Large-scale cultivation protects Himalayan biodiversity

3 September 2002 UNESCO and the G.B. Pant Institute for Himalayan Environment and Development are encouraging local farmers to embark on large-scale cultivation of potential medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) to conserve biodiversity in the Himalayas and at the same time improve the local population’s socio-economic conditions.

The expanding trade in medicinal plants has serious implications for the survival of several plant species, some of which are under serious threat of extinction. By restricting over-utilization of resources, regulating exports and encouraging cultivation programmes, it is hoped to facilitate conservation of biodiversity.

It is not the small number of cultivated species which are at risk but those growing in the wild, the source favoured by pharmaceutical industries. Large-scale over-exploitation has decimated many populations in their natural habitat, leaving little scope for natural regeneration. Fortunately, a considerable knowledge-base exists within the indigenous communities, who traditionally cultivate a variety of MAPs on a smaller scale for their domestic use, for the local market and for bartering purposes. All these MAPs are cultivated under the low-input system.

The Himalayas are a notorious global biodiversity ‘hotspot’ where ecological and evolutionary factors have favoured huge species diversity. There are over 1740 species of MAPs with various traditional and modern medicinal uses. Though the region occupies only 15% of the country’s geographical area, about 30% of the endemic species in the Indian sub-continent are found in this region. For example, of the 99 species categorized as endangered species of the Indian Himalayas, 15 are medicinal plant species.

The Western Himalayas contain 50% of the plant drugs mentioned in the British Pharmacopoeia. They cater to 80%, 46% and 33% of the Ayurvedic, Unani and Allopathic systems of medicine respectively and contribute much to the economy of the rural and tribal populations. Of the 2500 plants growing wild on the Indian sub-continent which are known to be of medicinal value, only 300 species are currently used by about 8000 licensed drug manufacturing units in India.

Amidst growing global concern over the depletion of biodiversity through indiscriminate removal, UNESCO’s New Delhi Office is supporting a study documenting best traditional practices and developing agro-techniques for potential medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) in the Nanda Devi Biosphere.

The in-depth study is being undertaken as part of World Conference on Science follow-up by the G. B. Pant Institute of the Himalayan Environment & Development (Srinagar, Garhwal); the Institute is also disseminating to user groups a ‘package of practice’ using MAPs developed so far by farmers and traditional societies. In addition, UNESCO and the Institute are running a training course for user groups later this year; the aim is to encourage potential farmers from the region to embark on large-scale MAPs cultivation. Participants will be able to share indigenous knowledge of agronomic practices and uses of different MAPs grown around the region, exchange germplasm among farming communities and interact with researchers, traders and policy makers.

According to a survey report by the World Health Organization, about 25% of prescribed human medicines are derived from plants and over 80% of the population in the developing world still depends on the traditional or indigenous system of medicine alone. This has added to the growing popularity of herbal products as part of a new health programme in developed countries and, together with the commercial demand of the pharmaceutical industries and Dabur and Ayurvedic drug establishment companies, has led to a steady increase in the market for MAPs.

Large-scale cultivation should have the dual benefits of improving the socio-economic conditions of the local population and helping to conserve plant species in their natural habitat. The cultivation and use of MAPs having a high market value, there is a great potential for job creation within the local population, particularly in areas where the climate favours cultivation. Nor are commercial outlets lacking for large-scale cultivation, given the growing demand for natural product-based medicines, health products, pharmaceuticals, food supplements, cosmetics etc. on the national and international markets.

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