Cultivation of Threatened Himalayan Herbs

If global demand for threatened species of Himalayan herbs continues to grow at its current rate, wild collection will need to be supplemented or replaced by large-scale cultivation, otherwise they will be harvested to extinction.

Unfortunately, most of the threatened Himalayan herbs are not easy to cultivate; they have to be grown at high altitudes and take several years to mature; they fetch relatively low prices and require a lot of time and investment to establish. To add to the challenge, trade regulations require the producer to provide a certificate of cultivation and/or CITES export permit, which can be an extremely bureaucratic and time-consuming process.

But, if these challenges can be overcome, not only does cultivation offer a solution for meeting the needs of the herb industry, it also has the potential to provide a valuable source of income for farmers living in remote villages and help reduce pressure on the plants growing in the wild.

From a conservation perspective, large-scale cultivation has the potential to play an important role – so long as it is developed in a socially, culturally and ecologically sensitive way. And it is likely to become an increasingly important strategy because of its potential to pay for itself through enterprise rather than relying on short-term grants and charitable donations.

Watering young seedlings at Chanyara farm
Propagated from seed, it will take 3-4 years before this jatamansi plant is ready for harvest
Kushta cultivation in Lahaul

By the time Biolaya appeared on the scene, there were already several research institutes and NGOs who had set up nurseries and were successfully cultivating herbs on a small scale (including the Ananda Project, which I co-founded in 2000). But, despite various government programmes to promote cultivation, there were still very few farmers willing to take it up themselves; prices in the local market were too low and it was just too much effort for too little return.

Like most of the farmers and other organisations, although we had succeeded with small-scale trials, we were also hesitant about investing in commercial-scale cultivation, knowing that it would require a long-term commitment and had no guarantee of success.

But, unlike everybody else, we had a unique advantage; we had the backing of Pukka Herbs, an organic herb company in the UK who were willing to pay a premium price for high quality, certified organic, sustainably cultivated herbs. If anyone was going to succeed, we were in a strong position, and having come this far the only way forward was to take a leap of faith.

So in 2007, after several years of small-scale trials in Deushar, we partnered with three farms: one in the lush green forests of the Sainj Valley, and two in the more arid landscape of Lahaul (north of the Rohtang Pass).

The farms we worked with were on both sides of the Rhotang Pass, giving us two very different climates to experiment in
Chanyara Farm is in the ecozone the Great Himalayan National Park
The farm itself is high above the village with no agricultural land above it, which removed any risk of contamination from agrochemicals
Rubling farm was way up in the Mayar Valley in Lahaul at about 3000m altitude

We chose to work with farms in these two very different landscapes so that we could experiment with growing different herb species in different climatic conditions. Working in Lahaul also gave us the opportunity to grow kushta and pushkarmool, which have already been cultivated there for decades and have a well established market. This provided a relatively reliable source of income and to some extent compensated for the more experimental work we were doing elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we never got far with Rashell Farm, as we had to ‘expel’ the farmer from the organic certification programme after he refused to stop using human compost (see Internal Control Systems). We had good results growing kushta and pushkarmool at Rubling Farm, but our most pioneering work was growing kutki at Chanyara Farm.

After three eventful years of dragging organic inspectors up steep hills and over mountain passes, we made the decision to drop the certification as it turned out to be too expensive to justify the costs on the scale we were operating on. The certification process was very useful though, especially in helping us develop an Internal Control System (ICS), which we continued to use to monitor and manage sustainability and organic practices. I have written about this in some detail as I believe it is a vital tool for any project cultivating threatened herb species.

By far the biggest obstacle we faced was government bureaucracy. In fact, it was crippling. It took us two years to get a Certificate of Cultivation from the Forest Department, which we needed before we could apply for a CITES export permit. And until we had a CITES permit we couldn’t sell the kutki to Pukka, which made it very difficult to build any momentum to create a viable enterprise.

One of the main reasons for writing this website is to share our lessons, and hopefully help others bypass some of the problems we faced. Finding our way through the quagmire of Forest Department bureaucracy is an experience I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, and the resulting CITES guidelines that we wrote are an important output of the project.

I finish the section with some reflections on what we learnt, and what may be needed to develop cultivation into a profitable enterprise that genuinely contributes to the conservation of threatened herbs. I also explore some of the potential pitfalls of cultivation that we need to be aware of. We have a long way to go, and I hope that these pages can be a small but valuable contribution.