Memories are interactive. As the country debates over the selling of the public sector Bharat Aluminium Company ( balco ) to a private company, memories bring the Gandhamardan hills in western Orissa into national imagination. Fifteen years ago, the Gandhamardan hills, rich in biodiversity and bauxite equally, were the platform for one of India's most vocal people struggles to conserve forests and livelihood. A five-year sustained campaign by the local people saw balco wind up its operation to mine 213 million tonnes of bauxite. It was a major victory both for the local forest-dependent people and for the fragile ecology of western Orissa. Gandhamardan sustains more than a million people and is the source of two major tributaries of the river Mahanadi.
But the battle is far from over. The Gandhamardan ecosystem is still in peril. It faces its worst threat on many fronts. The current spell of drought, illegal felling for timber, overexploitation of forest resources and faulty method of harvesting medicinal plants has already taken a toll. However, local residents, who led the campaign against balco , still vow to fight for its protection.
The Gandhamardan mountain ranges are a rich source of diversity for medicinal plants. The Botanical Survey of India has reported the existence of 220 plant species of medicinal value. Local people, however, claim that there are more than 500 species of medicinal plants in this area. The flora of the buffer zone is most vulnerable. Many medicinal plant species such as Clerodendron indicum , Rauvolfia serpentina and Plumbago zeylanica , which were once available in plenty, have become scarce. A study by G Panigrahi of the Botanical Survey of India in 1963 recorded 2,700 angiosperms and 125 species of important medicinal plants, out of a total of 220 species of medicinal and quasi-medicinal and economically-vital plants.
Such is its richness in medicinal plants that more than 100 traditional healthcare practitioners live in and around the Gandhamardan hills. These practitioners provide medical facilities to about 50,000 tribal people. There are two ayurvedic colleges and hospitals on both side of Gandhamardan