As with most conservation challenges, the problem faced by Himalayan herbs is not so much a ‘plant issue’ as a human issue. Left to their own devices, the herbs would probably grow quite happily for millennia to come.
Until relatively recently the prevailing conservation strategy was to exclude humans from areas where species or habitats are under threat. National parks and other protected areas have been created all over the world to limit human interference. Some have been successful, but many have failed to address key underlying problems.
Himalayan herbs are threatened primarily as a result of over-harvesting; the ‘perpetrators’ are not gun-wielding criminals, they are often honest, hard-working people, who have few other sources of income to support their very modest way of life. Unless conservation initiatives address the collectors’ needs, national parks and other protected areas will always fall short.
The challenges are usually highly complex and require a combination of complementary strategies, including cultivation (in situ & ex situ), sustainable wild collection, education and awareness, botanical gardens, scientific research, and properly implemented national and international policy/law. And of course, protected areas and national parks.
Ultimately, I believe many of the challenges are symptomatic of a much deeper set of problems caused by us becoming increasingly disconnected from nature, resulting in a loss of intuitive awareness of our interdependence with the natural world.
In short, we have to find ways to reconnect. But, as Einstein once said, ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’. We need to think outside the box to find new solutions.
Biolaya’s Approach to Conservation
Biolaya focused on two complementary strategies; the first was to address the issue of demand from the herb industry by cultivating threatened species (i.e. by creating a sustainable supply); the second was to address the issue of the collectors’ livelihoods through sustainable wild collection of common herbs (i.e. as an alternative income source to harvesting threatened species). With both strategies our aim was to create a financially sustainable model, relying on enterprise rather than charity to generate funds.
For most farmers, cultivation of threatened species is not yet a viable option. Prices in the Indian market are determined by the cheapest means of production; for most of the threatened species there is still enough coming out of the wild for market prices to be less than the costs of cultivation. This means that, unless farmers have access to a high value market (normally export), there is little incentive to grow the plants.
This situation cannot last for long though. As plant populations continue to decline, local prices will continue to rise and at some point the economics will swing in favour of cultivation. This has already happened with Kushta, which is now grown on a large scale in Lahaul. Kutki is on the same trajectory; prices have already risen from 600 to as high as 1800 rupees per kg in the five years since I left, and appear set to continue rising.
From a conservation perspective, crossing this price threshold is a valuable opportunity for the domestic market to switch from wild collection to cultivation. But to take full advantage of the opportunity systems need to be in place; there needs to be sufficient planting material and genetic diversity, and suitable cultivation and processing practices need to have been established. This is the real value of a small project like Biolaya: to research and develop blueprints that can be replicated when the time is right.
Our second strategy, sustainable wild collection, rarely seems to feature in the conservation narrative. The only reason I can think of for this is that it can be difficult to monitor and verify sustainability, and to many it may appear counter-intuitive to address the issue of over-harvesting through more collection. But sustainable collection is the only logical way to support the livelihoods of the collectors who have few other source of income.
In the last decade there has been a lot of progress, especially with the development of the FairWild Standard. This now offers a tried-and-tested set of principles to implement, monitor and verify sustainable collection of wild plants whilst ensuring the collectors get a fair deal.
Rather than trying to sustainably harvest threatened species (which would be difficult to monitor), we focused on collecting and adding value to more common herbs such as oregano, rose-hips and juniper berries that are found nearer to the villages and regenerate more easily. By providing local collectors with a decent price for these herbs, our aim was to help reduce their dependency on harvesting threatened species for their livelihoods.