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| Last Updated:: 21/08/2015

Under Threat Plants That Heal


When they catch a cold or run a slight fever, most people in the world pop a leaf, berry or fruit — not a pill. Nearly 80 % of the global population relies on medicinal plants and their products for their primary healthcare needs, say researchers.


Given the traditional knowledge accumulated over thousands of years in India, it is no surprise that the country is among the top three exporters of medicinal plants. Manoj Kumar Sarcar, a former forest service officer, who did research on medicinal plants said the size of the international market for all herbal products is estimated to be around $62 billion with 85% of the total imports by a dozen developed countries.


With more than 6.71 lakh registered traditional practitioners, India occupies a unique position in the use of medicinal plants, says Sarcar. Despite this, there is no policy framework to protect and conserve this natural resource, and many of them are under threat due to a various reasons. Even as the Centre is keen to promote Indian medicine systems like Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha, it has ignored the protection of their key source material.


The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 gives priority to a variety of fauna but not to flora. Only six plants have been included in the scheduled species list of the Act. Without a regulatory regime, unsustainable and unscientific harvesting for commercial utilisation, habitat destruction, fragmentation, and habitat loss largely due to human encroachment threaten survival of these plants.


In 1998 and 2002, the Centre issued notifications that prohibited the export of 29 medicinal plants. But, with no foolproof mechanism in place to implement this notification, illegal export of these plants is taking place, say forest officials.


The Union ministry of environment and forests in 2011-12 notified 103 plant species as threatened, after consulting various states. Sadly, the list did not contain any plants from the region including in Tamil Nadu. But, those local plants that face extinction were not included in the list, say forest officials. More than a decade ago, the Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), a Bengaluru-based NGO, began inventorying the medicinal plants in the southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and TN in collaboration with forest departments. A dozen areas identified as medicinal plant conservation areas and another 10 as medicinal plant development areas. The project could not be sustained, however.


A senior forest officer said a proposal has been drawn to revise the conservation measures for medicinal plants in TN. Last month a meeting was held in Coimbatore in which minor forest produce collectors, medicinal plant extractors, and companies buying medicinal plants took part. Another meeting will be held to decide the course of action to protect these resources. Researchers say what's needed is conservation of resources, augmentation, promotion and making trade of these plants and their by-products more transparent. Many legal and technical gaps need to be plugged.