Environment, Medicine and Rural Entrepreneurship: Lessons From Uttarakhand

Posted by Rana Ashish Singh in Entrepreneurship, Environment
February 8, 2018

Co-authored by Siddartha Negi and Vidya Bhooshan Singh:

Biodiversity Of India

The term ‘biodiversity’ is a contraction of ‘biological diversity’, which is used in conservation science. ‘Biological diversity’, in its current sense, began to be used in the early 1980s. The interest in this concept was elevated by publications such as “Limits to Growth”, which discussed the implications of unrestricted population and economic growth on the environment.

The term ‘biological diversity’ was used by Robert E. Jenkins and Thomas Lovejoy in 1980. The word ‘biodiversity’ may have been coined by W. G. Rosen in 1985. The term ‘biodiversity’ was used as the title for a symposium organised by the National Research Council in Washington, 1986. At that time, as people became more aware of the extinction crisis, biodiversity emerged as a significant issue.

‘Biodiversity’ means “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are a part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.

Biodiversity is the variation of life at all levels of biological organisation. It includes the diversity of forms right from the molecular unit to the individual organism, and then on to the population, community, ecosystem, landscape and biosphere levels. In its simplest sense, biodiversity may be defined as the sum total of species richness, i.e. the number of species of plants, animals and microorganisms occurring in a given region, country or a the continent in the entire globe. Biodiversity includes diversity within species (genetic diversity), between species (species diversity), and between ecosystems (ecosystem diversity).

Herbal Biodiversity: Challenges And Scope

According to WHO reports, around 80% of the global population still relies on botanical drugs. Biodiversity contributes significantly towards human livelihood and development, and thus plays a predominant role in the well-being of the global population.

The rapid decline of herbal biodiversity is the major challenge for policy-makers and all other conservationists. The biodiversity rapidly declines due to exploitation by traders and collectors, natural and man-made disasters (forest fired, unsustainable road constructions, etc.). This is especially true in the case of diminishing valuable herbs, which have now been enlisted as threatened and near-threatened species in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

With the decline in biodiversity, the impact is felt in the agronomy of hill farmers. Furthermore, increasing global warming and climate changes have made mountain communities vulnerable. The traditional healing practices hence become difficult to practise in the absence of access to these valuable herbs in the hinterlands of these mountain communities. This also greatly impact the seekers of Ayurvedic treatment around the globe.

Image by Siddhartha Negi, UYRDC, Chamoli.

It has been observed globally that the potential benefits of plant-based medicines have often led to unscientific exploitation of natural resources. The major factors responsible for this decline are the rise in global population, rapid (and sometimes) unplanned industrialisation, over-exploitation of natural resources, indiscriminate deforestation, pollution – and finally, global climate change. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that plant biodiversity is preserved, to provide future structural diversity and ‘lead compounds’ for the sustainable development of human civilisation at large.

Owing to a high subsistence economy, livelihoods often become unsustainable, thus resulting in youth migration and drudgery. Especially with meagre per-capita land holdings (half to one acre), agro-outcome and remuneration remain paltry, which is further exacerbated by the present climate change.

Initiatives

There has been a multi-fold jump in the demand for herbal products in India, a country where the existing natural production level is not sufficient to serve the demand. So, engaging in the herbal endeavour is considered desirous, especially amongst the remote upstream communities residing in the harsh and challenging cold temperate and sub-alpine climate zones.

There is also a multitude of objectives :

1. Herbal cultivation (ex-situ – outside the natural habitat), conservation, propagation: For the need of healthcare and the replenishment of valuable/pivotal floral diversity.

2. Implying the ‘under-low’ volume (owing to meagre landholdings) but the high value (enhanced livelihood remuneration) of sustainable, improved agricultural practices.

3. Sensitising communities to grow and value the endemic biota of the region – and thus, also engaging in the conservation of these natural, forested pastures and sensitive fragile eco-zones at high altitudes

The Uttaranchal Youth and Rural Development Centre (UYRDC) has had a clear vision of the conservation and promotion of herbal biodiversity in high altitude communities in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand since 2001. They have been working for more than one-and-a-half decades with multiple stakeholders to preserve the natural resources and ensure higher production levels in a scientific manner.

The journey of the engagement and initiatives of the organisation have been tremendous. Some of these are mentioned below:

1. An integrated project on technological transfers under protective conditions – from seasonal and off-season vegetable cultivation to the germination and growing of endangered herbs in greenhouses and farmlands.

2. A collaboration with the scientists from the High Altitude Plant Physiology Research Centre (HAPPRC), HNB Garhwal University (Central University) for strengthening the capacities of the communities, scientifically.

3. Identification of two important species – Kutki (Picrorhiza kurroa) and Kuth (Saussurea costus). These are CITES-listed ‘endangered’ and ‘critically endangered’ species, respectively. They are being used for herbal promulgation and for economic and ecological sustenance.

4. Facilitation of efforts under applied research, from lab/demonstration centres to farms.

5. Enabling tripartite efforts between farmers, HAPPRC and traders for insured qualitative and successful trade.

6. Sensitisation of the masses towards public policies for herbal cultivation, and enabling access to government schemes for multiplying the herbal endeavour. A facilitated National & State Medicinal Plant Board, along with the state’s Herbal Research Development Institute, was set up to reach out to the farmers by registering them as herbal producers. The outreach of the government’s schemes for herbal cultivation and the marketability of enlisted species was also measured.

7. Atis (Aconitum heterophyllum), Choru (Angelica glauca) and Ban kakari (Podophyllum hexandrum) have also been added to the species list.

8. Knowledge transfer to farmers: from 10 in the beginning, hundreds of farmers are practising herbal cultivation today, spread across multiple catchment areas in the various watershed regions in the area.

9. Formation of a farmers’ cooperative in the hinterlands as a registered exporter. The cooperative has, through its efforts alone, traded the herbs in Germany, England and the US. The farmers have increased their earnings manifold – from ₹250 (per kilogram) in 2003 to ₹1,500 (per kilogram) in the national and international markets, presently.

10. Sensitisation of the farmers: Today, they are enabling efforts for the conservation of herbal species in their natural habitats and their multiplication in the farmlands.

To ensure the benefits of the farmers, the UYRDC has collaborated with progressive organisations within the country and overseas for further strengthening herbal conservation, propagation and trade – with the multiple objectives of conservation, multiplication, maintaining the ecological balance of valuable flora and the economic sustenance of farmers. Recently, the UYRDC has partnered with the Dunagiri Foundation in facilitating qualitative trade and the promulgation of endangered herbs amongst high-altitude farmers in the Chamoli district.

The initiative is promising as it addresses not only the issues of environmental and economic returns, but also seeks an answer to the rising rates of migration in youths from remote high-altitude hinterlands – thus providing potential solutions for the socio-economic development of the mountain community.

Herbal Endeavour (2014 – 2016)

The UYRDC has pioneered in the field of ex-situ cultivation, conservation and propagation of medicinal plants, especially the endangered valuable herbs. The organisation, which started in 2001, has pursued the goals of community self-reliance with self-motivation for conserving the natural habitats of the plants. The pivotal herbs Picrorihiza kurrao (Kutki) and Sausurria costus (Kuth) have been successfully germinated and propagated by farmers in high-altitude (cold, temperate and sub-alpine climate zones) villages.

The village Ghesh in the Deval development block of Chamoli has won innumerable accolades for the cultivation of rare herbs and conservation of these herbal biodiversities. In 2009, the farmers formed the cooperative, “Kamgar Swayat Sahkarita”, to export these herbs to national and international markets. The same year, the cooperative sold the herbs to Germany. Since then, UYRDC has been extending cooperation to numerous farmers across multiple watershed regions of this fragile ecosystem.

In 2015, the UYRDC extended cooperation to the village Ramani voluntarily to help them sustain their efforts. At Ramani, we integrated with Ankur’s efforts and connected farmers with an American organisation (a foundation by the name of the Dunagiri Foundation) to trade the harvested Kutki. The efforts were fruitful as the trader/organisation engaged with the farmers and provided resources to cleanse, dry and package the harvest. The foundation took 90 kilograms of Kutki and 27 kilogram of Kuth. The organisation has come back this year. At present, it is at Ramani to see this year’s harvest. Last year, Kutki was sold at ₹1,500 per kilogram and Kuth at ₹350 per kilogram.

The UYRDC has achieved another major milestone in its herbal endeavour. The village Ghesh was also harvested in the month of October, 2015. The Dunagiri Foundation collaborated with the English herbal organisation, “Pukka Herbs”, for trading the Kutki harvest to Bristol, England. The UYRDC, through its established farmer cooperative, “Kamgar Swayat Sahakrita”, enabled the execution of the entire value chain – right from harvesting, clipping (for rhizomes), pressure-washing the rhizomes, drying, packaging, coordinating with the forest department and the human resource department, acquiring all the important documents at the district (legal procurement certificate) and at Delhi (a CITES export permit – the permission to export an endangered listed herb), shipping to the cargo agency, and finally, exporting to Bristol, England.

The initiative was a landmark in many ways. One of the new activities this time was bringing the pressure washer for cleansing the Kutki rhizomes. The Kutki harvest reached Bristol in July, 2016. In October 2017, Kutki was harvested at Ghesh again. The price offered was ₹1,500 per kilogram, which shall be followed for the coming years as well.

The market for herbal products here is booming with demand, but the supply is constant because of the above-mentioned challenges. Earlier, the interest of the farmers was declining because of the lack of knowledge, market linkage, innovation, farming equipment and other requisite technical support. Through the continuous hand-holding support of the organisation, these farmers have been provided the capacities with all the required know-how. Furthermore, they were connected to the different stakeholders which enhanced their capacities as well as their earnings. These initiatives have had a positive impact on the livelihood of the community, all through the sustainable production of herbal products, which is also contributing to biodiversity conservation.


Ashish Kumar Singh is a doctoral candidate at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia. He can be reached at ashish.tiss@gmail.com.

Vidya Bhooshan Singh is a professional social worker with expertise in biodiversity conservation, water and sanitation and community development, environment education along with project implementation and management. He is working with the Centre for Micro Finance, Sirohi, Rajasthan, as team team leader for implementing the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project among the tribal communities of Rajasthan. He can be reached at vbs.bhooshan@gmail.com.

Siddartha Negi is the director of the Uttaranchal Youth And Rural Development Centre, Chamoli, Uttarakhand. He can be reached at uyrdc@yahoo.com.


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Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Uttaranchal Youth And Rural Development Centre/Facebook