Himachal's being robbed of its medicinal herbs

Himachal's valleys are being robbed off their natural gift -- medicinal herbs

By Gopal S Singh
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Himachal's being robbed of its medicinal herbs

-- Commercialisation is taking a toll on natural resources, especially medicinal herbs, in the Chhakinal watershed in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh. The existing state forest policy does not help conserve resources either. The result is, there is a marked decline in medicinal herbs from the area. Such herbs that were found naturally in farm fields are disappearing in the wake of cultivation of high-yielding variety of food crops and fruit producing trees.

With agricultural land encroaching on forest areas, habitat destruction is another area of concern. Increasing population and higher economic aspirations due to market interventions are some of the other factors that have disrupted the once harmonious relationship between mountain societies and natural resources.

Policy changes The first national forest policy of 1952 had provided the Himachal Pradesh government a basic platform to frame its state forest policy in 1980. Various acts were formulated to protect forests in the state, but it did not benefit the local people in any major way. There wasn't adequate emphasis on the management of minor forest produce and medicinal plants. Earlier, village councils managed these resources. They were empowered to charge royalty on agents involved in the trade of minor forest produce and the income generated from this scheme was used for the development of villages. In such incentive-based initiatives, conservation was the responsibility of the village council.

But the forest department took over this people-oriented management practice. It started issuing export permits. The fee for export permit was Rs 5 per permit, irrespective of the quality or kind of materials being exported. In 1993, though the government enhanced the fee to more than 100 times, it did not really help in any way. Till then, there were only 14 plant species for which export permit was issued but now permits have been granted for 42 plants. This enhancement has accelerated commercial collection of medicinally important plants on a large scale. It seems the present forest policy prefers financial gain to conservation.

Commerce and catastrophe Commercialisation of natural resources has led to reckless extraction. Earlier, collection of medicinal plants was done by people who were skillful in identifying, processing, and grading species. The new policy, however, has brought in premature and frequent harvesting by unskilled people -- unaware of the physiology of plants. Such practices have resulted in receding herbal resources from the area. There is also a dramatic decline in quality and quantities of medicinal herbs.

Traditionally, Saussurea lappa, Picrorrhiza kurrooa, Jurinea macrocephala and Aconitum heterophyllum are harvested every two or three years to get quality yield without jeopardising their regeneration potential but these are now being harvested every year, resulting in poor regeneration. Species such as the Morchella esculenta, Dioscorea deltoidea, Dactylorhiza hetagirea, Ainsliaea aptera and Aconitum heterophyllum are now difficult to find.

Commercialisation has not only changed crop cultivation, cropping patterns, cropping sequences, land use or cover, but has also induced soil erosion and heterogeneity in climatic attributes.

In principle, minor forest produce can be harvested without damaging regeneration of the ecosystem based on traditional methods. Information relating to various stages of trade should be collected and made available to villagers. A new system of regeneration, cultivation and domestication should be evolved. For strengthening over-all sustainability, there is a need to reorient indigenous knowledge, empower local institutions, introduce scientific ways of collection processes, establish linkages with government agencies and ngos, bring about transparency in marketing channels and have conservation-friendly forest policies. Further, incentives for cultivation of medicinal plants and local crops and rejuvenation of traditional knowledge and involvement of the whole village community in decision-making could be some other worthwhile options.

Conservation of natural resources is important both at a local and global level, on the standpoint of sustainable development.

Gopal S. Singh is with the department of botany at the Centre of Advanced Study, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi

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