For centuries, our ancestors have used plants for various purposes: for food, raw material, and for medicinal purposes. However, in our modern times we have deleted our plant resources due to our excessive over harvesting. Currently, more than 60 million plants are harvested without being replaced. This unsustainable harvesting by pharmaceutical companies and local communities are the cause of endangerment and even extinction for many medicinal plants. This then affects the local communities as they lose a source of income. Unfortunately, the plot thickens—local peoples resort to biopiracy or the poaching or medicinal plants from both public and private lands. This simply provides as more fuel to the disastrous cycle of overharvesting herbs.
Many solutions have been suggested, such as cultivation and wild crafting, to solve this problem. Also, there are cultural influences, such as religion, that fuel local people to protect their lands. Though all of the above are necessary tools to stopping herb overexploitation, they all have deep flaws to contribute to the current problem. This is why it is important to look to the law when these options fail. Laws protect the plants and repel malevolent and selfish individuals from taking advantage of medicinal plants.
International Laws Protecting Medicinal Plants
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) drawn up in early 1973 is one of the very few laws protecting medicinal plants globally. CITES is a treaty that regulates the international trading of threatened or endangered species. It protects endangered species by establishing specific trading laws that safeguard and sustain that particular species. All imported and exported species must be authorized through a ‘licensing system’. Each country has authorities that oversee this process. This in turn, makes it much harder for poachers to transport and sell their stolen herbs. However, there are many flaws. CITES does not specifically have a committee or group that enforces this law, making it almost useless as it is not practiced actively. To make things worse, conflicts of interest may arise when deciding if a certain species is endangered or not. This is seen with Peru, Brazil and Bolivia, as they refuse to list the Brazilian mahogany. These three countries now hold 90% of the last mahogany trees in the world. It is obvious that this proves advantageous for them in their timber industries, and will boost their economic output—but it will be at the expense of biodiversity.
Laws in the United States
The United States are very conscious of their harvesting, due to the frequent advocating by many organizations. The United Plant Savers is a non- profit group that help to raise awareness of endangered plants and herbs and distribute seeds to gardeners and companies. Currently, the US mostly cultivates its medicinal plants, decreasing the illegal trade. This is reflected clearly as the United States does not have as many endangered species compared to other countries, such as India and China. Yet, problems still do arise with biopiracy, mostly in National Parks. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, commercial poachers arrive annually and steal hundreds of different plants. Commercial poachers take a special liking to the American Ginseng, a severely endangered and popular herb, as many detained poachers with over 1,000 roots in their possession. However, with a lack of total rangers, it is hard to fully enforce laws, leading to many poachers getting away with such a large amount of poaching.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a law that protects ecosystems and endangered and threatened species. ESA is an excellent law that protects endangered species and their ecosystems well, but this act has a fault: it gives states to option to accept or veto the ‘plant’ part of the bill. Unfortunately, many states vetoed the ‘plant’ section of the bill, and currently have no law to protect the plants. Even worse, each state has different endangered species lists, meaning that one species may be endangered in one state and not endangered another, leading to confusion and possible manipulation by greedy commercial poachers.
The Next Step
As shown above, the environmental laws internationally and in America have as many defects as the other solutions suggested above. Conflicts of interests i.e. Timber industry vs. conservation, could lead to a controversial debate over saving biodiversity or adding more jobs to the economy. It is also important to remember that the individuals who do enforce the law are not botanists, and therefore may not be able to confidently remember and identify each endangered plant. This also contributes to frequent poaching and the endangerment of herbs. Many lawmakers do not find this to be an issue of importance in other developing countries, such as India. Yet above all, with a lack of law enforcers for both the CITES and the ESA, the law itself only an official document, never to be implemented and practiced by the people, and therefore does not serve a purpose. “Mitigating these challenges [of the overexploitation of herbs] and consolidating the gains so far requires the formulation and implementation of comprehensive national policies for conservation of medicinal plants”, stated WHO Regional Director, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo. Without implementation, laws serve no purpose.
It is important that we pressure our lawmakers and force their attention on to this significant problem. With their support, we can increase our number of local law enforcers and have a notably better hold on enforcing the law and protecting endangered plants. Get involved by sending a letter to your local councilman. Awareness is necessary, but it is also important to take action. Please spread the word and help protect the endangered plants in your area.