|Medicinal plants: Rescuing a global heritage (WB, 1997, 80 p.)|
From the experiences in China and India it can be seen that medicinal plants constitute one of the important overlooked areas of international development. The plants represent a form of biodiversity with the potential to do much good, and not just in the field of healthcare. Indeed, the production and processing of medicinal plants offers the possibility of fundamentally upgrading the lives and well-being of peoples in many rural regions. It can also help the environment and protect habitats and biodiversity throughout the developing world.
Here, for instance, are some of the apparent lessons on why the medicinal plants deserve serious consideration.
Value. Of all the resources in the tropics, medicinal plants are among the most valuable. They sell not by the ton nor even by the kilo, but usually by the grain. They include some of the most sought after natural products. There is a rising export trade and an ever increasing local demand.
Frangibility. Of all the traditional knowledge to be found in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that dealing with medicine is among the most vulnerable, and is being lost perhaps faster than any other body of indigenous intellectual heritage. Yet it is also among the most useful to the nations themselves as well as to the rest of the world.
Helping the Poor. Typically, medicinal plants are more than just high in value, they are non-perishable and are easy to transport and handle (compared to, say, food crops or tree products). Thus they can be produced in small plots or in remote areas where other options are minimal. This feature they share with products from the opium poppy or coca plant, and medicinal plants are a likely source of alternatives. Indeed, the organized production of certain medicinal plants could help millions stay on the land, and it might even lure millions more back from the cities.
Conserving Natural Habitats. Medicinal plants are among the best candidates for helping conserve natural habitats. The suggestion has been made, for example, that the organized production of forest medicinal plants in India's tiger reserves will help make the reserves financially self-sustaining without affecting the animal life. It would also provide local jobs and may swing the public's attitudes solidly in favor of protecting the reserves, especially from land-grabbers. Around the developing world, opportunities like this are legion, but they are not being exploited while plants, animals and whole habitats plunge toward extinction.
Increasing Sustainability. Of all the possibilities for making agroforestry work, medicinal plants are among the best. The various vines and herbs and shrubs lend themselves to mixed cultivation systems better than to the monocultures that produce cereals and roots and pastures. Some, such as ginseng, work as understory crops that can transform the economics of, and attitudes towards, tree planting and conservation forestry. After all, a ton of ginseng root sells for a quarter of a million dollars, wholesale.
Healthcare and Rural Well-Being. Of all the options for helping the well-being of the poorest segments of global society, the medicinal plants are among the best. Whether or not the efficacy is up to the standards of the West is irrelevant when the people cannot afford pharmaceuticals, as is the case for several billion souls. Inexpensive and seemingly effective herbal treatments exist for skin ailments, minor pain, infections, anemia, other nutritional disorders, and many more complaints that are mundane rather than lifethreatening.