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The Genesis of the Medicinal Plants Conservation Network (MPCN)

Contributed by G. Hariramamurthi, Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, No. 50, MSH Layout, Anandnagar, Bangalore-560024, India

A Living Tradition

Although India's medical heritage is many centuries old, it is an evolving and living tradition. Today, millions of people in villages, towns and cities across the country, depend upon the traditional medical systems. Around 8000 species of medicinal plants are used in our health traditions, across the length and breadth of the country.

Unfortunately, these rich medical traditions have become marginalised in recent times. This is so because of various social, economic and political factors and not because the traditions in themselves are medically inefficient.

The Urgency to Conserve

Due to the rapid degradation and loss of natural habitats, juxtaposed with the over harvesting of some species, much of the biological wealth that is so intrinsically important to traditional systems of medicine has been destroyed or become endangered.

Today, there is an urgency to conserve India's medicinal plants. Although the point is not sufficiently understood, it is important to note that it is only a sound conservation strategy that can promote a backbone to a robust cultivation program. The latest global Red-list of plants brought out by The World Conservation Union (IUCN) presents a shocking picture: nearly 34 000 species or 12.5% of the world’s flora is facing extinction. Based on these figures, it is reasonable to estimate that around 1000 of India's 8000 medicinal plant species are also threatened. Threat Assessment studies carried out in recent years have placed about 200 species on the Red-list. If urgent conservation action is not taken immediately, we stand in danger of irretrievably losing our priceless heritage.

The Genesis of the Medicinal Plants Conservation Network

Since 1993, a major medicinal plant conservation project in southern India has been underway with the State Forest Departments of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Research Institutes and leading NGOs as the key players. Over 50 medicinal plant conservation sites have been established in the three states, across different agro- climatic regions, so that the entire diversity of medicinal plants of the region is conserved. This initiative of conserving wild medicinal plant genetic resources is the first of its kind in India. It is being coordinated by the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), Bangalore.

The Medicinal Plants Conservation Network (MPCN) was created out of the need to formalise this pioneering conservation effort, and to link the conservation programmes initiated five years ago to the needs of users. The collective efforts of FRLHT, the State Forest Departments, Research Institutes and NGOs, can provide enormous mutual benefits, as well as services to both non-commercial and commercial end-users of medicinal plants.

MPCN Aims

  • To facilitate sharing of resources and experiences amongst its members who may be NGOs, government departments, trusts, co-operatives, companies, research institutes and others who are actively involved in the conservation, cultivation and sustainable utilisation of medicinal plants.
  • To facilitate links between the medicinal plant conservation organisations, who are its primary members and medicinal plant user groups, who are its associate members. These links may result in mutually beneficial projects and public support for the multi-faceted conservation activities of the network.
  • To undertake advocacy with governments and other bodies on policy matters related to medicinal plant conservation and their sustainable utilisation.
  • An essential feature of the work of MPCN members is the involvement of local communities in their work and its conviction that there is a need for benefit sharing with these communities so that they also gain from the growth of the medicinal plant sector. This community-oriented policy of the MPCN members is based on the understanding that rural communities, women and tribals are among the key custodians and conservators of medicinal plants and indigenous knowledge.

MPCN Conservation Sites

Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas (MPCAs)
Thirty Medicinal Plants Conservation Areas (MPCAS) have been established across different ecological regions of southern India by the State Forest Departments of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu; two more MPCAs are being established. MPCAs represent the in situ component of the conservation programme. These sites have an average area of 200 hectares with wide topographical and altitudinal variations (19 m to 2150 m). They cover 10 out of the 11 major forest types of southern India and harbour populations of most of the medicinal plant diversity of the region, including red-listed species. The MPCAs act as live field gene banks of the medicinal plants of southern India.

Medicinal Plant Development Areas (MPDAS) and NTFP sites
MPDAs are small areas in NTFP circles and on degraded forests which are being developed for production of medicinal plants by planting the locally available indigenous species of medicinal plants and trees at these sites. The local communities and the Forest Department share the returns through sustainable harvesting of plants from jointly managed conservation areas, under the Joint Forest Management Scheme and/or Tamil Nadu Afforestation Programme. Seven MPDAs have been established; six more are being established. These sites are to become sources of supply of high quality raw materials, which are sustainably collected from natural habitats.

Medicinal Plant Conservation Parks (MPCPS)
MPCPs are meant to conserve the region's medicinal plants diversity in ex situ conditions. Sixteen such parks have been established by non-governmental organisations and research institutes; two more MPCPs are being established. These ethno-botanical gardens also help in revitalisation of local health traditions. They currently grow more than 800 medicinal plant species known to local ethnic communities, and provide planting material via their nurseries to the public. Some of these parks also include herbariums and seed and raw drug centres. They engage in training, local enterprise development, education and community outreach programmes they have the potential to develop into centres of reliable supply of planting materials and organically grown raw materials.

MPCN'S Commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Indian Biodiversity Act

The Draft Bio-diversity Act of India based on CBD guidelines regulates access to native plant genetic material and traditional knowledge of plants for certain commercial purposes without the consent of the notified authorities specified in the act, and suitable benefit sharing arrangements with local communities. In this context, MPCN will encourage its members to implement the provisions of the Indian Bio-diversity Act.

Conservation Action

MPCN members have made considerable progress in the conservation of medicinal plants, via community participation activities. The in situ conservation programme initiated by the network is reported to be the most cost-effective way of conserving inter and intra specific diversity of medicinal plants. Around 1500 species of medicinal plants, including 76 Red-listed species, are being conserved in and outside their natural habitats. The medicinal plants conservation efforts are being initiated in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Community Outreach

In India, 90% of common ailments are reported to have local solutions based on local health traditions that use locally available medicinal plants. With the difficulty of resource mobilisation encountered by the providers of organised Public Health Control (PHC) services based on western medicine, the PHC has not been able to deliver ‘health for all’ in the country. It is also reported that these organised PHC services have been able to effectively cover only 30% of population.

In the light of above, the programme of conservation of medicinal plants and revitalisation of local health traditions has launched a Green Health Campaign. This is a strategy to promote the use of self-help methods through training programmes for local community members based on local health traditions that could lead to sustainable health care in PHC.

Green Health Campaign's slogan, 'Medicinal Plants in Every Backyard - Primary Health Care in Every Home' is intended to promote the use of local plants and local knowledge for primary health care, through training on the use of medicinal plants by self-help methods. The household herbal gardens, community herbal gardens, farm herbal gardens and sacred herbal gardens are promoted as individual and collective initiatives by the local communities to grow the medicinal plants that could be utilised to meet their PHC requirements, as and when required.

MPCN's members have established 23 nurseries, which are today multiplying about 550 species to meet the requirements of local communities.

Conservation Research

A research team engaged in the following areas of work supports the conservation programme:

  • Floristic surveys
  • Medicinal Plants Database
  • Ayurveda Database
  • Siddha Database
  • Trade Database
  • Propagation Database
  • Seed Storage Database
  • Herbarium
  • Raw Drug Collection.

Educational Materials and Activities

The communication strategy for engendering local community support for the conservation programme involves the use of a wide range of media that the local communities are familiar with, and which have the power to communicate the messages to the target groups. These are:

  • illustrated signs
  • thematic posters
  • books on growing and using medicinal plants for PHC
  • conventions of folk health practitioners
  • exhibitions
  • nature camps for students and teachers
  • folk media such as puppetry, folk plays, etc.

Current Activities of the MPCN

The MPCN Secretariat brings out a quarterly newsletter GeneNET for its members. A biannual conference of the network is organised to share and exchange experiences amongst members. On this occasion, an exhibition is also organised by MPCN members to inform the wider public of the activities of the network, including a display of MPCN members' products and publications. MPCN has a policy of inviting representatives of conservation organisations and others interested in MPCN to this meeting. MPCN also promotes state-level conferences of Nattu Vaidyas (folk healers) and women's green health organisations and medicinal plant exhibitions.

The Medicinal Plants Conservation Network has a Steering Committee, representing its members, which meets once a year to give direction to its activities. The Steering Committee decides on policies, services, budgets, programmes and projects that should be promoted via the MPCN Secretariat and MPCN members, so that individual member organisations and the network as a whole can become socially useful.

Information available to the public via the MPCN network

  • GeneNET newsletter
  • information about plants in MPCN Nursery network
  • names and addresses of primary members of MPCN.

Membership of the Network
All the organisations involved in the southern India medicinal plant conservation project, initiated since 1993, are founding members of the MPCN. These include the research institutes and NGOs who have established Medicinal Plant Conservation Parks (MPCPs), and Forest Departments who have established Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas (MPCAs) and Medicinal Plant Development Areas (MPDAs) in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Primary Members of the MPCN are those organisations that are actually engaged in community based activities related to conservation and sustainable utilisation of medicinal plants.

Associate Members of the MPCN are the individuals, groups and organisations who are interested in medicinal plant conservation. Associate members include all potential medicinal plant user groups like urban and rural households, women's organisations, government departments, ISM physicians and their associations, research institutes, industry, NGOs, development aid agencies and schools and colleges.



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