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

 
By William Moomaw
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Herbal heist

What is going on? Kari Baoli h (Credit: Amit Shanker / CSE)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.

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.

Threat status
Seven plant species included in the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) list are critically endangered

Species Cites classification Threat status (biodiversity
Conservation and Prioritation
project, 2000)
Saussurea costus
Rauvolfia serpentina
Podophyllum hexandrum
Dioscorea deltoidea
Euphorbia ssp
Aloe ssp
Pterocarpus santalinus
Taxus wallidinia
Picrorhiza kurrooa
Aquilaria malaccensis
Nardostachys grandiflora
Appendix I*
Appendix II**
Appendix II
Appendix II
Appendix II
Appendix II
Appendix II
Appendix II
Appendix II
Appendix II
Appendix II
CR
CR
CR
CR
-
-
-
CR
EN
CR
CR
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 is not 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 forest-dependent 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.

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.

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

Date Commodity Quantity State
March 23,1989 Root 3,000 kg West Bengal
March 3, 1992 Root 10,000 kg Delhi
March 3, 1992 Root 9,000 kg Delhi
March 3, 1992 Root 19,000 kg Delhi
April 30, 1992 Root 15,000 kg Maharashtra
March 10, 1993 Root 2,500 kg Maharashtra
July 9, 1996 Ayurvedic tablets 600 bottles of Somva 34 Maharashtra
September 18, 1996 Dabur chyavanprash 166 jars Maharashtra
September 18 1996 Dabur chyavanprash 240 jars Maharashtra
October 8, 1996 Ayurvedic oil 102 kg Maharashtra
October 28, 1996 Dabur chyavanprash 12 jars (1 kg each) and 240 jars (500g each) Maharashtra
December 19, 1996 Dabur chyavanprash 120 kg Maharashtra
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 traded. 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 forests
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.

National overview
Availability of Aconitum heterophyllum, Coptis teeta and Podophyllum hexandrum is decreasing at the rate of 26-100 per cent annually

Species name Average price
(Rs/kg)
Availability
trend
Demand
trend
Future
trend
Aconitum heterophyllum
Aconitum spp (Atis meetha)
2,690
208
D-1
C
I-2
I-1
D-1
D-1
Aquilaria malaccensis

Fake wood in trade*

Commiphora mukul
Coptis teeta**
142
222
I-1
D-3
I-1
C
C
D-1
Genetiana kurroo

Species not reported in trade

Gloriosa superba (root) 35.5 I-1 I-1 D-1
Hedychium spicatum

Trade of the species could not be ascertained

Podophyllum hexandrum
Pterocarpussantalinus
Saussurea costus
Swertia chirayita
Taxus wallichiana***
57.5
43.5
58.5
286.5
29.5
D-1
C
I-1
D-1
I-1
C
I-1
I-1
I-1
C
C
D-1
D
D-2
C

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