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Medicinal Plants for Survival: FRLHT's Programme for their Conservation in a Biocultural Perspective

Contributed by Darshan Shankar and Biswajit Majumdar, Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, Anandanagar, Bangalore, India

About the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions

The Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) is a non-governmental organisation which was established to save and build upon India's medical legacy. As a part of its efforts to save India's ethnomedicinal heritage, FRLHT has initiated a programme of conservation as well as for the sustainable utilisation of medicinal plants.

FRLHT's main areas of activity are:

  • traditional medicine and primary health care
  • in situ and ex situ conservation of the plant biodiversity used in traditional medicine
  • multi-disciplinary databases on medicinal plants
  • international cooperation in traditional medicine
  • establishment of the theoretical foundations and epistemology of traditional medicine.

FRLHT is coordinating a Danish Aid supported and a Government of India-sponsored project for the conservation of medicinal plants in the southern Indian states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is the most comprehensive programme in India for the in situ and ex situ conservation of medicinal plants. Under the in situ component of this project, a network of 30 Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas (MPCAs) and 6 Medicinal Plant Development Areas (MPDAs), covering a wide range of ecological diversity and altitude ranges, has been set up. The ex situ conservation programme comprises the establishment of a chain of 15 ethnomedicinal forest gardens called Medicinal Plant Conservation Parks (MPCPs). The MPCPs will conserve all the plant species traditionally used by the ethnic communities of southern India and will act as the live repositories of the natural and cultural history of the region in which they are located. They will also be the learning and documentation centres for the local folk practitioners.

Strong linkages with the local communities, and their close involvement with all conservation activities, is an important part of the project's agenda.

The chain of MPCAs, MPDAs and MPCPs is the foundation for the Indian Medicinal Plants Genetic Resources Network (INMEDGERN) which will encompass all in situ conservation areas, nurseries, herbariums, seedbanks, and botanic gardens that are engaged in the conservation and sustainable use of the medicinal plants of India.

Our Educational Perspective

Indian medicinal plants are a national and a global heritage, and the Government, private and social service sectors need to be made aware of the urgent need for conservation action. This is possible only through public cooperation.

There are strong and urgent reasons for conserving medicinal plants:

  • in India, across 4635 ethnic communities and hundreds of ecosystems, people know about the uses of over 7500 species of medicinal plants
  • India has also codified knowledge of medicinal plants, their properties, processes and products. Over 10,000 herbal formulations are fully documented in traditional medicine literature
  • medicinal plants in the modern age have not only kept their healing qualities, but they can guarantee ‘health security' to millions of rural households
  • the medicinal plants of India can provide a range of useful herbal products for the whole world.

Beyond botanical gardens: the need for in situ conservation of medicinal plants

Even if medicinal plants species are cultivated on millions of hectares (this should happen!), and even if thousands of botanical gardens are created (this should be done!), medicinal plants can still become extinct if viable breeding populations are not protected and conserved in the wild. Thus in situ and ex situ conservation efforts play a complementary role in securing the plant genetic resource base.

The Need for a Network of Ethnobotanical Gardens

From the experience of setting up of the chain of Medicinal Plant Conservation Parks in southern India, it is felt that, apart from the core function of the ethnobotanical gardens as centres of ex situ conservation of plant genetic diversity, they also serve several concurrent and equally important functions:

  • they can conserve a region's natural and cultural history, especially since plants are an important link between biodiversity and cultural diversity
  • the ethnobotanical gardens can help disseminate local knowledge of plants. This knowledge may have several dimensions, namely, nomenclature, schemes of classification, ecological insights, traditional conservation practices, and multiplicity and diversity of uses.

Main Target Groups

Educational programmes are targeted at the communities, mainly rural, living in our project areas. These communities have a strong local stake in ensuring the long-term sustainability of the conservation programmes. It is expected that they will participate in the conservation programme through protection of the sites from fire, grazing, etc., cultivation and through the use of medicinal plants and maintenance of the local health traditions.

Within the local community, groups of special interest have been identified: folk-medicine practitioners, women and schoolchildren, and farmers. The Forest Service personnel responsible for implementing the in situ conservation programme in close cooperation with the local community are also an important group.

Wide public goodwill and support is also needed, in order to activate policy changes and programmes for the conservation, cultivation and use of medicinal plants and the revitalisation of health traditions.

Educational package

A wide range of methods is used to carry messages to communities that are predominantly rural and with limited exposure to formal education. The methods used are:

  • written materials, including posters, brochures, manuals, signs and interpretation
  • documentary video films
  • state- and district-level folk-practitioners' conventions, in which awards for excellence in public health service are presented
  • interactive folk-art puppets and folk-theatre
  • nature camps for children.

The 'icon' that identifies the conservation sites is a signboard arch with a pair of statues of a Rihi (sage) showing the traditional method of making herbal medicine and recording his knowledge on leaf scroll. The icon symbolises the close linkage between the conservation of biodiversity and sustenance of the health traditions as integral parts of the cultural heritage of India. The visitors to the sites and the local public now have a great degree of reverence and appreciation for the conservation and cultural values that these sites epitomise.

AMRUTH – the Indian Magazine for the Conservation of Medicinal Plants

FRLHT publishes Amruth (meaning ambrosia), a comprehensive bi-monthly, English-language magazine fully devoted to issues, news and features relating to all aspects of the conservation of medicinal plants.

The Green Health Campaign

FRLHT is promoting, with the assistance and involvement of a number of NGOs and government agencies, a public campaign to popularise the use of commonly-found medicinal plants for primary health care on a self-help basis. Called ‘Green Health’, the campaign is basically a strategy to revive interest in the indigenous health-care systems. 35 common medicinal plants of southern India have been identified and illustrated manuals have been prepared on how to grow these plants in a nursery and how to use them for most household ailments.

Conclusion

FRLHTs educational activities, which are closely linked with in situ and ex situ conservation programmes, lay a special emphasis on the biocultural aspects of conservation. This is because medicinal plants, along with their associated cultures, are today under threat. While the reasons for loss of biodiversity are better understood, those for the loss of cultural diversity are hardly understood. Cultural diversity may be as important for Civilisation's evolution as biodiversity is for biological evolution.

   

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