|Medicinal Plants: An Expanding Role in Development (World Bank, 1996, 32 pages)|
|2. The resource base|
The number of plants that are used medicinally is very large. The Natural Products Alert (NAPRALERT) database at the University of Illinois has documented the ethnomedicinal uses for more than 9,000 species, including monocotyledons, dicotyledons, gymnosperms, pteridophytes, bryophytes and lichens Farnsworth and Soejarto, 1991). The number officially sanctioned due to proven efficacy is less, but still impressive. India, for example, formally recognizes just over 2,500 species as having true medicinal value (Jain and DeFilipps, 1991). In the Third World as a whole, it is estimated that over 6,000 plants are authorized in traditional medicine (Huxley, 1984). This is perhaps an underestimate because Chinese traditional medicine alone employs an estimated 5,000 officially sanctioned plants (Farnsworth and Soejarto 1991).
The number of plant-derived compounds known to be pharmacologically active is also large. Worldwide, at least 121 chemical substances of known structure are extracted and purified for medicinal purposes (Anon, 1982). A much larger number of raw, extracts are used in traditional medical practices. Although these are not purified into separate compounds, many are believed to exert therapeutic effects good enough to be proven effective by modern analysis.
Despite all their importance, medicinal plants are, for the moment at least, seldom handled within an organized, regulated sector; most are still exploited with little or no regard to the future. As noted, escalating consumer demand is already resulting in the indiscriminate harvest of wild plants. This is damaging both ecosystems and their precious biodiversity. The damage is especially serious when bark roots, seeds and flowers all essential for the species, survivalare removed.
Concern is growing that many medicinal plants (not to mention the knowledge about their use) are on the verge of extinction. The need to protect rare medicinal plants seems to be urgent. Samples collected today may in the future be found to combat dreaded diseases, but there is no guarantee that the plant will then still exist. This could be unfortunate not only for the patients but for the countries that could develop lucrative industries out of the budding resource.
China's situation gives some sense of the scope of this problem. There, more than 80% of the 700,000 tons of plant material harvested each year comes from wild sources. The destruction of forests, overgrazing of meadows, expansion of industry, and increasing urbanization, as well as the excessive collection of wild plants all mean that the natural sources of medicines for a billion people are being rapidly reduced.
In country after country, reducing exploitation rates is clearly necessary if vulnerable wild populations are to survive, let alone to recover. A look at the legislation regarding harvesting and trading indicates that it is ineffective as it now stands. New policies and rigid enforcement are needed.
Although it is obvious that the economic value of medicinal plants is enormous, the true size of the sector is undetermined. Data are scarce or non-existent; detailed information on medicinal plants is seldom collected (and in some cases deliberately so). As a result of the uncertainty, no conservation action has been taken for most of the threatened species.
Despite the fact that not much is being done to conserve medicinal plants, a few governments are trying to protect some local species. Their efforts include improving the methods of collection as well as the deliberate cultivation of the plants. The goal is normally to ensure proper quality control and to regulate commerce for the protection of both producer and consumer. These few governments are also involved in educating their populations and in creating greater awareness of the importance of medicinal plants as a whole. Examples follow.
· Some 35,000 items of ethno-pharmacological data have been entered into data bases.
· The Institute of Medicinal Plant Development, a WHO Collaborating Centre of Traditional Medicine, in Beijing specializes in the research of medicinal plants.
· The Center of Traditional Medicine which includes a genebank and a botanical garden in Beijing, with branches in Yunnan and Hainan Islandundertakes R&D in medicinal plants. (These programs all operate under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.)
· Thailand's Primary Health Care Program recognizes and even promotes herbal and traditional medicine.
· A National Committee on Medicinal Plants has been established and charged with developing a nationwide policy. This policy will include support for ethnomedical and botanical surveys, an information system and data base, the manufacture and export of traditional medicines based on plants, and the conservation and cultivation of medicinal plants on a national basis.
· A medicinal-plant garden Hortus Medicus Tawangmanguensis) has been established at the Center for Research and Development of Industrial Plants.
· The Department of Health operates a country-wide program called "the living pharmacy" to take the benefits of medicinal plants to the various and widely scattered rural areas throughout the archipelago.
· The Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic, Unani and Siddhi medicine and homeopathy undertakes R&D into botanicals.
· The Indian Pharmacopoeial Laboratory analyzes traditional healing-plant materials.
· The Indian Forestry Service and the Forestry Research Institute both have programs on the planting and encouragement of medicinal herbs in the forest understory.
· The Botanical Survey of India includes medicinals in its assessments of the Subcontinent's plant resources.
· The State Department of Tribal Welfare promotes herbal medicines because the tribal peoples tend to rely on these even more than most Indians.
· The Arya Vaidya Sala, an important center of Ayurveda medicine at Kattakkol in the state of Kerala, operates a college, hospital, factory, and research laboratory for medicinal plants. It also operated a herbal garden and two farms that cultivate medicinals.
· The Tropical Forest Research Institute at Jabalpur in the state of Madhya Pradesh emphases medicinal plants that can be grown among the trees. It cultivates and distributes plant materials to pharmaceutical enterprises.
· The newly established Research Institute on Herbal Medicines has recently been preparing a "'formulae', of traditional medicines. This formal documentbeing constructed with inputs from government, universities and private organizationswill establish protocols for evaluating traditional remedies, as well as the processing, production, licensing and marketing of medicinal plants.
· The Ministry of Indigenous Medicine has established (with WHO assistance) medicinal plant nurseries. It has also declared a number of natural areas to be "Medicinal Plant Reservations."
· The Bandaranaika Memorial Ayurvedic Research Institute undertakes research into medicinal plants as well as into the formulation of products from them.
· The Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya and several private gardens maintain living medicinal plant collections.
· Botanical surveys that include therapeutic plants are being carried out by the Wildlife Conservation and Forest Departments.
· The Biodiversity Institute (formerly Plant Genetic Resources Center) plays a leading role in getting medicinal plants into cultivation. It has a well established program of conserving plant genetic resources and is complementing its gene banks by establishing on-farm conservation. It recently established a collaborative program with regional traditional health practitioners, providing among other things land for growing medicinal plants.
Although the situation is hardly clear, one can say with confidence that globally speaking little has been done to conserve medicinal plants in any organized fashion. In spite of the rising trade in medicinals, few policies at the national and international level encourage cultivation programs or protect the resource base. Moreover, since the 1988 Chiang Mai Declaration Saving Lives by Saving Plants (WHO/IUCN/WWF, 1993), few genetic conservation efforts now incorporate species used in traditional medicine. Many countries have "'gene banks" of course, but these repositories are mainly dedicated to food-crop germplasm, not many contain any medicinal plants.
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR ) - with its network of 17 international agricultural research centers and programs in natural resource management, germplasm conservation, institution building, and networkingwould seem to be well placed to play a role in medicinal plant conservation and cultivation. However, its primary focus is food crops, and a review of past CGIAR Annual Reports fails to reveal attention to any medicinal-plant activities.
Privately funded international agencies seem to be the current leaders in conserving medicinal plant biodiversity, or at least in highlighting the need. These organizations include the World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC), the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), the Nature Conservancy, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and several botanic gardens (notably, Kew, Edinburgh, New York, and Missouri Botanical Gardens). One notable endeavor is the joint collaboration between IUCN, WWF and the International Plant Genetics Resources Institute (IPGRI), which has drawn up guidelines for establishing a network of wild-species seedbanks in botanic gardens.
Many non-government organizations (NGO's) are collaborating with local interest groups to strengthen the traditional healthcare systems. A few are also assisting in programs to conserve and cultivate medicinals.