Protecting the Ancient Medicinal Plants of Peninsular India
by John Seed
The “Western Ghats” mountain range stretches for about 1600 km from the southernmost tip of India in Tamil Nadu along the western coast of peninsular India to the river Tapti in the state of Maharashtra.
The region covers an area of 1,60,000 Sq. Km., supporting a population of more than 50 million people. About 30 per cent area is covered with forest and maintenance of ecological balance of these mountain ranges is essential for maintaining the life-support systems of peninsular India.
The Western Ghats are among the ecologically richest regions of India. Of the 15,000 plant species recorded there so far, 4,000 are endemic to the region. The area is considered to be one of the eight biodiversity identified worldwide.
The diverse natural wealth of the region supports numerous tribal) communities who harvest nearly 150 uncultivated food plants and more than 500 medicinal plants from the wild. However, forests in the Western Ghats region are under increasing stress due to over exploitation, degradation and habitat destruction. There has been a dramatic decline in plant and animal diversity in recent years and . reduced availability of forest resources has severely impacted on the livelihoods and health of the poor.
The Academy of Development Science (ADS), which is based at the foot hills of Western Ghats is an NGO which has initiated different programmes to promote conservation of medicinal plants, fruit trees, bamboo as well as the diversity of agricultural crops in the Western Ghats region.
For 20 years ADS has been working on conservation of medicinal plants, forest trees, fruit trees, bamboos and food crops. For instance, ADS has in its collection over 400 traditional varieties of rice, millets, pulses & vegetables along with over 500 species of medicinal plants; 25 species of bamboo and nearly 150 varieties of 8 different fruit trees. ADS is trying to actively link the rich diversity in plants to the livelihoods, food security and health of local tribal communities.
Unfortunately, the plants, as well as the knowledge about their use, are rapidly declining as forests shrink and tribals move away from their customary lifestyles. For instance, over 100 medicinal plants have become rare in the region due to over exploitation and habitat destruction.
The Rainforest Information Centre in Australia first became involved with ADS in the late ‘80’s, raising funds from the Australian Government aid agency and elsewhere to support in particular ADS’ work in protecting the genetic material underpinning the traditional system of medicine known as Ayurveda. We helped ADS establish a medicinal plants garden containing over 500 medicinal plants, a nursery, seed bank and herbarium on 25 acres of land near Kashele village promoting multiplication and plantation of rare/ threatened medicinal plants.. Over 150 different medicinal plant species are raised in the nursery for distribution in tribal villages.
This year ADS is attempting to strengthen the medicinal plants garden to enhance the sustainability of the conservation initiative. They are proposing developments in their medicinal plants garden which will generate revenue from study tours, research projects and training programmes for schools, on medicinal plant identification, herbarium methodology, nursery techniques, cultivation, sustainable harvesting, medicine processing, etc. The wish to build a dispensary/pharmacy to provide essential services for the local tribal people and also generate additional revenue through sale of herbal medicine.
ADS are seeking financial assistance to collect and introduce more medicinal plants from forests, to strengthen the collection of rare, endangered medicinal plants by introducing diverse genotypes from different locations, to repair the existing herbarium building and construct a low-cost centre for the dispensary/pharmacy within the garden.
The Rainforest Information Centre’s (RIC) Small Grants Fund has made a grant to ADS and the work has begun. In June, July and August, RIC director John Seed June will be offering a series of 12 experiential deep ecology workshop called "Earth, Spirit, Action" around N America as well as concerts, lectures and and a keynote address at the EarthSpirit Rising conference in Cincinatti (see http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/schedule.htm )
These events will all be benefits for rainforest conservation, ecological restoration
and indigenous survival in India including the ADS medicinal plants garden.
ADS medicinal plants garden proposal and budget may be found at http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/ (click on projects, India). Donations to this and other RIC projects are tax-deductible in the US, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.