Medicinal plants make up the largest economic resource being tapped across the Himalayan region, but mountain peasants get to see only a tiny fraction of the profits. It is a historically secretive trade and little is known about who collects, who trades, who profits and whether there is overharvesting. Clearly, though, the economic future seems to lie not in timber, but in “minor forest products”, including herbs.
In early January, while inaugurating a private herb processing and oil extraction factory at Jawabhari near Nepalganj in the western Tarai, Nepal’s Minister of State for Forests and Soil Conservation Sir Mani Dhakal had this to say:
…Our country is rich in plants of medicinal value …there isa huge demand for our herbs in India as well as European countries… It is not in our advantage to export our jadibutiincrude form; not only do we lose foreign exchange but also, the poor collector in the hills does not gain anything from this. I am extremely positive that this factory(NaturalProductIndustrie4will encourage primary processing in Nepal, provide employment opportunities to Nepalis and play a role in helping to uplift the economic status ofthe villagers in mountain districts…
Everything the Minister said was, of course, correct. The value of the trade in medicinal plants of the Himalaya has never been quantified but runs to tens of millions of dollars annually. Processed exports would definitely help the Himalayan region retain more of this wealth, which is presently diverted to business firms in Indian cities and pharmaceutical companies in the West. As far as equity is concerned, the mountain peasants who are the primary collectors are getting just the crumbs that fall from a sumptuous table.
The audience gathered at Jawabhari for the inauguration knew full well that Minister Dhakal’s Office was powerless against the forces at play in the herbal trade, a business that thrives in secrecy even while the harvesting and transport of herbs is one of the most openly conducted economic activities in the Himalaya.
The region, from the rainforests of the Brahmaputra Valley to the further reaches of Kashmir, is a treasure chest of medicinal plants, a cornucopia of herbs that are harvested off isolated mountain flanks to be carried across continents and oceans to make some of the world’s foremost drugs to combat cancer, arrythmia, diabetes, blood disorders and scores of other maladies.
The herbal trade has financial muscle. Corruption at all levels of authority has oiled the business for decades. As for Nepal, its porous border allows easy passage for floral contraband. Hundreds of varieties of herbs in all incarnations —leaves, roots, stems, extracts — continue their journeys from remote crags to staging posts in the hills and then to the Tarai. Through a time-tested network of legal and illegal routes, the bundles and sacks are heaved onto trucks, they hop on international flights, board trains and find berths in cargo vessels. Some are bought up by the ayurvedic giants in India like Baidyanath, Jhandu and Dabur, others are acquired by cosmetic firms abroad, while perhaps the highest value usage is by pharmaceutic al multinationals and their research laboratories in Europe and America.
While the herbal commerce has never been busier, next to nothing is known about its particulars: what is the volume and breakdown of the trade; how many are involved from collection to trade to final processing; how equitable is the whole business? And so on.
Plants of the East
From prehistoric times, humans have used the healing powers of plants to cure illness and disease. Some of the strengths of traditional medicine lay in the psychological succour brought by medicine men who mixed potions and powders, and chanted mysterious verses. A single plant could have different healing properties. Sometimes the medicine man would ask his patient to chew the leaf of a plant, at other times he would bum the root and ask his patient to inhale the smoke; or he might just leave the bark of the plant next to the patient to provide spiritual strength. But apart from myth, the vast pool of traditional knowledge about plants contained proven preparations that helped blunt the edge of sickness and pain. And it was to the mountains, with its abundance of wild flora, that the doctors of the East turned for their’ raw material. Even today, vaidyas, hakims, aamchis, tonsas and other traditional practitioners of medicine use ageold formulae to treat tens of millions of patients in the Subcontinent, China and Southeast Asia.
While the bulk of Nepal’s herbal harvest flows down to the plains, in Kathmandu the local vaidyas continue to rely on traditional suppliers that bring selected substances from the surrounding hillsides. Elsewhere in the Himalaya, in Leh, Thimphu, Lhasa and Gangtok, and in practically every town and hamlet, medicine men continue to use traditional herbs for cure. It is in the plains, though, that traditional healing is a mega-business serviced by an army of vaidyas and hakims.
Today, the commercialisation of traditional medical knowledge is almost complete. In India alone, there are said to be 7000 licensed manufacturing units and more than 400,000 registered practitioners of traditional medicine. According to one conservative estimate, the value of annual production of herbal medicine in India is more than IRs 8 billion. In 1990, the annual sales of Dabur India Ltd, the largest ayurvedic products company, was reported to be IRs. 1.5 billion, and, said one report, “…growing 25 percent every year, its turnover doubling every three years.”
While traditional medicine relies primarily on formulae and preparations as handed down, Western pharmaceutical companies have the scientific ability to delve into the molecular structures of plant extracts, to conduct epidemiological studies, and to experiment. While Eastern medicine can at best guarantee that a certain ailment could be cured through a preparation of such and such plants, modem science is in a position to examine why this happens. For example, researchers may collect anecdotal traditional information on the use of a particular plant; screening and research can show that the plant produces bitter toxins as defence against predators. These toxins, when used in milder concentrations, can have medicinal effects on humans. While in traditional medicine, such a discovery might result from scores of years of observation, in the science laboratory, under controlled conditions, the properties of plant extracts are more quickly known. This power of scientific probing and advanced observation has allowed allopathic drugs to expand the scope of herb-based healing far beyond that of traditional medicine.
For a while, it had seemed that the possibilities of synthesising (and manufacturing non-plant based chemicals) would significantly cut the demand for natural plants. While raw plant extracts had been used extensively for drugs till the 1940s, the rapid development of organic chemistry helped chemists unravel and isolate the chemical structure of compounds and to synthesise the actual substances in plant extracts which were responsible for medicinal action. These substances could then be produced independently, in the form of patented products, and a whole new industry was born. Commercial ‘interests of pharmaceutical barons started to dominate the development of the pharmaceutical industry; plants became interesting only if the chemicals of medical value were cheaply extractable and easily synthesised.
In time, however, it became apparent that these laboratory-cloned wonder-chemicals had some drawbacks. Many micro-organisms, for example, became resistant to artificial drugs, and quite a few synthetic medicines had harmful side-effects. As a result, research on plant extracts once again gained momentum worldwide (of which about half were in the United States) were reportedly screening plants for new leads; the figure had been zero in 1980.
Further advances in science and technology have helped to speed the research on plants. A molecule that used -to take a decade to isolate can today be isolated in less than four weeks. This increased screening capacity of laboratories, combined with additional demand for aggressively marketed herbal cosmetics, has meant that the nontraditional demand for plant products will continue to rise in the years ahead.
According to a recent report in Newsweek, pharmaceutical companies such as Merch & Company are “feeding labs as many species as possible, often regardless of known medical uses, and mass screening them for any possible biological activity.” Unbeknownst to the people of the Himalaya, at this very moment, multinational interests ‘are screening plants from the region, searching for molecular compounds that can be utilised for healing and for profit.
The National Cancer Institute in the United States is said to analyse 4500 plants a year from 25 countries, including bacteria, fungi and marine organisms. Promising plants are farmed out to drug companies. The NCI is presently studying 130 plants in detail, yet only one in 10,000 samples may yield a drug. Development of the drug can take ten or more years and research laboratories require continuous supply.
Taxol, an extract from the bark of the Pacific Yew (Taxes brevifolia) is ,currently being screened for ovarian cancer-combatting capacity. The short supply of Taxus brevifolia, however, is leading scientists to turn to the needles of Taxes baccata plant. The demand for Taxes baccata, known to Nepalis as Talis Patra, has led to indiscriminate harvesting in Nepal, Uttarakhand and Himachal.
The Department of Forest in Kathmandu has two proposals before it, for collection of Taxes baccata leaves. Dabur Nepal, a branch of Dabur India Limited wants to harvest 1500 metric tons per year, to process and sell the extract to Europe and United States. INDENA SPA, an Italian firm, however, proposes to collect “…300 tons of Taxes baccata from the forests of Nepal in an environmental friendly way. This quantity is to be shipped to Italy for testing purposes (to establish best collecting methods, regions and seasons) as well as to start up the production…”
It has been reported that only one percent of the world’s known plants have been screened by Western pharmaceutical labs thus far and the figure for Himalayan plants is probably about the same. The rush to unearth the secrets of Himalayan herbs will continue.
Less than ten minutes’ drive away from where Minister Dhakal stood making his speech in Jawabhari, only a week earlier a local trader’s godown had been raided by the police to reveal seven tones of Nardostachys jatamansi. This valuable herb, known as Bhutle in the hills (for its furriness), Baalchad in Tarai, and Jatamasi across the border in India, grows between 3500m and 5000m in the middle hills of West Nepal and Uttarakhand. Jatamasi’s roots yield a high-value essential oil, used both in ayurvedic and allopathic preparations (as tonic, antiseptic, sedative, antidote, aromatic, and for epilepsy, hysteria, and intestinal colic).
More than 25 species of plants are traded in high volume. Among these are five rare plants, jatamasi among them, whose collection is not banned, but which may not be exported without processing. The other four plants are Sugandhakokila (Cinnamomum glaucescens), Sugandhawaal (Valeriana wallichii), Sarpagandha (Rauwolfia serpentina), Jhyau (tree moss, Parmelia nepalensis) and the asphalt Shilajeet. Strictly speaking, shilajeet is not a plant but is regarded as such by traders and forestry department alike. They are in high demand for their properties, among others, as sedatives, expectorants, and laxatives. Even collection, however, has been banned in Nepal for two plants — Paanch aunley (Orchis latifolia linn) and Yarsa gumba (Cordyceps sininsis), which are considered aphrodisiacs and are in high demand in West Asia. Last year, the Ministry of Forests banned the collection of Taxus baccata, after news arrived of its indiscriminate exploitation.
Collection of jatamasi in the Jumla hills of far-west Nepal is a time-tested business. The collecting agent deposits a nominal amount (NRs 7 per kilogram) as royalty with the District Forest Office, a much larger amount under the table, and gets a purji (permit). He then employs local villagers to start digging and pays them NRs 4 to 10 per kilogram of root. Once the plants are brought to the airport at Khalanga, Jumla’s headquarters, there is another round of largesse distribution. Besides the air freight that has to be paid, the agent coughs up NRs 15 gratuity per kg, which is shared by the airport staff and pilots.
Everyone knows that jadibuti (herbs) spell big bucks, the only export of value from these hills of the Karnali region, and no one is about to forego his share. Traders say that even the loader who operates the weighing machine will refuse to move a muscle unless he is hande.d a hundred rupee note. The standard refrain is, “We just want a share in your profits. Jadibutis are contraband.”
Pilots of Royal Nepal are known to fly up from Nepalganj with empty Twin Otters when they hear that a load of herbs is waiting at Jumla. Since autumn 1992, the entry of private airlines has significantly increased the volume of herb extraction from Far Western forests. The new carrier, Nepal Airways, in particular, does brisk trade with its Chinese-built Herbin “flying jeeps”. So important is the load factor, in fact, that according to one recent report, passengers are being ticketed according to their weight to make space for jadibuti in the cargo hold. Inquiries at the Ministry ofForests indicated that authorities have yet to look at the questi on of what increased air access might be doing to the sustainable exploitation of the herbal wealth of the hills.
Due to all the cost add-ons, by the time a jatamasi consignment emerges from Nepalganj’s Ranjha airport, its per kg value is up to about NRs 65. Now, the Government’s Herbs Production and Processing Company pays only NRs 67 per kg of jatamasi, with the trader having to bear the cost of transportation to the factory in Kathmandu. The newly opened plant in Jawabhari will pay no more than NRs 60 per kg. No wonder, then, that practically all the hundreds of tons of jatamasi that are harvested every year, as well as every other herb that is collected in quantity, hops the frontier to the more lucrative markets of India.
Just across the border, the going rate for jatamasi is nearly 20 percent higher than in Nepalganj. In the Khari Bauli trading mart in Old Delhi, the price of a kilo of jatamasi hovers around IRs 85. From less than 10 Nepali Rupees per kg in village Nepal to 85 Indian Rupees (equivalent to NRs 140) in the Indian metropolis, the price of jatamasi jumps 14-fold.
Beyond the entrepots of India, it is no longer possible to monitor the price that jatamasi commands. For certain, it rises even more dramatically than in the Jumla-to-Delhi stretch, as consignments pass through the hands of merchants in Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Hamburg or London (the main collection points for Himalayan herbs internationally). And, of course, value is added manifold when the jadibuti is processed by companies and brought to market as drugs, cosmetic products, or spurious but expensive elixirs.
The Jadibuti Trail
Early Spring, around this time of the year, is when jadibuti across the Himalayan range begin to move down the mountains, on porter-back, mule trains, STOL aircraft and trucks. To feed the voracious appetites of pharmaceutical and cosmetic enterprises that are continents away, the villagers of Jumla start to dig into the thawing ground for roots, collect see-ds, and cut whole trees for the moss on their trunks.
Heightening demand or a slump due to a glut at some point along the market chain is immediately passed on up the line to the collectors in Jumla. The price of banned items is extra-sensitive, and rises as one travels closer to Jumla’s airstrip. Villagers of the remoter hamlets, ignorant of the value of their collections, trade in their stocks for food and calico at small wayside shops. The shopkeepers lend money to villagers in times of need and exploit their labour during the collecting season.
These days, airstrips in all the Nepali far-West — Hunala, Dolpa, Bajhang, Doti and Jumla — serve as parts of the herbal lifeline. Large stacks of herbs can be seen drying in the sun on the runaway, waiting for the plane ride to Nepalganj or Dhangadi.
All across the Himalaya, the jadibuti trade runs north-south. Just as herbs from far West head down to Surkhet and Nepalganj, in central Nepal, material from Mustang is gathered at Pokhara and departs via Butwal and Bhairawa. The riches of the Langtang National Park and adjoining areas are gathered in Trisuli and are sent down to Birgunj, as are the herbs from Tibet which also make their way down via Trisuli (from Keyrung), or Khasa and Kathmandu. Another route for Tibetan herbs is down from north Gorkha through the Pokhara-Mugling highway to Narayanghat. The small settlement of Riley, above Dhankuta, has developed over the last decade as the collection point for the hills of East Nepal.
All across the rest of the mountains, in similar fashion, the herbal conveyer belt continues to disgorge floral wealth. In Nepal’s Tarai, the in-transit herbs are common sights along the highways and all the border roadheads, from Kakarbhitta in the east to Tanakpur in the west. Truckfulls of herbs and spices can be seen going hither and yon, being loaded, unloaded, waiting for customs clearance, and being whisked across. Once the jadibuti leave the Nepali borders, it is impossible to trace their origin. They ride the Grand Trunk Road eastward to Calcutta or westwards to Delhi. Besides these, Kanpur, Lucknow and Bombay are the other major centres for trans-shipment.
Living the Lie
Regulations within Nepal have it that the harvested jadibuti may be transported to anywhere within the country, including to any point on the long and porous southern border. The situation is absurd. Everyone in Government arid in the business understands that all but a tiny fraction of Nepali herbs lands up in Indian marts. Structures for spiriting the floral contraband have evolved and institutionalised over decades. There are layers of middlemen involved, and the herbs from Western Nepal that end up in Old Delhi will have changed hands seven or eight times.
What is remarkable about the so-called smuggling of herbal wealth (“so-called” because it is so commonplace) is that nobody seems to be too bothered. Government officials, whose responsibility it is to ensure that this resource is exploited for the benefit of the Himalayan population, are able to take the easy way out by pointing out that there is a ban on collecting this, a ban on exporting that, and so on. But these officials know full well that the ban and restrictions are ineffective. Besides, Nepal does not have the facilities to process the massive amounts of herbs that are traded—before the newly open Natural Product Industries came along, the only processing plant was the Government-run Herbs Production and Processing Company in Kathmandu.
A stockist in Nepalganj had just completed the sale to an Indian merchant of six ‘tons of jatamasi, four tons of jhyau, and two tons of shilajeet. This was his normal monthly transaction volume, he said, and he was waiting for a ‘carrier’ to send his herbs through. Three carriers are said to operate in the town, who, for six percent of total consignment-value, will guarantee passage over the border. These are specialised navigators who know the border bureaucracy well and maintain extensive contacts with customs and police officials on both sides.
Even when an occasional raid is conducted (either because a minister is visiting, or because a rival trader instigates the police), the trader merely has to bide his time before buying his way out. The trader whose godown was raided in Krishnanagar got off easily enough. He was asked to sign a piece of paper stating that he would sell his jatamasi only to Nepali citizens or to Nepali companies (the two factories mentioned above). For his emancipation, according to reliable information, the trader paid NRs 30,000 to the Chief District Officer, NRs 12,000 to the police, and NRs 10,000 to the Customs Officer. Most likely, the herbs have already crossed the border.
“It all goes out openly,” concedes a trader in Krishnanagar. “Customs people pocket the gaidas and hattis (Nepali hundred- and thousand-rupee notes) and look the other way as the trucks pass.”
About six months ago, 1875 kg of shilajeet, valued at IRs 55,000 went out by Nepalganj border, with the knowledge of the Customs Officials. The trader had a permit from Department of Mines and Geological Survey to export 25 tons of “Carbolic Acid Stone”. Again on 3 February, another consignment of shilajeet went out by Nepalganj, this time as “Black Stone”, exported by the same trader.
Contraband herbs might also get past customs through no malfeasance on the part of the border officials. Jadibuti are hidden under bags of spices as trucks cross the border. The Government has “jadibuti checkposts” on the main roadheads, but often these are manned by individuals who cannot distinguish between banned and non-banned items.
Sukbir Majhi is in charge of the Jadibuti Checkpost, a makeshift straw and bamboo structure, in Chandrauta, on the way to Krishnanagar near Nepalganj. He says that traders tend to load the upper half of trucks with dried ginger and the lower half with contraband herbs. Majhi comes from Sindhuli in East Nepal, and says he has received no training in identifying herbs.
In Krishnanagar, smuggling is easy. One heave, and the gunny sack and jadibuti arrive in India within three seconds. Elsewhere, other methods are used. The Mahakali and Karnali rivers are said to be regular ‘carriers’. Jute bags are thrown into the river at night and the current carries them through, to be fished out in India without customs formalities.
Khari Bauli, a locality deep inside the walled city and adjacent to the Old Delhi Railway Station, developed over the last two centuries as a trading centre for Himalayan herbs. Such herbal marts exist in other Indian towns as well.
Khari Bauli hosts two types of merchants, wholesale businessmen and commission agents. The former buy large quantities and stock them in their godowns to supply on demand. The commission agents, on the other hand, take jadibuti from the stockists in, say, Nepalganj, and look for potential buyers. On an average, the agents keep six to eight percent of the sale proceeds as their cut.
The narrow gallis and kataras of Khari Bauli present an improbable sight of immaculately dressed suit-tie-and-briefcase international speculators rubbing shoulders with hakims and vaidyas who have come in search of choice herbs and mixtures. Occasionally, a peasant with a bedraggled Nepali cap can be spotted trying earnestly to make a deal. Each shop permanently employs three or four labourers, who transport gunny sacks full of jadibuti from one bhandar to another, off push-carts, and up onto trucks. The air is heavy with the assorted aromas of dried herbs.
Three categories of high-volume buyers come to Khari Bauli: wholesale merchants from all over India who serve commercial ayurvedic or unani aushadhalayas and hundreds and thousands of vaidyas and hakims all over; agents of big Indian cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies; and representatives of Indian export houses that sell to the West.
Herbs, either banned or legal, can be bought over the counter at Khari Bauli. Paanch aunley from Nepal (“salaam panja” in Hindi), so named because it looks like an open palm, sells in Katara Tambaku for IRs 650 per kg. One merchant assured this writer that he could supply five quintals of “genuine Nepali paanch aunley” from stock. A larger order would require two or three days, for his agents in Nepalganj and Dhangadi to send a truck over. If they didn’t have it, he could always ask his brother in Kanpur to send word to his agent in Bhutan for some more.
Subas Chandra Kasera of Baburam Harichand Commission Agents insists that he gets all his herbs from Nepal, but legally. “Only the people who live in Ghositole (in Nepalganj) are involved in smuggling,” he says confidentially. Meanwhile, how does he gets his stocks? “We get all our herbs from `Mirindawale’ Madanlal Chirinjibilal [big industrialists in Nepal who also produce the soft drink Mirinda]; we don’t trust anybody else.” When asked to identify his Nepali wares, Kasera points to sackfuls of jatamasi, sugandhwaal and sugandhakokila stacked along the side of his shop. All of which are banned in Nepal.
While the centuries-old trade was mainly to feed the demand for traditional medicine, over the decades of the 20th century, the traders of Khari Bauli have seen the vast Wes tern market open up. While it is impossible to quantify the volume, it is safe to say that at least half of the income from the herbal trade in India is from Western pharmaceutical companies and laboratories. The Western market is lucrative, not only because it pays in hard currency but also because the Indian Government does not tax businessmen on export pro fits. But to maintain a West-oriented business is difficult turf, say the businessmen of Khari Bauli. The West-oriented businesses sport air-conditioned offices, subscribe to Western trade journals such as the Chemical Marketing Reporter, keep track of world market trends, and produce glossy brochures of their wares.
Indo-World Trading Corporation, one such company, in its brochure boasts of “well-established and reliable arrangements for cultivation, collection and supply of all botanicals growing in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim.” The brochure gives a list of products available and adds, “Of course, there are many other products within our reach and capacity…”
The family of Praveen Agrawal has been in the jadibuti business for generations and has offices in Galli Batasha. To reach Agarwal’s firm, International Traders, one passes through over-crowded lanes full of gunny-sack heaving humanity. Up a dark and narrow staircase and one enters a climate-controlled office where the cacophony of the marketplace is suddenly relegated to the background. Agarwal’s office is equipped with four different telephone lines, a desk-top computer and photocopy and telex machines. From this location, Agarwal exports Himalayan herbs to importers all over the world. He regularly hops to West Asia, where there has historically been a large demand, while his brother shuttles between a branch office in Calcutta, where herbs from the Eastern Himalaya collect, and Japan and the West.
According to another trader, Western buyers are very demanding. “It takes a tong time to build credibility. If the herbs do not meet the importers’ standards, they are returned. We have to guarantee supply volume and quality, which means that there is constant pressure. They demand Latin names of the plants, and sometimes the exact percentage of essential oil content of herb. If a buyer’s lab decides that a sample is not good enough, the entire lot may be rejected.”
With such sophisticated market demands, the trade from Nepal itself to the West is negligible. Kathmandu businessmen who fancy exporting herbs tend to contact the Government’s Trade Promo Lion Centre, which is overburdened with promoting carpets, woodwork and brassworks. The Centre refers interested exporters to traders with links in India, which then leads straight into the underground market.
Once herbs travel across the border, the herbs lose their Nepali ‘identity’ and become India-sourced. Says Agrawal, “When the jadibutis are exported from India, they all go out as Indian jadibutis.” The importing countries demand certificate of origin, which are easily made in India as most Nepali herbs are also found in the adjacent Indian Himalaya, such as in Uttarakhand.
No one, including individuals in the business, has an inkling of the size of the herbal trade. For commerce that has flourished since ancient times, and one in which hundreds and thousands are today engaged for profit or survival, there is no source which describes the market holistically.
To begin with, in given trade statistics, which are themselves suspect, it is difficult to differentiate between a spice and a herb, as the distinction is often blurred. And even what little transaction data is available on the movement is of little use because consignments are invariably under-invoiced.
As far as the volume of exports from Nepal (almost exclusively to India) is concerned, the figures mean nothing because of smuggling. The ledgers of the border customs posts was dismissed by one Customs Department official as “not a reliable source of information”. Besides, all items on which there is a 0.5 percent service charge (and this includes the allowable herbs and spices) are grouped under one generic category. In the customs post ledger at Pashupatinagar in Nepal’s eastern hills, there is no record of any herb having been exported over the past year.
An ex-District Forest Officer cautions against believing any figure made available in Nepal. He describes how a collector might actually collect 50 tons of a herb, but the Forest Department official might register only 30 tons, pocketing the royalty for the 20 extra tons. The trader then takes the lot through customs, bribing the customs people to charge him for only 15 tons, Which is what departmental data will show.
When a sale agreement is clinched in Khari Bauli, customarily only 25 percent of the transaction is registered, so that there is less income tax to pay; exporters cooperate with the local merchants, and pay cash. The exporters of plants or crude drugs, meanwhile, do not have to pay tax on export profits. While this policy was introduced to encourage exports from India, it also means that there is no obligation for exporters to share any information with the authorities and so, again, there is no knowledge of how large the export market really is.
H.C. Jain, a Delhi-based government scientist who helps publish the Wealth of India series, which provides detailed information on the medicinal plants of the Subcontinent, says, “Commercial people come here all the time, looking for scientific details on plants; but nobody wants to reveal their trade information — what they deal in, how much profit is made, etc.”
Ashok Kumar, of Traffic India, a watchdog organisation that monitors illegal trade in flora and fauna, refers the neglect of herbal plants with reference to the ‘pussycat principle” — there is always more study of exotic plants and animals. Public imagination is inspired by exotic species such as snow leopards, rhinocerii and orchids — not ‘run-of-the-mill’ herbal plants.
One rare study on trade in medicinal plants and their development potential was by M.B. Burbage for the Tropical Products Institute. The study, which was done 12 years ago, concentrated on the Kosi Hill Development Area of East Nepal and has not been followed up. A 1972 study done for the Indian government by Ayurved Ramesh Bedi, entitled The Herbal Wealth of Bhutan, named 26 drugs that could be exported from Bhutan to the Indian market. Also identified were around 58 Indian herb dealers who were interested in Bhutanese herbs. Today, Bedi is retired and lives in Delhi. To his knowledge, his report, too, has not been followed up.
It is possible to err on the side of exaggeration when trying to quantify the volume of herbal trade. Perhaps the bounty just does not exist to the extent presumed, caution some. The Economic Counsellor Shanta Ram Bhandari, who handles Nepal-India trade in the Royal Nepali Embassy in New Delhi, too, is doubtful that the market is as large as some make it out to be. Says Bhandari: “In my dealings with businessmen in Nepal, when I was with the Trade Promotion Centre, and in my four years here in Delhi, I have not come across many people looking for information on Nepali herbs. I would tend to believe that the trade is not all that large.”
Given the illegal status of the jadibuti trade, however, it is perhaps not surprising that traders would hesitate to visit the Nepali Embassy, or go through other official channels. For them, the less the world knows, the longer an oligopoly trade of high profit would remain secure.
The paucity of data is therefore complete: from the amounts collected, to the volume traded, and the value of the industry and exports. This lack of information does not help researchers to analyse, government to make policy, nor activists to act.
Time to Wake Up
Government authorities have been able to hide behind the fig leaf of “no information” and let the business of herbs continue in an exploitative, clandestine way. But now, to ensure sustainable yield and more equitable distribution of profits, they must act.
There is presently a spurt in the exploitation of the herbal wealth of the Himalaya. Western pharmaceuticals are returning to conduct aggressive laboratory research on Himalayan herbs, and the high-volume demands of the allopathic industry for raw material will continue to rise. There has also been a dramatic rise in the Subcontinental demand for traditional herbal medications as well as new-fangled products targeted to India’s growing middle class.
Acceleration in herbal exploitation is also evident from reports of indiscriminate exploitation all over, such as in the Himachal Pradesh forests, which are said to be the source of 80 percent of all ayurvedic, 46 percent of unani, and 33 percent of allopathic drugs produced in India. According to India Today fortnightly, some 32 species of medicinal plants are endangered in Himachal, including Belladonna dioscorea, a wild plant used in steroidal drugs. After 15 years of unchecked exploitation, this plant no longer grows in harvestable quantities. Sarpagandha, which grew in abundance on the Paonta range, is similarly “extinct in Himachal”, while the discovery of Taxol meant that the plant Taxus baccata is in sharp decline in the state’s Mandi and Sirmaur districts.
From Himachal Pradesh eastward all the way to Arunachal Pradesh, unsustainable exploitation has picked up. Mishrni tita (Coptis tita, Ranunculaceace) is a bitter root that grows between 2000 m and 3000 ruin the Dibang and Lohit Districts of Arunachal. Over the last decade, the locals have been zealously uprooting the species, which sells at IRs 1000 per kg locally and about IRs 1700 per kg in Dibrugarh, from where it is sent to Calcutta for export to Japan and Switzerland. Mishmi tribals have traditionally used the plant for fever and stomach troubles (it contains the alkaloid berberine), but today they have shifted to opium as substitute drug. All the tita is exported.
Such are the trends elsewhere in the Himalaya as well. And yet, “minor forest products”, including medicinal plants continue to receive contemptuous treatment in the Forestry Master Plans. The governmental agencies, be it in Himachal, Uttarakhand, Nepal, or the Indian Northeast, are not geared in mindset or facilities to deal with the surge of demand that is leading to accelerating and indiscriminate exploitation.
A glaring example of this neglect of medicinal plants in forestry’s scheme of things is to be found in the Indian Government’s forestry regulations. While the Forest Policy asks that minor forest products “be made available through conveniently located depots at reasonable prices”, the Forestry Conservation Act actually prohibits plantation of medicinal plants on forest lands. One gives, and the other takes away.
Herbal myopia is fully entrenched in Nepal’s forestry sector as well. Concedes Minister for Forests Dhakal, “As far as minor forest products are concerned, we still need to figure out what they are, which have economic potential, and how they can be exploited so that the villagers benefit.” But officials in Dhakal’s Ministry confess that they really do not know where to start looking for solutions. On the whole, the focus of policy-makers and park rangers alike is still on timber, and this is a hurdle if the herbal plant is to be treated as a major economic resource.
Only recently; due to better communications and exposure, are some villagers beginning to understand the possibilities of the trade, and no thanks to the authorities. Some, like Shri Bahadur Hama! of Bahrekote village in Jumla, have even started to take things into their own hands. Hamal had just flown down with his first planeload of jatamasi in January, and was trying to find a buyer/stockist in Nepalganj. Because of the recent raids in the Krishnanagar and Nepalganj godowns, however, the price of jatamasi had hit bottom and Hamal was in a fix.
What Hamal and his peasant counterparts in the Himalayan chain require now is help to understand and take-advantage of a trade that has long fed and clothed plains-folk.
Medicinal plants should receive major attention of NGOs because they constitute the major source of mountain income. While NGOs have been casting about for alternative sources of income for Nepali hill peasants, for example, they have ironically neglected a resource that is already delivering vast earnings —for others. Donor-aided projects have been into “integrated hill development” for decades, but other than a couple of studies that have been funded, there has been no programme to divert income from middlemen to villagers. And, most importantly, there have been precious few activist efforts to alert villagers of the wealth that passes through their fingers every day.
This, certainly, is a politically volatile arena, and one can understand the reluctance of many development agencies with lightweight agendas to jump in to change given economic relations. Any attempt to snatch the purse away from entrenched interests that have never before been confronted, requires political gumption. This was evident a few years ago when some development workers tried to organise the peasants of Gorkha so that they could bypass local middlemen and get fair prices. The reaction to this organisational activity was vicious and it drew fire, perhaps expectedly, from the–highest quarters in Kathmandu’s political circles. The experiences of Chipko activists in their efforts to ban plains-based lumber merchants from invading the hills of Kumaun and Gahwal are perhaps the best signposts of the hurdles that activists will face when they finally decide to take on the herbal interests on behalf of mountain peasants.
With Government forever acting like a lame duck, activism is the only way that villagers will be sensitised. Mountain inhabitants need to be told not only the value of the roots, leaves and stems they collect, but also how to negotiate, and about collective bargaining. Depending upon region and plants collected, they need to be made aware of preservation techniques, primary processing, and of the little tricks that the agents use to cheat them.
There is indeed much that activists can do and Nepali NGOs are just awakening to the enormous tasks ahead. In the hills of Kumaun, Garhwal and Himachal, with their longer tradition of social action, voluntary organisations are already into rnedicinalplants. In Himachal, for example, where there is reckless exploitation of the herb Termenitia chebula, the Society for Protection of Wasteland Development is working with a local NGO, Environmental Action Research, to sensitise local mahila mandals (womens’ groups) to the importance of sustainable harvesting of the herb and how to get remunerative prices. Past experience has shown that it is these women’s groups that are most effective in confronting the contractors with information and organisation.
Elsewhere, NGOs of Uttarakhand are well into spreading public information about the value and use of medicinal plants. One recent publication, of Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi written in simple Hindi, succinctly describes Kumaon’s medicinal plants, giving both their identification and uses. Herbal cooperatives and marketing societies have also been established in the Uttar Pradesh hills, under the aegis of the U.P. Cooperative Department. Unfortunately, the responsibility of sale, purchase and collection of medicinal herbs has been given to the Government-run Kumaon Bikas Mandal Nigam, which has become more concerned abou t royalties than the conservation and development of Uttarakhand’s forest wealth.
Even though the herbal market is of interest to all the states of the Himalayan rimland and Tibet, there is negligible contact amongst the Himalayan states of India, and none whatsoever between the different national governments of the region. At the very least, some information-sharing and coordination at the regional level, including among active NGOs, would.be useful. In particular, because Far West Nepal and the adjacent Uttarakhand areas have so much in common in terms of medicinal plants, some cross-border interaction among officials, NGOs, activists and peasant groups is imperative. For the moment, the vested interests of the herb trade continue to set the agenda.
The Government Cannot Promote Herbs
There are a string of offices under the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation to look after medicinal plants: a botanical garden, a herbarium and botanical laboratory, a laboratiry for drug research, herbal farms in several parts of the country and a Herbs Production and Processing Company. In theory, everything exists to make sure that medicinal plants are well researched and their full potential utilised. The National Herbarium and Botanical Laboratory would conduct ethno-botanic studies, and pass on promising plants to be studied in the Royal Drug Research Laboratory. If the plant revealed promising compounds, large-scale processing (extraction of essential oil, etc) could be done at the Herbs Production and Processing Company. The oils and compounds could then be sent over to the Government’s Royal Drugs Limited to be made into quality drugs. Cultivation of these medicinal plants would be done in Herbal Farms.
But the Government is not even utilising its existing institutional setup. The Royal Drugs Limited is limited to being an allopathic outfit. The ethno-botanic studies conducted, at the Herbarium are limited to collecting plants and sticking them in paper. The drug, research laboratory operates with a meagre budget, uses outdated equipment, and takes ages to analyse even the primary chemical constituents in a plant. The herbal farms exist in quiet desolation. The Processing Company struggles on but from its production you would not know that this plant has a near-monopoly on herbs that are legally, required to be processed within Nepal. It would rather let the machines rust than rent them out to interested businesses; and access to their zealously protected list of buyers is denied even to merchants interested in establishing small processing, factories. Indian traders, certainly, are not going to wait around for the government-run factory to deliver on an order. Says Praveen Agarwal, a New Delhi importer of Nepali herbal plants, “They are just not able to keep up with the market. You place an order and the thing does not arrive for four months. Who has that kind of time?”
So much for the Nepali Government’s efforts at promoting Himalayan herbs.