Writing about the need for conservation and exploring the different strategies for protecting Himalayan medicinal plants raises some big questions around how and why we find ourselves facing such an enormous environmental crisis, and whether and how we can really make a difference. Below are a few thoughts that came to mind when working on this section.
#1. Beyond financial incentives: the need for conscious conservation
In reflecting on our conservation strategy part of me feels uneasy about relying on financial incentives as a means of influencing people’s behaviour. There is no doubt it is an effective and sometimes necessary approach, but I am not convinced it is the solution.
One of the reasons it works so well is because it does not require a significant change of mindset. And there also lies the problem; the change in behaviour is reliant on external forces rather any genuine internal conviction. If the ‘intervention’ (such as a paying a premium price for sustainable herbs) is removed, or the market price swings in the other direction, little will have changed and the farmers or collectors will revert to their normal practices.
To make a long-lasting difference, there needs to be a change in mindset – a shift in perception that leads to a change in behaviour. Easier said than done though. Where does one even begin?
To me, the most valuable clue is in the fact that every culture (that I am familiar with) has a tradition of sustainable herb collection. The current mindset appears to be a relatively new phenomenon – perhaps a symptom of the inner and outer disconnect of our modern age.
According to the few genuine vaidyas (traditional medicine men) that I have met, they would always give a prayer of thanks before harvesting any herb from the wild, and by principle would never take anything from nature without giving something back (or leaving part of the plant to regenerate).
Traditionally, collectors in Himachal Pradesh would wait until a day in the local calendar called ‘Bis Bhadon’ (normally sometime in September) before going into the mountains to collect herbs. By this point most herbs are ready to harvest and will have produced seeds for regeneration. Even today many of the villagers go into the forest on Bis Bhadon to wash in the rivers as it is believed that the water is infused with the healing properties of the medicinal herbs.
In 2010 I held a series of workshops on sustainable collection, which took me all over the Indian subcontinent from Tamil Nadu to Bhutan. One of the things that has stuck in my mind the most was the response of herb collectors in Bhutan. I would always start a workshop by explaining that sustainable collection is about ‘giving back as much as you take’. To the Buddhist people of Bhutan, this was obvious; somebody at the back of the class stood up and told me, ‘This is our culture. We never take anything without giving something back.’ It was an instinctive response based on a cultural mindset that acknowledges the interdependence of humans and nature.
This was in stark contrast to some of the workshops I held in India, where the attitude was often, ‘kya fida?’, meaning ‘what’s the benefit’ or ‘what’s in it for me?’. The difference in attitude had little to do with the economic status, it was entirely down to their mindset and how they relate to the world they live in.
So where did it all go wrong and how do we return to a more sustainable relationship with the world around us? How do we encourage herb collectors to consciously choose to balance their own needs with the needs of the plants?
Perhaps the closest I have come to answering this question can be found in the teachings of Joanna Macy and her ‘Work That Reconnects’, which draws on deep ecology, systems theory and Buddhism to guide people into not just understanding, but experiencing the interdependence of all life-forms.
I have been fortunate to meet Joanna Macy several times and to participate in one of her workshops in Sri Lanka. Since then I have always believed that this type of education can play an important role in addressing some of the deeper problems that underlie much of the environmental crisis we are facing, including the loss of Himalayan medicinal plants.
The concept of interdependence does not need to be rooted in lofty spiritual ideals; it can be as simple as understanding that just as we depend on nature for our livelihoods, the plants also depend on us to safe-guard their future; it is a simple matter of mutual interest.
In fact, I would go as far as saying conservation can be purely selfish. It just depends on how we perceive the boundaries of self. If we understand that we are indeed part of nature and our own wellbeing is inseparable from the wellbeing of the environment around us, then it is only natural that we should relate to it in a respectful and protective way.
Participants in a workshop on sustainable herb collection in Bhutan
#2: Our responsibility as consumers of herbs
In telling the story of why conservation is so important, I focus on tracing threatened herbs back to their origin. But what if we were to follow the herbs in the other direction to their final destination? I think many of us would be shocked to know how many threatened species end up on shelves of our health food shops, and even into our homes without us knowing it.
Organic herbs are in many ways at the heart of a growing movement and healthy and conscious living. Yet, the irony is that the massive growth in demand is also at the heart of their unsustainable exploitation.
For example, jatamansi oil (commonly known as spikenard oil) appears to be growing in popularity as an ingredient in aromatherapy for raising consciousness and opening awareness (it is indeed a very special oil). But few of its users are aware that it is an endangered species and, to my knowledge, there is no source of jatamansi that has been verified as sustainable.
I’m sure many of the brands who do use threatened species are unaware of it and would be shocked if they knew. So those of us who are aware have a responsibility a) to avoid using these products, b) to bring it to the attention of those who do and c) to support projects that are finding ways to protect these species.
For too long we have focused on what plants can do for us, taking for granted how much they offer us without asking for anything in return. Now we need to change that relationship and start giving back. This notion is captured beautifully by Ann Armbrecht of the Sustainable Herbs Project:
“The alternative medicine world, herbal medicine included, is very focused on what products can do for us, on how they help our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. But I believe herbal medicine is more than that: that it isn’t only about what plants can do for us, but also what we, in using these plants to heal ourselves, can do for them and the ecosystems on which they depend. This premise is rooted in the recognition that plants are more than objects growing in the ground, that they are living entities with which we enter into a relationship not resources for our consumption.”
#3: The ecology of progress: sowing seeds of succession
I have always believed that sincere effort invested into worthwhile causes is never wasted, regardless of its outcome. At least, I did until Biolaya came to a premature end, then I wasn’t so sure. Had our efforts actually made any difference. Or had all those years of work ultimately been a waste of time?
For a year or two, it seemed that we had left no trace. Nobody was growing threatened herbs, and nothing was left of our wild collection project.
But then came a few signs of life. Jahan from Chanyara farm sent me a photograph of his land bursting with kutki; it turned out that Jagriti were still making soap with wild oregano oil, and various other projects that we had been involved in were also gathering pace.
After a period of dormancy, some of Biolaya’s seeds were beginning to germinate.
The plant analogy seems to make sense. We were pioneers exploring unchartered territory, and any ecologist will tell you that pioneer species tend to be short-lived annuals, and produce many seeds. They often put down deep roots and prepare the ground for longer-lasting biennials, followed by perennials. Eventually the environment becomes suitable for slow-growing, long-lasting trees.
Four years after leaving India I have been closely involved with creating the first FairWild certified project in India (with an organisation called AERF, collecting haritaki and bibhitaki in Maharashtra), and through Pukka have been able to support kutki projects in Uttarakhand, none of which would have been possible if we hadn’t sown the seeds with Biolaya.
If my ecological theory is correct, then – in the longer term – it is not so much about the fruits of Biolaya, but the quality of succession that will lead to a more stable habitat for longer-lasting species. If this was the case, then my work was not finished until I had done my best to share our experiences through this website – a final scattering of Biolaya seeds.