The Trans-himalayan region has about 350 species of medicinal plants that are used by the Indian herbal pharmaceutical industry.
Can this natural bounty be utilised sustainably to benefit the local economy and also conserve Himalayan habitats?
As the legend goes, Lord Hanuman came to the Himalayas to look for a life-saving herb, but since he could not identify sanjeevani, he uprooted a part of the mountain and carried it to Lanka. In the story is embedded the complexities of the knowledge of identifying and using this incredible natural bounty of the Himalayan mountains.
The Trans-Himalayan region is a cold-arid mountainous landscape that covers the rain shadow regions immediately north of the Himalaya, characterized by severe winters lasting over six months and a short plant growth season of merely two to three months when productivity is usually low. These harsh climatic and topographic conditions have given rise to weather-resistant and highly adapted flora. These medicinal and aromatic plants are critical to Himachal Pradesh’s rural economy. Twenty four of the 100 most important medicinal plant species traded in the country are found in the state. The state exports some 2,500 tonnes of medicinal plants and their parts. The legal annual trade in medicinal plants in the state is worth about Rs 10 crore at current market prices. The state government earns about Rs 40 lakh per annum from export permits for medicinal plants.
However, this trade is largely unregulated. The state does not have any quality control or certification standards and ends up losing hefty revenue. More importantly, local people who have rights to collect these medicinal plants from forests, end up getting a rough deal.
High Value Plants
The Indian Himalayan Region accounts for nearly 50% of the total flowering plant species in India, of which more than 816 species are trees, 675 are edible species and nearly 1743 are species of medicinal value, and nearly 30% species of which are endemic to the region. The trans-Himalayan region, falling in the rain shadow zone of the Himalayas, has comparatively much less floral diversity. Scientists estimate that there are over 600 flowering plants and different species of graminoids in this region, many with significant ethnobotanical value as medicinal plants, fuel and forage for livestock.
In spite of the overall low species of plants and animals in the trans-Himalaya, the region is home to an array of highly specialized assemblage of flora and fauna. Studies estimate, that the region has about 350 species of medicinal plants that are used by the Indian herbal drug industry. Most of these species are collected from the wild, and thus, their conservation is the key to the survival of the species itself.
Health and Wealth
Whereas use of most of the biodiversity resources is to fulfil the bonafide domestic needs, medicinal and aromatic plants are collected for the twin purpose of household health care needs, and also as a key source of livelihood for which the collected material is sold to traders or their agents. The value chain along the trade route is, however, widely believed to be tilted in favour of intermediaries, with under-realization of the economic value of such harvests at the grassroots. The rising demand of herbal products has caused excessive harvesting of many of the important medicinal and aromatic plants from the region also, putting their wild population at risk of extinction.