Herb collection provides an important source of income to people living in remote villages, especially those who own little land for growing cash crops.
There are hundreds of herb species growing in Himachal Pradesh that are known to have medicinal properties. Only about half a dozen of these species are commonly traded though, and as a result they have been widely over-harvested and are gradually disappearing from their natural habitat.
The aim of Biolaya’s wild collection project was to help reduce dependency on collection of threatened species by providing an alternative source of income through sustainable collection of more common herbs
Most of the threatened herbs in Himachal Pradesh are harvested for their underground parts; the roots are dug out and the plant is left with little chance of regeneration. These species can be harvested sustainably (by leaving some of the root in the ground or by scattering seeds) but it is much harder to monitor and control. So we chose to focus on collecting species or plant parts that are easier to harvest without jeopardising their ability to regenerate (i.e. leaves, berries, flowers etc).
Many of the species that have most potential for sustainable collection have little medicinal or market value in their raw form. In many cases the local people may never have collected or used the herbs, or even be aware that they have any use at all. Usually the only way for it to be economically viable is to add value through a combination of certification / quality assurance, processing and product development.
We experimented with collecting and adding value to many herb species, including juniper berries, rose-hips, artemisia, anthopogon, wild marigold and catnip, to mention a few, but the flagship species of our wild collection project turned out be a variety of high-altitude Himalayan oregano.
To add value to the oregano we focused on producing essential oil, and more specifically, on developing products that make use of its powerful antimicrobial properties. The concept stirred up quite an interest and led to us being given a SEED Award for our project ‘Himalayan Oregano and Sustainable Livelihoods against MRSA’, which I have written about in The Oregano Story.
To be genuinely sustainable any wild collection project needs to be closely monitored through some form of management plan. Using our oregano project as an example, I describe how we developed our own wild harvest management plan, using resource inventories, mapping, regeneration studies, training of collectors and so on, to ensure that our collection didn’t exceed the oregano’s natural rate of regeneration.
I end the section with some reflections on some of the challenges we faced (including the usual government bureaucracy), some proposed solutions and other lessons we can share we others working on similar projects.
This is a short video i made in 2009 with Purku, a local herb collector, who over the years became a good friend and taught me much of my knowledge about the local herbs