Dubious deals: truckloads of herbs from the border areas and India’s northeast find its way into shady herb markets like
Khari Baoli in Delhi, Avenue Road in Bangalore and G B N Street in Chennai

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