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Involving tribal communities in plant conservation

Volume 7 Number 2 - October 2010
Saujanendra Swain

French: Impliquer les communautés tribales dans la conservation des plantes

Spanish: Participación de las comunidades tribales de conservación de especies vegetales


In every ethnic group there exists a traditional healthcare system and for many rural people this represents the front line of health defence. Saujanendra Swain introduces us to a unique ethno-medicinal garden that acts as a living gene bank for tribal people.  Planted, maintained and managed by traditional healthcare practitioners and birth attendants, this garden is contributing to Target 9 and 13 of the GSPC.

Even as the use of medicinal plants in primary healthcare, in addition to allopathic drugs, is growing, there are threats to their future. Important species are in danger of extinction due to increased demands to supply new plant-based therapeutic markets and biopharmaceuticals. Such concerns have stimulated action in chronicling and conserving medicinal plants and in the sharing of benefits with indigenous tribes.

In this context the undivided Koraput district of Orissa (Odisha) state needs special mention, being known for its richness of medicinal flora and useful plant resources. Tribal communities in this region have long been conserving and utilizing these resources, through their traditional culture, although that indigenous knowledge is being eroded by the gradual depletion of forest cover.  It is estimated that more than 1200 medicinal plant species are available in the forests of the area. Some are used for curing common diseases like fever, cold, pyorrhea, gastrointestinal disorders, skin diseases, malarial fever and so on, others for setting fractured bones, curing asthma, jaundice, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. And many species have anti-helminthes (parasitic worms), anti-inflammatory and anti-fertility properties helpful in treating a variety of diseases. Local tribal populations have physicians/healers with outstanding knowledge of the plant species. They have preserved their heritage of information on the plants and their management, and on preparing and using the medicines. The tribal populations are economically poor but their bioresource endowment is rich. Very little research has been done so far on the vast medicinal plant resources of the Koraput region, particularly in conservation, sustainability, or adding value, or on the issue of equitable sharing of benefits.

M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India, has established a Research and Development Centre in Jeypore city, in the Koraput district in Orissa state, primarily to undertake intensive and integrated study on such aspects of medicinal and aromatic plant resources. The centre is dedicated to the communities of the area, specifically nine predominant tribes: Bhatra, Bhumia, Bonda, Gadaba, Gond, Kandha, Koya, Langia Saura and Paroja. The research centre has been working with the tribal communities, documenting their traditional knowledge on medicinal and other useful plants since 1997/8, to safeguard that knowledge for future benefit sharing.

Area and people

Koraput district is situated in the south-eastern region of Orissa with a total geographical area of 0. 84 million hectares. Administratively, the old Koraput district is now divided into four – Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur and Rayagada. The different areas in this zone are situated at altitudes of 150–1000 metres above MSL. Much of the tribal habitat is hilly and forested, while hill slopes are highly eroded and of low fertility, over-grazed and indicative of local poverty. The district is home to many different tribal communities:  around 29 tribes live there and make up 54.3 per cent of the total population.

The practice of traditional health care  

Most of the tribal villages have their own Traditional Health Care Practitioners (THPs), known as disari. Women work as Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) called gurumayi and have specialized knowledge of childbirth and related herbal medicine.  Each and every community/tribe have their own disari and gurumayi.

Genesis of the ethno-medicinal garden

During the year 2006 a study was carried out by M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation to map the distribution of tribes in the region. There are 29 different tribal groups here, out of a total 62 in Orissa state. Their individual populations vary from 10,000 to 1.4 million. Nine of the tribes were selected for further detailed study and the THPs and TBAs of each tribe were contacted so their traditional knowledge of using medicinal plants for primary healthcare could be systematically documented. Information on 660 ethno-medicinal plant species was recorded. It was observed that nearly 50 per cent of the plants are common to all the tribes, but different tribes may use a particular plant to treat different diseases. During the survey 87 ethno-medicinal plants were found to be endangered, through being harvested from the wild in an unsustainable manner. Nearly 10 per cent of the total species documented are no longer found in the wild or are on the verge of extinction.   Details of the nine tribes and number of medicinal plants used by each are presented in Table I.

Table I: Nine tribes, their population and number of medicinal plants used by them

(2001 census)
 No. of
 medicinal plants
 Nawarangpur 81
 103,537 Koraput   
 9,378 Malkangiri   
 72,982 Nawarangpur   
 1,395,643 Koraput & Rayagada 124
 122,535 Malkangiri   
 317,301 Koraput   
 473,233 Rayagada   
 9 tribes Total 3,652,558 4 districts 660

After the survey, it was decided to establish a tribal traditional healers association to address the issues of organized traditional healthcare practice, conservation and use of medicinal plants, and monitoring of their biodiversity. To date the association has involved around 764 THPs and TBAs.  A consultation process allowed the identification and prioritization of ethno-medicinal plants needing immediate attention for ex-situ conservation.

Nine tribal ethno-medicinal conservation gardens

On five hectares of land generously donated by the government of Orissa, a conservation garden was established at Jeypore city of Koraput district in April 2007. It was named after the former Chief Minister of Orissa: Biju Patnaik Medicinal Plants Garden and Research Centre. Financial support was given by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, for the ex-situ genetic conservation of ethno-medicinal plants used by the major tribes of this region – the Bhatra, Bhumia, Bonda, Gadaba, Gond, Kandha, Koya, Paroja and Saora. The actual garden area is nine acres (36,400 sq. m) of land, each tribe being allocated one acre for conservation and cultivation of the plants used for their primary healthcare needs. The tribal THPs and TBAs were responsible for both collecting and planting the specimens.

Each of these ethno-medicinal plant gardens has 50–60 plant species representing herbs, shrubs, creepers/climbers and trees. The gardens are spherical and the plants are placed without any order, as in a forest. Furthermore, each garden hoarding bears the photo of its tribe, with details of population, socio-cultural information, livelihood, rituals and beliefs – a tribal profile for visitors. Every plant species carries a label depicting the local name, botanical name, family, habit, parts used and diseases for which the plant is useful. At the centre of the gardens there is a traditional tribal hut with a thatched roof, a meeting place for the THPs and TBAs. Management of the gardens is undertaken by both male and female healthcare practitioners through democratic selection. Every month the nominated members monitor the health of the garden and take decisions on adding new plants.

Ethno-medicinal plant diversity

Three hundred and forty seven medicinal plants used in the traditional healthcare systems of nine tribes of the region and of those plants, 109 tree species, 91 shrubs, 39 climbers, 102 herbs and 6 other types (orchids, grasses, ferns, etc.) are conserved here. The garden as a whole represents the medicinal flora of the undivided Koraput district of Orissa and it will serve both as a repository of genetic stocks of the region’s ethno-medicinal plants and as a living gene bank for the tribal families – of immense value for the present generation and those to come.

Apart from the nine tribal gardens, there is also one RET (Rare, Endangered or Threatened) ethno-medicinal plant garden, with 24 species of the region. A model of a Home Herbal Garden and a Women’s Medicinal Plant Garden (representing the plant species used in traditional female healthcare) have their own space. One area is dedicated to conserving wild and cultivated spices of the region and another is only for plants that have been introduced to the region. A Forest Food Garden features plants used as food by tribal people, including wild edible tubers. An artificial ‘sacred grove’ was established too, where plants used by tribal people for religious purposes were planted.

A few areas are devoted to propagation of ethno-medicinal plants and there are two large shade-net greenhouses and three ultraviolet-stabilized poly tunnels. The cultivation of 24 commercially viable medicinal plants was demonstrated in the garden.

Continuous training and a capacity building programme was conducted for the tribal youth, THPs, TBAs and volunteers on the conservation and use of ethno-medicinal plants. Three booklets and two posters, both in English and local languages, have improved awareness about conservation.

The garden also promotes traditional primary healthcare through the Home Herbal Garden and Community Medicinal Plants Garden and a campaign on herbal preventatives for malaria, preparing herbal formulations and administering them to the tribal people. Finally, the garden facilitates information sharing about ethno-medicinal plants between different tribal groups, through periodic exchange visits, meetings and informal discussion.


The garden functions as a conservation centre, providing a living gene bank for the tribal families and giving them a sense of ownership. A participatory Knowledge Management System is evolving which fosters understanding of genetics, trade and legal issues. The centre has the mandate of helping the tribal communities to protect their intellectual property rights under the provisions of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act and Biodiversity Act (2002). The original vision was that such an initiative could help to convert plant resources into economic wealth on an ecologically sustainable basis – overcoming the prevailing dichotomy of the prosperity of Nature versus the poverty of the people – leading to an era of bio-happiness.  


The paper is dedicated to the tribal people of Koraput district for their selfless sharing of traditional healthcare knowledge and their conservation of rare genetic stock of ethno-medicinal plants over the centuries.  The author is grateful to the Department of Biotechnology (Government of India) for supporting the conservation activities of tribal people. Thanks to the Government of Orissa state for their concern towards conservation of the wonderful tribal treasury of medicinal plants and associated traditional knowledge. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Dr Ajay Parida, Executive Director and Dr K.U.K. Nampoothiri, Director of MSSRF, for his periodic motivation and guidance.  


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Situé dans l’ancienne ville de Jaypore dans l’Etat d’Orissa, au nord-est de l’Inde, Le « Centre de Recherche et Jardin de Plantes Médicinales de Biju Patnaik » est un jardin ethno-médicinal. Sa surface est de cinq hectares et il se trouve sur un terrain offert par le gouvernement d’Orissa.

Ce qui rend ce jardin unique, c’est qu’il est constitué de neuf jardins tribaux consacrés aux neuf principaux groupes tribaux de la région : Bhatra, Bhumia, Bonda, Gadaba, Gond, Kandha, Koya, Paroja et Saora. Chaque jardin tribal est cultivé, entretenu et géré par les tradipraticiens et les sages-femmes traditionnelles des communautés tribales respectives. Au total, 347 plantes médicinales, incluant 109 espèces d’arbres, 91 d’arbustes, 39 de lianes, et 102 de plantes herbacées plus 6 autres types (les orchidées, les graminées, les fougères, etc.) sont conservées dans ce jardin et sont utilisées dans le système de médecine traditionnelle des neuf tribus de la région.

Ce jardin sans équivalent sert de réservoir génétique de la région et joue un rôle de banque vivante de gênes pour les peuples tribaux. Il a une immense utilité et une énorme importance et il contribue de façon significative à l’objectif 9 et à l’objectif 13 de la Stratégie Mondiale pour la Conservation des Plantes.


Situado en la antigua ciudad de Jaypore, en el estado de Orissa, al noreste de la India, el Jardín de Plantas Medicinales y Centro de Investigaciones Biju Patnaik, es, esencialmente, un jardín etno-medicinal. Abarca cinco hectáreas y está ubicado en un terreno donado por el gobierno de Orissa.

Lo que hace único a este jardín es que está formado por nueve jardines tribales, dedicados a cada uno de los nueve principales grupos étnicos de la región: Bhatra, Bhumia, Bonda, Gadaba, Gond, Kandha, Koya, Paroja y Saora. Cada jardín tribal es cultivado, mantenido y manejado por médicos y parteras tradicionales de las mencionadas comunidades. En este particular jardín se cultivan y conservan 347 plantas medicinales, incluyendo 109 árboles, 91 arbustos, 39 plantas trepadoras y 102 herbáceas, usadas en el sistema tradicional de salud de los nueve grupos étnicos de esta región. Además, este singular jardín sirve como reservorio de material genético de la región y actúa como un banco de genes vivo para los pueblos de la región. Por ello su utilidad es inmensa y de gran importancia, al tiempo que contribuye significativamente a las Metas 9 y 13 de la Estrategia Global para la Conservación Vegetal.

Saujanendra Swain
Senior Scientist
M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation
Regional Centre: Phulbad, Jeypore (RS),
Koraput District, Orissa,