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Posted at: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM; last updated: Jun 9, 2019, 2:05 AM (IST)

Nature’s bounty, mankind’s greed

Herbs have always been a part of life of people living in the Great Himalayan National Park area in Himachal Pradesh. As roads penetrated, the region became a new source of exploitation for nature-based pharmaceutical companies

As roads opened up the region in the 1970s, people from Lahul, Kullu and Kangra started setting up shops in the villages, three prominent examples being Sainj, Gushaini and Banjar. Soon, it was apparent that the penetration of roads into the interior areas had brought in new opportunities for market forces to create pressure on the biological diversity. Medicinal herbs, which previously had been collected by the local villagers for their own bona fide use (as prescribed by the Anderson Report) started to become commercialised. Herb dealers in the bazaars of Sainj, Gushaini and Banjar started buying herbs to supply them to bigger herb markets in Amritsar and Delhi, which in turn fed large-scale pharmaceutical industries, which seemed to have an insatiable demand due to the growing popularity of nature-based medicines both in India and in the developed world. Assisted by progress in science, new uses were found for botanical medicines in the treatment of the many human ailments arising from the sedentary and pollution-affected lifestyles of urban populations. This changed the collection of medicinal plant from a local to a national and international industry, multiplying the profit obtained by all those involved.

The use of Taxol, an extract from the bark and leaves of Himalayan ye Taxus baccata in the treatment of cancer was a new discovery which dramatically enhanced extraction of yew leaves and bark from the Kullu forests including the Park. A similar example is Nag Chatri or Trillium govanianum, a small spring-flowering plant with a rhizome which yields important medicinal ingredients. It began to be heavily harvested in late 1990s for use in Chinese medicines, resulting in an unsustainably high harvest from Western Himalayan forests. These examples of the burgeoning exploitation of Himalayan botanical products show how local biological diversity is being converted to a commercial resource by pharmaceutical industry driven market forces. With the commecialisation of medicinal herbs, the dealers started to employ labour for herb collection. By 1998, there were more than 4500 herb collectors going into the high mountains of proposed Great Himalayan National Park to collect herbs for the herb dealers. This also eroded the rights and concessions that had been granted to the local inhabitants.

THE SETTLEMENT OF RIGHTS

As per Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972, the rights and concessions given to the local people under the Kullu Settlement Report prepared by Alexander Anderson (1886) were compensated in 1999. The compensation money was awarded to less than 400 descendents who had inherited their rights from the Anderson Settlement. There was widespread resentment against the award, as herb collection and grazing was occurring on a free-access basis. Most of the graziers/herb collectors did not have any rights from the Anderson Settlement Report of 1886, which continued to govern resource use in this area. These non-right-holders were technically poaching and had been allowed to get away with their trade because of lack of law enforcement (Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972) towards their activities.

In many cases, the villagers and hired labourers started grazing their animals and digging herbs beyond the limits of time or space prescribed in the Anderson’ Settlement Report in the pastures located within the Park. Along with pressures exerted by unsustainable grazing and herb collection, there were many instances of snaring and poaching of pheasants, gorals and musk deer. Shepherds invariably killed red fox pups, as when they reached adulthood they represented a potential danger to the lambs. In addition, the breeding season of pheasants coincides with the season for collecting Gucchi (morels) by the locals in April-May. Collectively, all such activities had affected the local flora and fauna in adverse ways.

Bhadonthe harbinger

Twentieth of the month of Bhadon, which falls in October, is when the villagers traditionally started collecting herbs. The book says elaborate ceremonies would precede plucking. “It was believed that the potency of a herb is at its maximum at the time of Bees Bhadon. Likewise, by this time, the flowers of herbs have matured to fruiting bodies for the seed dispersal for the next germination season. The bath taken in local ponds close to herb areas was considered therapeutic in nature.” The practices decreased as market forces came into play. The herb collectors are known to have uprooted baby plants in spring. 

Gifts of GHNP

Prominent herbs

Medical use
Aconitum heterophyllum | Ativisha Treats cough, diarrhoea and indigestion
Saussurea obvallata | Brahma Kamal Anti-septic and anti-inflammatory
Arnebia benthami | Ratanjot Anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and wound healing
Betula utilis | Bhoj patra Bark cures skin and ear ailments
Fritillaria roylei | Kakoli Treats asthma, bronchitis and tuberculosis
Dioscorea deltoidea | Shingli-mingli Cures arthritis, asthma and indigestion
Meconopsis aculeata | Vanita, Kanta Used in Tibetan medicine, analgesic and febrifuge
— Excerpted with permission from the publisher

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