The Biolaya Story
We were never a large organisation; at the most, including volunteers, we were rarely more than half a dozen people. A lot of people came and went, but the only constant faces were myself, Ben, from England, and Surie, a local of Lahauli origin.
By the time we started working together in 2004, Surie and I had both spent several years working with local NGOs involved in organic farming and medicinal plant conservation (see Ben’s story for details). At the time there were many organisations and government programmes trying to promote cultivation of threatened medicinal herbs, but for various reasons nobody was having much success.
We could see there were some obvious gaps that needed to be filled – gaps that also presented potential opportunities. Most of all, there was a need for some form of herbal enterprise that could work with local farmers and NGOs to provide training, add value to the herbs and/or connect them to more lucrative markets – a self-sustaining model of conservation through commerce.
Having already developed a relationship with Pukka Herbs in the UK, we were in a good position to try to fill this gap. We weren’t interested in simply becoming traders though; we wanted to take a more Gandhian approach – to grow the herbs ourselves, to research and demonstrate organic farming methods, to create and live in an inspiring environment. We wanted to create something beautiful.
At the end of 2004 we moved into a small hamlet about 20km south of Manali in the Kullu Valley. Known locally as Deushar, the hamlet had three empty houses and two acres of land, providing us with space for accommodation and an office, and plenty of land for growing herbs and vegetables: a perfect home for what was to become Biolaya, and an ideal launch pad for our mission.
Our journey started, quite literally, in our own backyard. We cleared rocks from the land, collected baskets of cow dung and made heaps of compost; we grew organic herbs and vegetables and spent weeks walking in the mountains documenting plants and collecting seeds. For two years we barely left the valley.
Only after establishing our own roots did we start to explore ways of widening the scope of our work. We began working with high-altitude farmers to cultivate threatened herbs on a larger scale, and immersed ourselves in the challenges of group organic certification, CITES permits and other quality assurance systems required by our prospective buyers.
As a conservation strategy, we soon realised that cultivation was not sufficient on its own; we also needed to find a way to support the livelihoods of herb collectors. So we started developing projects to sustainably harvest common herbs from the wild as an alternative to collecting threatened species.
Our focus on developing high quality sustainable herbs led us into a small but important niche that few others occupied. We soon found opportunities to share our knowledge and generate income through consultancy – including what proved to be a long-lasting relationship with Pukka Herbs, which provided a vital lifeline as we nurtured our slow-growing projects towards self-sufficiency.
Over the next few years we achieved things we could never have imagined; we won a SEED Award for our wild Himalayan oregano project – we even featured on BBC world news for finding a potential solution for preventing the spread of hospital superbugs (!); we were the first project to successfully cultivate and export Picrorhiza kurroa from Himachal Pradesh; and we used our projects as case-studies to develop training material for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Unfortunately though, we found ourselves on a trajectory that was hard to sustain. A combination of impossible challenges with government bureaucracy and a complicated business model was wearing us down. Our utopian life in Deushar was becoming increasingly difficult to manage, and in the context of running a company, the beautiful but isolated location of Biolaya HQ became an obstacle as much as it was a source of inspiration.
In 2011 Surie had to step out to rescue a family business in severe financial difficulties. Surie had an irreplaceable set of skills and knowledge around the business. Without him I simply did not have the means or energy to rebuild. After seven years in Deushar, everything slowly ground to a halt.
This website is the story of Biolaya. It is the result of me being torn between writing a project report and a book (and as a result isn’t really either!). It has also been an important part of my own personal process of letting go and moving on. With valuable lessons to share with others, not to mention thousands of beautiful images and hours of video footage, only after writing this website could I feel that my Biolaya mission was complete.