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Medicinal plants can improve the fortunes of Himachal’s rural poor- a study by Sushil Kapta

Medicinal and aromatic plants are critical to Himachal Pradesh’s rural economy.

Twenty four of the 100 most important medicinal plant species traded in the country are found in the state. The state exports some 2,500 tonnes of medicinal plants and their parts. The legal annual trade in medicinal plants in the state is worth about Rs 10 crore at current market prices. The state government earns about Rs 40 lakh per annum from export permits for medicinal plants.

However, this trade is largely unregulated. The state does not have any quality control or certification standards and ends up losing hefty revenue. More importantly, local people who have rights to collect these medicinal plants from forests, end up getting a rough deal.

The state government is not totally impervious to such challenges. The Himachal Pradesh Forestry Sector Medicinal Plants Policy (HPFSMPP) 2006, for instance, aims to further the basic objectives of meeting the minor forest produce requirements of the state’s rural and tribal populations in accordance with the National Forest Policy, 1988. Moreover, in 2003, the state government authorised gram panchayats to issue passes for transporting 37 types of medicinal plants extracted within their territorial jurisdictions.

HPFSMPP is in many ways a continuation of the forest settlements that began in 1860s in the princely states that became part of Himachal Pradesh. Most of these settlements gave the following rights to local people: cutting grass, grazing cattle in the specified forests, removing medicinal roots, fruits, flowers, fuelwood and taking splinters of deodhar and kail stumps. In certain erstwhile princely states, these rights are known as bartan and holders of these rights are called bartandars.

According to a study conducted by the state forest department, the most important parameter governing the distribution of medicinal plants in the state is altitude:

Low-value, high-volume species commonly occur at lower altitude, while high-value species, extracted in smaller quantities are found at high altitudes. The majority of valuable medicinal herbs are concentrated at high altitudes while other minor forest produce (including marchella mushroom and dhoop) is found at lower reaches.

The distribution and collection of herbs within panchayats or villages in high altitude zones of the state, like Kulu, also vary with altitude. The lowest level of fields are reserved for agriculture and horticulture, the middle-level lands have forests or community lands where people have rights over timber, fodder and fuelwood, and pastures having high value medicinal and aromatic plant species are usually found at higher reaches of villages or panchayats.

Sustainable extraction is the most critical necessity in the medicinal plants sector.

Many experts reckon that a commodity-focussed approach – one promoting systematic cultivation and processing – is not feasible for most medicinal plants as processing technology is still in a nascent stage and farm areas available for cultivation of new crops are scarce. Himachal Pradesh’s Ayurveda and agriculture/ horticultural departments are working on processing and extraction techniques.

Here it is important that state forest department confines itself to conserving and managing medicinal plant wealth in the forest areas, and not complicate matters by duplicating the efforts of other agencies.

The state government is making sure that the benefits of such efforts percolate to the grassroots. Export fee realised as a result of its 2003 authorisation forms the revenue of the gram panchayats. Moreover, since only local people have been accorded rights to collect medicinal herbs, the poor in the area can get permits for transporting the collected material without coming up against bureaucratic hurdles.

All this can be a great motivation for panchayats to manage their medicinal plant resources in a sustainable manner.

HPFSMPP can pressurise the forest department to change its tree-centric approach to multiple-value/multiple-use centric biomass oriented approach with proper modifications in the existing silvicultural practices under participatory forest management programmes. The state’s new medicinal plant policy also has the potential to realign relationships with community organisations for achieving the ultimate objective of sustainable forest management in the state.

It is now up to the government to regulate trade in medicinal plants and set proper standards.

An IT professional for 17 years, based in the US since the last 12 years. Founded NGO My Himachal and then Himachal Media Pvt. Ltd.. A Himachali forever. Always trying to bring together people whose hearts beat for the state.

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