Sustainability or Livelihood? Tensions in the Uttarakhand Community

India is widely known for its large amount of medicinal plants. Approximately 7,500 species can be found there. Ayurveda, India’s oldest medical system, reported 2,000 native medicinal plant species, Sidha reported 1121, and Unani reported 751 species. All three of these medical systems rely almost entirely on medicinal plants to cure its patients.

Many pharmaceutical companies also rely heavily of India’s array of herbs. More than 95% of 400 plant species harvested from wild populations in are used in preparing medicine. Generally, one-fourth of each medicine is plant based. Some examples of plant based drugs are contraceptives, steroids and muscle relaxants for anesthesia and abdominal surgery, defenders against malaria, heart failure and cancer.

Yet, taking away 95% of the wild plant species leaves the community with barely any resources to support itself sustainably and if the pharmaceutical companies do not over exploit the native herb, it fosters tension between villagers in paying one who sells the herb it needs. Both problems are seen the Uttarakhand, a northern state in India, where the over harvesting of Taxus baccata, and Hemidesmus indicus led to economic turmoil and the need of timur by pharmaceutical companies fueled tension between the Bhotiya and the Garhwals.

Uttarakhand, India

Uttarakhand, India

The presence of pharmaceutical companies has negative consequences on the communities who reside in the area that it harvests in, leaving them in ecological, and sometimes social, ruin.  Commercial harvesting and activity is the primary factor in over exploitation of their native herbs.

Commercial activity of medicinal plants influences competition between Uttarakhand’s two ethnic groups: the Bhotiya and the Garhwal in the usage of timur, a shrub used to cure toothaches, common colds, cough, and fevers, as a flavoring agent or spice. The Bhotiyas used timur fruit, while the Garhwals collected and traded timur sticks to pilgrims visiting the shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. As they harvest different parts of timur, they were not in competition with each other, and were environmentally sustainable as it did not pressure on the wild. Yet when pharmaceutical companies started to purchase timur fruit from that region, tension emerged among the villagers, who competed fiercely to sell the timur fruit to the companies. If not controlled adequately, this could eventually lead to endangerment of the timur fruit in Uttarakhand.

Many families rely entirely on their environment for food and medicine. Villagers also use medicinal plants as a source of food. The Bhotiya tribal community uses timur fruit as a seasoning or spice. There are traditional dishes made from the fruit of timur such a ‘hag’ a soup made from the dried fruit, and ‘dunkcha’, a type of sauce or topping. They used timur in alcohol, as walking sticks, and for religious purposes. They also used timur to cure children’s toothaches by pressing it over its tooth. Timur was a big part of the people’s lives, as their source of revenue as well as food relied on it.

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

Timur, Xanthoxylum piperitum

With many of the materials becoming commercially popular, more and more of the medicinal plant is harvested, eventually leading to endangerment.  This leaves communities with fewer options. Taxus baccata, or the Himalayan yew, is a tree used to treat breast and ovarian cancer, commonly used in the Himalyans.  Hemidesmus indicus is used in treatment of skin diseases, wounds, psoriasis, syphilis, in inflammations, heptopathy, neuropathy, cough, asthma and fever. It is used to cure 39 different types of diseases.

Both plants species from Uttarakhand, where the Bhotiya tribal community resides, are currently endangered. Both were commonly sold by the villagers. According to local collectors and traders of medicinal plants from North Kashmir Himalaya, the demand and supply is not in equilibrium for some medicinal plants, leaving villagers with the choice of being sustainable, or instead, providing for their families. “Today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating”, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stated. And this will only become worse if we do not educate villagers like Bhotiya and the Garhwal on the negative affects their actions have on the environment and sustainable yet economically friendly ways to thrive.

There have been advances in this cause. The workshop “Endangered Medicinal Plant Species in Himachal Pradesh” was held at G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment &Development, Mohal-Kullu, H.P., India in March of 2002, where NGOs, managers, funders, farmers, scientists, and policy makers came together to address these issues and to reach a “common agreement and to execute in collaboration with identified partners”. The Convention of Biological Diversity has also made some steps forward with the “Adapted Global Strategy for Plant Conservation” in April 2002, which provides a “policy environment” that addresses conservation challenges.