Wild Reflections

Wild Reflections

Our experiments with sustainable wild collection leaves me with plenty to reflect on. Below I have selected a few areas that I think are important or interesting, including some of the challenges we faced, my thoughts on how effective the project was and some reflections on whether and how the Biolaya model could be replicated on a larger scale.

#1: Government Regulations! And more Government regulations
#2: How effective was our wild collection project as a conservation model?
#3: Beyond Biolaya: how to incentivise sustainable collection for the masses
#4: Where do we go from here?

#1: Government Regulations! And more Government regulations
If you have read about our experiences in trying to get a CITES permit, it will come as no surprise that many of the biggest challenges we encountered in our wild collection project were related to government regulations.

One of the issues we had was that the Forest Department implemented their own district-scale ‘management plan’, which included prohibiting herb collection in certain areas every year. The idea was that by closing parts of the district on a rotational basis, slow-growing herbs would have a chance to regenerate. In principle, this is a good idea, but in practice it can only be effective if a) everyone actually follows the rules (which they were not), and b) if everyone is harvesting slow-growing herbs that need time to regenerate (which we were not).

For us it meant that our species-specific management plan could only be implemented in certain areas every year; this was unnecessary for the fast-growing species we were collecting and it made it very difficult to build a strong relationship with our registered collectors. And of course the reality was that none of the villagers collecting threatened species followed these rules, so in effect it was only us that were being penalised.

The fact that we were collecting herbs that are not normally collected meant that there were no regulations stating whether we could or could not harvest & transport herbs such as wild oregano, or how much royalty should be paid to the local panchayat. On one occasion our field officers were fined at a check-post for transporting freshly collected oregano – not because there was any regulation against it, but because there were no rules stating that we could (!).

In short, as with many activities in India that involve government bureaucracy, there was little incentive to do things ‘by the book’. After repeated problems trying to do things ‘properly’, it becomes more and more tempting to do what everyone else is doing, and simply ignore the regulations and pay the nominal fines or bribes when you get caught.

If the government wants to support conservation, the Forest Department needs to change its attitude towards companies like Biolaya. It needs to find ways to encourage sustainable collection, and it needs to recognise that commerce – if managed responsibly – can be a powerful tool for conservation.

#2: How effective was our wild collection project as a conservation model?

My experience with our wild oregano project has only strengthened my belief that sustainable wild collection, if combined with a sound business plan, can be an effective conservation strategy.

As with the cultivation project though, the extent to which it makes a direct impact depends on how much it replaces or reduces unsustainable collection.

For us, the critical point in determining the conservation impact was in selecting the collectors, and more specifically selecting collectors who were genuinely dependent on collection of threatened species for their livelihoods. This task was usually delegated to our field staff, and in hindsight I believe this is a process we should have taken more time over and provided the field staff with more support.

Looking back at our collection groups I can see that our conservation impact varied from group to group. Some of the groups fitted the selection criteria perfectly and I have no doubt that the income they received from us would have reduced their need to collect threatened herbs. Other groups were made up of unemployed youth who may have done some herb collection in their time, but were not necessarily dependent on it. Earning money from collecting oregano would certainly have benefitted them, but in such cases our direct conservation impact would have been limited.

There is even a small risk that employing new collectors could build a dependence on herb collection, and they start harvesting threatened species when the oregano season is over. This emphasises the importance of not just selecting the suitable collectors, but also placing education and awareness at the centre of the project.

In conclusion, as with the cultivation project, Biolaya’s wild collection model can be a valuable conservation strategy so long as it is carefully planned and implemented, ensuring that it genuinely reduces existing pressure on threatened species.

#3: Beyond Biolaya: how to incentivise sustainable collection for the masses

The Biolaya wild collection model will never be easy to roll out on an industrial scale.

Our focus on sustainable collection and value addition of common herb species could not be more different to the mainstream model, which relies on the trade of unmanaged, unprocessed high-value (often threatened) herbs sold in bulk.

I do believe there are plenty of untapped opportunities to develop similar projects though. One example I have often thought about is the potential for collecting Himalayan horse chestnut seeds (conkers); the trees grow in abundance and produce vast quantities of seeds that contain a compound called aescin, which is used for treating varicose veins.

Unlike the relatively simple process of distilling essential oil, extracting aescin requires more hi-tech equipment and qualified engineers to run it, so it would have to be set up and run by a company with significant resources and expertise. But if it was responsibly managed it would have huge potential for providing a sustainable source of income for herb collectors.

From a conservation perspective the biggest impact would come from creating incentives to sustainably harvest threatened species. This is something we didn’t attempt at Biolaya, as there are many challenges in implementing a wild harvest management plan.

Most of the threatened herbs are found a long way from the nearest road; in the Kullu District many collection areas take a couple of days to reach, sometimes longer. The plants themselves can be spread over a very large area, making it very hard to do an accurate resource inventory. And there are often other people ‘competing’ for the same herbs; with no control over how much is collected from a given area, any effort to do resource inventories or set collection quotas for registered collectors become meaningless.

If it is not possible to monitor collection volumes through resource assessments, the best hope is to train the collectors in sustainable collection methods and hope that they manage the herbs responsibly themselves (there is an interesting study of sustainable collection methods of jatamansi in the sidebar).

If the whole community can be involved in training workshops and awareness campaigns, then hopefully they will start policing their own resources. After all, it is very much in their own interest to conserve the plants for themselves and future generations.

#4: Where do we go from here? Next steps:

  • Continue working on plans for Himalayan oregano oil. For me, the oregano project is a work in progress – I still believe the concept has huge potential and with the right partners in place it could benefit many herb collectors.
  • Oregano oil research: our research left us with many unanswered questions, all of which could make very interesting research topics for microbiology students around the world. See oregano oil research for more details.
  • Users, practitioners, manufacturers and traders of Ayurvedic medicine: do you know where your herbs are coming from? If not, find out, and where possible support your suppliers in developing some form of wild harvest management plan. It will only happen if you ask for it.
  • Tell me what you think is needed – I’d love to hear your thoughts…