A drugs story

  • 14/06/1996

A drugs story THE Kani adivasis, living in the Agasthyar hills of southern Kerala, knew about jeevani for centuries. From this tiny medicinal plant Trichopus zeylnicus, they extracted Arogyapazha: a retroactive, immuno enhancing, anti-stress drug. Later, the drug was developed by the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute Palod, Thiruvananthapuram. Now, a reward will flow to the adivasis. They will receive 50 per cent of the licence fee and two per cent of the royalty from sales of the commercial produce of the drug.

This precedent augurs well for a project started in 1993 by a Bangalore- based non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), to conserve herbal medicinal plants and revitalise local health traditions in the three southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. "Today, India's rich tradition of local health practices and knowledge faces a threat from the western system of monoculture. A well-organised effort is needed to conserve the habitat of herbal plants and revitalise local health practices," says Darshan Shankar, executive director, FRLHT.

FRLHT aims to conserve Indian medicinal plants through both in situ and ex situ systems. It signed a memorandum of understanding with the forest depart - ments (FDS) of the three states in 1993. Thirty sites of 200 ha each, called Medicinal Plants Conservation Areas (MPCAS), were selected for the in situ and long-term conservation of these plants, along with other species. Later, enlarging the scope of MPCAS, FRLHT entered into an agreement with the FDS of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to establish Medicinal Plants Development Areas (MPDAS) in degraded forest-land involving local communities under the modalities of joint forest management (JFM). For ex situ conservation, 15 Medicinal Plants Conservation Parks (MPCPS), involving 15 NGOs, have been set up.

The participation of people and voluntary organisations is vital for the project's success. A well-managed NGO like Vivekananda Girijan Kalyan Kendra (VGKK) in the Billigiri Rangan (BR) hills of Mysore district, ensures effective participation of peoples and scientific execution of the programme. "Our MPCP is an ethno-medicinal forest where we have all the indigenous species found in the forest," says Mahesha Murthy, the park's technical coordinator. It also serves as a production nursery, supplying 17 species identified by FRLHT under its "green health" campaign, which can treat common ailments and can be easily grown in kitchen-gardens.

In the programme, people organised under podu sanghas (hamlet commit- tees), have been effectively involved. About 2,500 plants find their place in about 50 kitchen-gardens in four podus. In their regular meetings, people discuss plants and their uses.

In the backyard of her little hut, 38- year-old Siddama, a vaidya ( traditional ayurvedic medical practitioner), care- fully nurtures a small herbal nursery of about 50 plants. "These plants give life. When anybody in the family or in the podu falls sick, I use the plant extracts to heal them," she says.

For the long-term conservation of medicinal plants in their natural habitats, a 150 ha MPCA is being managed by the Karnataka forest department (KFD) in collaboration with the local people. Selected by FLRHT in 1992, it is an eco- zone located in the BR hill.

Some 357 species have been protected with people's active cooperation. " Adivasis here have been protecting their forests for quite some time. It was not difficult to convince them to keep the area free of any intervention," says Avatar Singh, assistant forest conservator. People agreed not to let their cattle enter the protected area and do not even collect minor forest produce. "Keeping a small stretch reserved for conserving medicinal plants would not affect our requirements," says Siddegauda of Mutthinagudda podu. The progress of soil and moisture conservation work and protection efforts are monitored in bi-monthly meetings with the KFD.

VGKK officials are confident about the success of the programme. "We have a commitment to make it self-sustain- able within two years," says H Sudarshan, honorary secretary, VGKK. Its herbal medicinal processing unit at Yelandur has tied up with two ayurvedic drug manufacturing firms: Dhutapapeshwar in Pune and Ayurvedic Vaidya Pharmacy, Coimbatore, for the supply of 17 preparations. "Currently, we procure most herbs from the market. Soon, they will be supplied by local herb-gatherers and then we will make our presence felt in the market," claims Jan.i.k Raj Rawal, of the VGKK medicine processing unit.

However, this network of in situ, ex situ and manufacturing units does not exist everywhere. In some places only an ex situ centre operates along with a nursery. FRLHT'S partner NGO, Rural Education and Development Services (READS) in village Venkateswara, district Dharmapuri of Tamil Nadu, started an ex situ centre only six months ago. Established in 1984, READS has a network of village-level organisations. "Involving 60 women in six groups, we have identi- tied 158 medicinal plants and 256 meth- ods to treat 183 ailments. Also, there exist 33 medicinal gardens and two community gardens. Two hundred additional families will soon be having kitchen gardens," says John Wash, director, READS.

Revitalisation of local health traditions is being realised by involving people of four neighbouring villages. Ten core-group members were selected from each village. "Its a six-month-long training during which trainees learn 30 single uses of 17 plants of the green health campaign," says Shanvas Khan, in-charge, MPCP. Trainees in turn conduct two classes a month. "In each class we teach the same methods to 20 households," informs R Rashida Biwi of Ngraneele village.

Realising that conservation efforts will taKe a long time to yield any economic benefit to the people, some NGOS have developed an additional programme. Around Dodabetta, the highest point of the Nilgiri Hills, an NGO, Healing of People and Environment in the Nilgiris (HOPE), has involved 40 families for ex situ conservation of 35 species of medicinal plants. Also, an unit has been setup to extract geranium oil. "Within six months, we ,have recovered the cost of the plant and we now earn about Rs 500 per family," says Sangunthala, member, planning committee, Dodabitta settlement.

A committee of eight villagers is responsible for the planning, imple- mentation and execution of all the pro- jects HOPE runs, in the village. The latest project is a MPDA of 190 ha. Four years ago, the Tamil Nadu FD had removed all the cinchona plantation in the area and wanted to declare it a reserve forest, trigerring tension. But all that is over . "The project has dispelled antagonism prevailing between the FD and the vil- lagers," says Vanya Orr, director, HOPE. "We will share the income generated from geranium oil extraction with the FD," informs Balasubramanium, member, planning committee.

Without doubt, the movement initiated by FRLHT is the need of hour. "For about 30 per cent of the population, traditional primary health care will remain the only viable option," says Shankar . But the current four-year project is too short to make it economically viable for either the partner NGOS or for the people. In BR hills, where adivasis have the exclusive right to collect herbal plants in the forest, economic viability may be a medium-term possibility, but in other areas, it is only a distant dream. "We are not looking for any profit through these programmes," says Wash. Shankar agrees, "It is a very big challenge and a difficult job." And until FRLHT achieves this, its efforts will remain unsustainable.

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