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Knowledge of the amchis and conservation of medicinal plants in the hidden land of Dolpo, Nepal

by Yildiz Aumeeruddy-Thomas 
People and Plants Regional Coordinator 
People and Plants Asia Himalayas Programme 

15 March 1998 

Ganasa farms and pasture at 4000m, Dolpa, Nepal. The People and Plants team is working with community members on management systems for medicinal plants. (Alan Hamilton) 
On the other side of the high Himalayan range of Daulaghiri, up against the border with Tibet, lies Dolpo, a land of minerals, chortens and snow leopards. Its high pastures are home to many aromatic and medicinal plants - some of which are among the most popular in the three major traditional medical systems of the region, the Ayurvedic, the Tibetan and the Chinese.

With human settlements situated up to 4480 m - among the highest in the world, age-old monasteries such as the Cristal Monastery of Shey and many others perpetuate the Bon and Buddhist religions. Dolpo is refuge not only to endangered plants and animals; it is also a bastion of the spiritual and cultural values of the ancient culture of Tibet, today also endangered. 

  Age-old tradition versus international trade 

 Medicinal plants are becoming threatened at Dolpo because of their high value to the Ayurvedic industry, entailing very extensive collection throughout Nepal, especially at higher altitudes.  Most of this trade is to India.  The building of two airstrips around Dolpo has given a major impetus to trade in these products.  Set against this is a degree of protection afforded by the creation of a national park in 1984 (Shey Phoksundo - 3555 km2), which has certainly helped to put some breaks on the over-harvesting of medicinal plants.  However, the park has insufficient manpower to enforce park rules, restricting medicinal plant collection, rigorously. 

Some 3000 people live inside the park, mostly adhering to Tibetan-related culture.  In this remote area, specialist medical services are provided almost entirely by amchis, practitioners of Tibetan medicine, a formal (written) system of great antiquity.  Six thousand people live in proposed buffer zones of the park, outside its southern boundary.  These are mostly Hindus, more engaged in trade than those living inside the park and using Ayurvedic medicine. 

An ethnobotanical project has been started at Dolpo at the request of the WWF Nepal Office , already running a joint programme in the area jointly with the Nepal Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. This ethnobotanical project is part of the People and Plants initiative, a programme of WWF, UNESCO and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, designed to promote the application of ethnobotany to conservation and development.  (People and Plants has field projects elsewhere - in Pakistan, Africa, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.  The work in Nepal is funded by the European Union, the Department of International Development (UK) and WWF itself.) 


Learning to work together  

The objectives of the ethnobotanical project at Dolpo are to determine the ways in which people at Dolpo value and use plants, including those that are medicinal, and assist the people to make agreements with the park authorities allowing sustainable harvesting of plant resources hand-in-hand with conservation.  A meeting of the project was held at Rigmo village (3700 m) inside the park in June 1997 to plan project activities to ensure that these meet the needs of both people and authorities. 

A multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural team was formed after the workshop through adding two local amchis and two park personnel to a small group of researchers previously recruited. This latter group comprised botanists Dr. K. Krishna Shrestha and Suresh Ghimire, sociologist Yeshi Choden Lama,  assistant Mingma Sherpa (a WWF trainee), two well respected amchis from Mustang (a neighbouring district) - Tshampa Ngawang and Gyatso Bista (the personal doctor of the King of Mustang) - and myself, taking the role of overall coordinator and trainer in ethnobotanical techniques. 

Focus on community-based management of medicinal plants  

The ethnobotanical survey recorded 279 species of plants at Dolpo with economic value, including no fewer than 205 used medicinally.  Twelve types of medicinal plants are commonly traded, official records (certainly under-estimates) showing that 50 tons are exported from the area annually.  Already, some of the slopes around the park show signs of over-harvesting and commercial collection inside the park itself is increasing.  Medicinal plants at Dolpo are under threat, even if this may not be immediately apparent.  For instance, jatamansi (Nardostachys grandiflora) is apparently still very abundant in many areas of Dolpo, but its high market value, slow growth and the destructive method used for its collection (pulling up the whole plant) suggest that it might disappear if unregulated commercial collection begins in earnest.  The project intends to introduce a number of small field experiments in 1998 to determine the effects of various levels of harvesting on selected species of medicinal plants.  It is hoped that some general guidelines on intensity of harvesting and other management techniques will emerge. 

The grazing of yaks and other domestic animals on pastures at Dolpo is still managed by local customs and regulations, but there are few such regulations concerning medicinal plants - probably because their over-collection has not until now constituted a serious threat.  However, local communities have considerable knowledge about medicinal plants - their distribution, abundance, ecology and methods of harvesting - certainly much more than do the park staff - and there is no doubt that medicinal plants cannot be managed effectively without the full cooperation of the local communities.  Agreements are needed between the communities and the park authorities to confer certain rights (and responsibilities) relating to medicinal on particular communities, so that it becomes in the interests of the local people to conserve them for their continuing benefit.  That way it may be possible to prevent destructive harvesting by outsiders, safeguard the livelihoods of the local people and conserve the resources.  The project is working with the communities to determine the terms of such agreements. 

Amchis and women: key actors in health care  

It is certain that the amchis will continue to play a major role in delivering local health-care at Dolpo because of its remoteness.  However, at the same time, the people at Dolpo suffer from very poor health.  The amchis are faced with many difficulties, including their isolation and lack of full training in some aspects of their profession (diagnosis system, plant identification and processing), their lack of access to some medicinal materials (plants from lowland areas; animal products derived from protected species), their lack of access to medical texts and problems of supporting themselves financially (since traditionally amchis are not paid for their services).  Lay people know little about the uses of medicinal plants and young people show little interest in becoming amchis themselves, principally because training is not readily available and because they see the profession as not viable economically today.  How then can health-care at Dolpo be improved?  The project is planning to provide some assistance by following up a wish expressed by women in the planning workshop - that the amchis provide them with some medical information directly, useful for looking after the primary health-care needs of their families. 

  The link between conservation and development  

Two major targets have been selected for the rest of the project: (1) to develop a community-based model for conservation and management of medicinal plants and (2) to promote better health-care through increasing the capacities of amchis and women.  These two approaches are interrelated, because the amchis are holders of much of the knowledge of the community and are regarded as people of authority.  They are well placed to guide the people in a community-based approach to the management of medicinal plants and will certainly continue to be responsible for much of the local health-care at Dolpo. 

During 1998 it is planned to begin work on the design of a model for managing medicinal plants on a sustainable basis, starting with one community as an example. On the health-care side, all amchis at Dolpo (45 people) have been invited to Dho Tarap monastery in June to discuss an action plan to reinforce their profession and make recommendations about which aspects of their knowledge can be transmitted to women for the promotion of primary health-care, including prevention of disease.

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