|Medicinal plants: Rescuing a global heritage (WB, 1997, 80 p.)|
This report results from an assessment of the status and promise of medicinal plants in developing countries, with a special focus on China and India. The main conclusions are:
China and India have much to teach the world. These two nations are the greatest users of medicinal plants; their traditions of plant remedies date back at least 7000 years. Between them, they now account for two-fifths of humanity (in other words, more than 2 billion people), the bulk of whom rely heavily on medicinal plants. Certain of the experiences in China and India can be used to facilitate medicinal-plant conservation, cultivation, community participation and sustainable development in the rest of the world.
Medicinal plants are among the most misunderstood of all resources. Reportedly utilized by more than 4 billion people in developing countries, herbal medicines are a fundamental of life for the rural poor. They sell at premium prices, and even in povertyridden regions are in increasing demand. Yet, except in China and India, developingcountry governments invest little or nothing to enhance the conservation, cultivation, trade and better understanding and improved use of such plants.
Something has got to be done quickly. While other cash crops have received millions of dollars of research support, the production of these exceptionally promising generators of income and well-being are left to languish and are therefore decreasing and many are in danger of disappearing. Yet local consumers, industries, and exporters are clamoring for more herbal ingredients and such demand is likely to continue to soar while supplies of raw materials from wild sources of medicinal plants are rapidly shrinking.
An organized coordination is needed. In medicinal-plant conservation, there is little coordination (let alone, cooperation) between government agencies, the pharmaceutical industry and organizations dealing with environment, natural resources and agriculture. Such a collaboration could do much to protect and enhance threatened medicinal species. Although the World Health Organization and local ministries of health have featured medicinal plants in their programs, their emphasis has been on efficacy and treatment protocols. Arguably, the more immediate need is in the production and conservation of the raw materials. The capabilities of agriculture and of habitat conservation are currently the most vital missing links.
A lack of trade data is hindering the process of preserving medicinal plants. No one can at present designate with certainty the status of individual species nor the state of the overall medicinal-plant trade. Some data are available on production and trade for the organized market, but they are grossly inadequate and seldom identify yields, production amounts, or market value. For the vast informal market in the rural areas, ethnic communities and urban slums there are no quantitative data whatever. Because of the numbers of users, however, the economic and cultural value of these unregulated markets must be enormous.
Women are the primary users and marketers of medicinal-plant materials. Mothers and grandmothers use herbal products in the home as well as sell them in the rural markets. Such materials make home healthcare affordable and provide much needed income. Sustainability of supply can be greatly assisted if women were included in the process of developing conservation and cultivation.
The use of medicinal plants in animal health is probably extremely important. Although the use of plants in the medical care of livestock is even less well documented than in human use, much is known to the farmers and "village veterinarians." This treasure trove of untapped indigenous knowledge likely holds considerable benefit in the vast areas of the developing world where the average farmer can seldom obtain or afford veterinary drugs.
In principle, many of the supply problems can be overcome by cultivating the medicinal plants. The fact that medicinal plants are predominantly harvested in an unregulated manner undermines the whole industry. Yield from the wild is wholly unpredictable. Supplies are at the mercy of the weather, pests, and other uncontrollable variables. Farming these species would help even out the supply, regularize the trade, provide certifiable products of uniform quality, and make available to rural areas new sources of income. However, cultivation is presently constrained by a lack of methodologies and support for proving suitable methodologies.
The World Bank could play a pioneering role in assisting all who hold a stake in the increased and sustainable employment of medicinal plants. To promote conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants will require actions such as policy dialogue, sector work and the incorporation of medicinal plants into lending operations. There is a need to identify suitable cultivation and storage methods, to develop pharmaceutical industries based on local plants, and to encourage client countries to include medicinal plants in their biodiversity conservation strategy and National Environmental Assessment Plans.