Cultivating medicinal and aromatic plants on farmland is a case of ‘hitting two targets with one arrow’. This approach helps wild plant populations survive in the wild, benefitting the overall ecosystem, while also providing alternative livelihoods in remote mountain communities
Nepal is blessed with a rich botanical diversity. Of the estimated 7,000 species of flowering plants, about 700 of these plants are considered “medicinal.” And of these, 250 are endemic to Nepal.
For centuries the medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) trade has been a part of subsistence livelihoods, particularly in Nepal’s high mountain villages. As key ingredients in Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine, these valuable plants have been transported and traded across boundaries for a very long time.
Mountain people have used medicinal plants for healing ailments and have traded them for cash income to buy everyday necessities and to pay for important festivals. The majority of the plants traded are harvested in the wild and sold through different local and national market channels.
Most plants end up in the giant economies of India and China, with a smaller amount sold to European and American markets.
The most commonly traded MAPs from mountain areas include Chiraito (Swertia chirayita), Satuwa (Paris polyphylla), Lothsalla (Taxus wallichiana), Yarsagumba (Cordyceps sinesis), and Pakhanved (Bergenia ciliate).
But in the last few decades, the intense pressure from wild harvesting has increased, causing a threat to the very survival of these valuable medicinal plant species.
Cultivating these high value medicinal plants on farmland instead of harvesting them from the wild is a case of “hitting two targets with one arrow.” This approach helps wild plant populations survive in the wild, benefitting the overall ecosystem, while also providing alternative livelihoods in remote and often impoverished mountain communities.
There are few profitable livelihoods for mountain communities and many villagers, mostly men, have migrated abroad for work. But the story left untold is of the fragmented families left behind with women, children and the elderly left behind to cope as best they can. This has resulted in a significant increase in the workload and social responsibilities for mountain women.
Cultivating and selling medicinal and aromatic plants is a sustainable approach to development in remote mountain districts and a way to reduce poverty and encourage gender equity. Done right, mountain lives are improved, communities become more resilient and ancient cultures remain vibrant.
Here are a couple of examples of how trained, highland farmers have found a profitable alternative to traditional wild harvesting.
MAPs generate income for daughters’ education. Mrs Mikma Chensi Bhote of Chepuwa village in Sankhuwasabha district attended a MAPs cultivation training in 2011. She then had an opportunity to visit a farm in Ilam where medicinal plants had been grown since 2001. After learning from these farmers, she felt inspired by their success. Since then, Mrs Bhote earned an income of US$ 200 from her first MAPs harvest of Chiraito (about 20 kilos) in 2013, followed by US$ 700 in 2014 (200 kilos), and US$ 2,000 in 2015, selling 400 kilos of Chiraito.
She uses the income from MAPs sales to pay for two of her daughters’ education fees. One girl is studying in the district headquarters school and the other is in Kathmandu. Mrs Bhote has also paid off a loan and purchased land where she lives with her husband, four daughters, and two sons. She was the first woman to start MAPs cultivation in her village and has been a model for other village women in promoting MAPs farming.
Similarly, by cultivating medicinal and herbal plans, farmers have now turned entrepreneurs.
The village of Kimathanka, near the Tibet border in Sankhuwasabha district, is a difficult, four-day walk from the nearest road head.
Mrs Phinsum Sherpa, 49, is one of the leading MAPs farmers in this village. She produced 79 kilograms of Chiraito plants and generated US$ 800 in income in 2015.
With these earnings, she purchased a flour grinding machine and has been running a grinding mill for millet, corn, barley, wheat and buckwheat flour. With the earnings from MAPs and her new enterprise, Mrs Sherpa has been able to send her son to Kathmandu for Buddhism studies and one of her daughters to the district headquarters for higher education.
These two are some inspiring stories how medicinal and aromatic plants can bring transformative changes in the community.
The Mountain Institute’s MAPs programme, in association with locally based non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations that have roots in the mountain areas, assists farmers and trains them in MAPs cultivation.
The Mountain Institute’s MAPs Programme was instituted in 2001 and has covered around 100 villages in mountainous districts of eastern, central and western Nepal till date. Farmers are from Dhading, Rasuwa, Gorkha, Ilam, Sankhuwasabha, Taplejung, Panchthar from parts of the Karnali region. Almost 40 per cent of the farmers trained have been women.
Bhutia is livelihoods coordinator and Thapa is senior programme officer at The Mountain Institute in Nepal
A version of this article appears in print on October 01, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.