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close this bookMedicinal plants: Rescuing a global heritage (WB, 1997, 80 p.)
close this folder1. The global background
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentEconomic issues
View the documentPolicy issues
View the documentRegulatory issues
View the documentSocial issues
View the documentConservation Issues
View the documentAgricultural issues
View the documentForestry issues
View the documentVeterinary issues
View the documentThe international research base

Conservation Issues

If existing medicinal-plant resources are to continue to meet demand now and in the future, they will need to be adequately protected through the development of appropriate policies and legislation. Awareness of the conservation issues and of the importance of sustainable utilization needs to be raised among all stakeholders. Perhaps most importantly, local people need to be supported and encouraged to take the necessary steps to protect this valuable resource. The collection of medicinal plants must be guided by an accurate knowledge of the biology of the species concerned, and steps must be taken to avoid over-exploitation, and the collection of rare or otherwise endangered species.

Preserving Wild Genes. Fortunately, many plant species consist of thousands of populations. These together form a gene pool in which a more or less free gene exchange can take place. This is a feature that can be utilized by plant breeders to protect medicinalplant diversity.

Box 1: The Lost Ancient Plant We Could Use Today

As an example of the importance of preserving medicinal plants consider the case of silphion, a weed once used as a contraceptive. It was apparently so effective that the Ancient Greeks literally revered it. Now, with population growth seemingly out of control a plant like this could have immense significance. Unfortunately, the Greeks used so much of it, it became extinct. Botanists can no longer find the species.

Between 570 and 250 BC the majority of coins minted in ancient Cyrene, a city situated in what is now the eastern part of Libya, carried the embossed picture of the Silphion plant. This reflects the enormous economic importance this plant had for the city over four centuries.

The perennial roots and strongly ribbed annual stems of the Silphion plant were eaten in the fresh state and were regarded as a perfume, flavoring agent and spice. The juice was employed medicinally against a wide range of symptoms and diseases, especially gynecological ailments-it was a true "multi-purpose species" in the sense of modem economic botany.

It appears that Silphion was found only in the dry hinterland. Attempts to cultivate it seem to have failed, so wild plants remained the source of supply. No reasons have been given for its disappearance although overharvesting is considered to be at least one reason for the dramatic decline in its use and final extinction as an economic resource. What we have is an example of overharvesting and probable extinction of an ancient medicinal plant. Silphion reflects both the potential wealth through plant utilization and the possible risks and downfall through overharvesting.

Source: IUCN. Medicinal Plant Conservation Newsletter. 1995

For historic (if not biological) reasons, the majority of medicinal plants used in developing countries are located in specific ecosystems. Prohibiting wild collections in these locations could devastate many poor families by cutting off their source of income. It is therefore important that education programs that justify the need for regulations governing in-situ conservation and collecting be developed. The local people should participate in this and the efforts should be linked to ex-situ conservation and cultivation programs that would provide an alternative source of income (or perhaps an equal income from smaller harvest through such means as improved quality control).

In-Situ Conservation. The protection of medicinal-plant resources was not identified as a major concern of conservation organizations until 1984.10 Four years later, the Chiang Mai Declaration recognized medicinal plants as an important component of the globe's biota. It noted that these plants are an essential part of primary healthcare in most of the world; and it viewed with alarm the rapidly increasing loss. The Global Biodiversity Strategy recognized the importance of conserving medicinal-plant biodiversity. Its socalled "Action 40" cals for the development of traditional medicines to ensure their appropriate and sustainable use, and "Action 41 " promotes recognition of local knowledge, particularly medicinal healers. "Action 67" specifically mentions medicinal plants as a key group deserving increased attention. At the Rio Conference in 1992 the Convention on Biological Diversity ratified these action items.

Nonetheless, only a few countries seem to have pursued their obligations regarding medicinal-plant conservation. One of these is Sri Lanka, where the government has for a long time implanted in its people a strong pride in their natural heritage. Sri Lanka is a good example for other -countries to follow. Its flora and fauna enjoy a high level of protection, with over 400 reserves set aside for their conservation. 14 Stringent laws apply in these reserves. The government has an aggressive policy of in-situ conservation to save valuable species, and in particular medicinal plants. This action was, in part, linked to the rapid resurgence of Ayurveda following independence and the demand for medicinal plants for Ayurvedic drugs. A Ministry of Indigenous Medicine was established in 1980. In 1986, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) funded the Conservation of Medicinal Plants of Sri Lanka with the objective of establishing an aggressive policy of in situ conservation to save valuable species from extinction. The World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC) provides services to CITES. The CITES database is the largest of its kind, currently holding some two million entries on trade in wildlife species and their derivatives.

WCMC is the only organization that gathers, analyzes and provides information on plants threatened with extinction on a global scale. The Centre is aware of the growing need to protect and conserve medicinal plants. Because of the potentially large number of medicinal plants requiring protection and the limited funds available categorizing medicinal-plant species the following characteristics could be used to set priorities:

· commonness or rarity;
· means of propagation;
· sensitivity to environmental conditions;
· plant parts used;
· properties and medicinal uses; and
· community knowledge and use.

A partnership between WCMC and the World Bank established in 1995 will provide full biodiversity data mapping services to the World Bank; seek to extend these services to GEF partners in UNEP and UNDP; capture and mobilize data deriving from investments in biodiversity; repatriate data to the developing world; build capacity for biodiversity information management in the developing world and strengthen information networks. Being able to access medicinal-plant data will enhance the decision-making process regarding protection, research priorities, management objectives, and polices to yield best results using ever scarce financial resources. It is on the basis of such information medicinal-plant diversity can be preserved in situ, successfully sustained, and ensure the germplasm for long-term ex-situ conservation and cultivation.

Ex-Situ Conservation. In 1989 the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), in collaboration with IUCN and WWF, published The Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy as a guide for the development of botanic garden roles in biodiversity conservation. It has developed a computer database listing rare and endangered plants in cultivation in about 350 botanic gardens worldwide, which is used to foster networking and linkages. BGCI considers medicinal plants a priority area for botanic gardens for the future. In July 1995, BGO launched an appeal for funds to establish an effective network of botanic gardens for medicinal plant ex-situ conservation and to strengthen the capacity of botanic gardens in developing countries. The first such gardens will be established in Colombia, Haiti, Uganda and Vietnam.