Villagers and merchants may derive short-term benefit from the herbal trade, but Langtang’s biological wealth could well prove to be its downfall.
The ecological integrity of Langtang National Park, only 32 km north of Kathmandu, is under enormous stress. Some 19,000 inhabitants, and another 58,000 people living around the park, rely on the food, fodder and fuelwood it provides, and those populations are steadily growing. As if that were not enough, commercial exploitation of the park’s plant resources now threatens to tip the balance. Ironically, Langtang’s protected status hinders rather than helps its continued survival.
The upper reaches of the Tandi, Melamchi, Larkey and Balephi rivers meet the southern perimeter of Langtang National Park at an elevation of 1000 m. The park is bounded to east, and to the north at more than 7000 m. by the Nepal-Tibet border and, to the west, by the Bhote Kosi river. This great range of elevation has given rise to an astonishing diversity of flora, from the upper tropical forest to regions of alpine shrub and perennial ice. As many as 32 different mammals and 283 species of birds make their homes among these diverse plant communities. Small communities of local peoples, including Tamangs, Sherpas and Tibetans, have survived on the wildlife and plant resources of Lang tang’s forest for centuries. Over that time they have probably gathered more knowledge on their use than anybody else.
These people have no choice but to rely on the forest. Barren wilderness accounts for more than half of the park’s 1710 sq km. Some 27 percent of the park area is under forest cover and 5 percent under shrub. Agriculture accounts for just 1.6 percent. It is estimated that at least 0.2 hectare of land is required to sustain a human life in Nepal ‘s hills but the per capita land holding in Langtang averages 0.006 ha — enough only to produce a quarter of the annual food requirement. Thus, grazing livestock and harvesting forest resources become necessary for survival.
Some 15 percent of the park area provides pasture while forests offer food, medicines, fodder, fuelwood and the raw materials to make handicrafts and tools. Of 172 useful plants, 22.7 percent are used as food (32 of them. are edible mushroom). More than half have medicinal value and nearly six percent are sources of fodder. Thirteen percent provide fuelwood and 3.5 percent are used for religious purposes.
The population is beginning to understand the commercial value of medicinal and other plants found within the park. Some of the plant resources have not been through even cursory scientific analysis, yet growing demand for herbal medicines from Nepali and foreign cities has generated a thriving trade in flora that could even spell extinction for entire species. To give one example of the scale of exploitation, in 1990, 70 kg of roots of Picrorhiza species, 68 kg of Nardostachys jatamansi roots, 40 kg of Rhododendron anthopogan leaves and 60 kg of J. recurva leaves were confiscated from a truck in transit to Kathmandu. These species of herb are found at high altitude, where growth and seed germination are extremely poor. Collection of 238 kg of rhizomes must have extensively damaged any rhizomes remaining at the collection sites.
Of 91 medicinal plant species used locally, 47.5 percent are traditionally collected for their fruits, flowers, leaves, and shoots. Sixteen percent are wanted for their bark and 30 percent for their roots. Six percent of the 91 species are used in their entirety. Thus, collection of more than half the species of medical interest from Langtang require that the plant be destroyed. On a commercial scale, the impact of harvesting could be colossal on species that are popular, rare, slow-growing or fussy about their habitats (habitat specialists). This is not to mention the risk of losing species before we have even had a chance to study their medicinal or other values in detail. Add to this the estimate that less than 5 percent of smuggled plants is detected and the problem falls depressingly into perspective.
Everybody stands to lose. Science risks losing the opportunity to study rare and unique plants that may contain substances of medical or other values. Collectors and merchants will lose if their mining turns out to be unsustainable. And, of course, indigenous people lose because, without fertile land, alternative livelihoods and access to modern health care, they need forest plants for food, fodder, fuel and medicine.
How can this happen in Langtang, ostensibly a protected area? First is a regulation relating to the sale and distribution of forest minor products, including medicinal plants promulgated in 1970 (Nepal Gazette, Vol. 20, No. 36, Poush 13, 2027). This regulation allows collectors to harvest and sell medicinal plants growing in the mountains north of the Mahabharat Range without permit or license. All they are required to do prior to exporting their caches is to pay absurdly small fees —described in Notice No. 2, Section 40 of the Nepal Gazette, Chaitra 11, 2047 (1991) — that range from Rs 0.14 to Rs 30.00 per kg. The one exception is for Cordyceps, a fungal growth found on certain arthropods, known locally as yarsagumba. This alleged floral gem costs the collector a Rs 263.50 per kg simply because it may pose some aphrodisiac properties.
As many as 30 persons at a time, from both within and outside the region, come into the park to raid its medicinal wealth. Collectors harvest unlimited quantities of herbs and sell them to merchants who are usually temporary residents there at harvest time. Neither collector, nor broker, nor merchant is disturbed by the park management. Having transported their loads of Himalayan flora to the depot at Syabrubesi, they need only to rep ort the origins of the cache as outside the park—either from beyond the Bhote Kosi at the western border or from Keyrung, across the border in Tibet—and they are waved through.
All that remains is to pay the insignificant royalties on reaching the customs posts on the southern borders. The only casualties among smugglers are those that try to sell the goods themselves, to Indian merchants in Trisuli or in other nearby markets. Since the Rasuwa District Office governs the forest areas that border the Park and the National Park office manages the park area, their management differences have effectively tied their own hands by protecting the park area but not those forest areas that surround the park, giving the merchants an easy escape. Even park officials cannot clearly explain how it is that the merchants have managed to set up a depot within the park boundary.
Choice to Make
The Rasuwa District Forest Office at Dhunche, which lies inside the park, is the sole authority regulating the collection of medicinal plants. It is responsible for monitoring collection, checking claims for the origin of the plants and working closely with the park management. But none of this is happening. The trade is difficult to control even with strong legislation and patrolling. Stem rules and regulations may prevent the gross harvesting of truckloads of plants but it will not stop smuggling. More people will simply harvest smaller quantities and take to the mountain paths to smuggle them out, making enforcement more difficult.
There is a desperate need for an inventory of species and research to monitor their resilience and to determine critical population sizes. We need to know the prevalence of threatened plant species. In addition, economic dependence of villages inside the park on medicinal plants has to be determined. Armed with such vital information, the district forest office may prepare local policy development on trading medicinal plants without injuring seeds of sanctuary, as well as the indigenous societies that survive on it.
Many mountain areas that are now denuded may once have resembled today’s Langtang. The natural resources of many have succumbed to the ravages of population pressure and commercial exploitation. Protecting Langtang legally is meaningless unless the law is enforced with the blessing of local people content in the knowledge that they are to benefit now and in the future. Having lived for some years among the people of Langtang, whose lives are intertwined around those of the park’s natural resources, I realise that we have as much to learn as we have to teach while attempting to reconcile the split between dependency on land and our sense of responsibility for its stewardship. A growing human population and consequent food shortages force people to rely on livestock to provide them with cash income. Thus, the park today has to support fodder and pasture for 29,575 head of livestock. The additional pressure from mining of natural resources may be a short-term solution to the problems of local people but it cannot maintain the ecological integrity of Langtang.
Alternatives are few but topping the list must be empowerment of indigenous people to enjoy rights and responsibilities for managing forest resources. Participatory land management programs do not weaken land ownership and park management but promote rights to use the productivity of the land in exchange for protection. The proposition is a logical one but delicate, too. It demands lifetime monitoring, step-wise tuning of both ecological and socio-economic processes and sensitivity to local land conflicts. Unfortunately, such steps are yet to be demonstrated as successful examples in Nepal.
Yonzon is a member of Environment Protection Council, Nepal and a resource biologist.