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Therapy needed for medicinal plants

Traditional medicinals market © Nguyen TapCambridge, UK, 20 May 2008—It is well known that there are plants that save lives; the question now is who saves these plants from over- exploitation, habitat loss and a host of other threats.

Every year, about half a million tonnes of dried medicinal and aromatic plants (MAP) are traded internationally, and an unknown but substantial quantity is traded on national and local markets.

More than 50% of the plants are harvested from the wild, and the demand for MAPs is increasing world-wide. Coupled with land conversion and habitat degradation in many regions, it means around a quarter of such species are under threat.

“About 15,000 of the estimated 50,000 – 70,000 plant species used for medicine, cosmetics or dietary supplements are threatened,” says Susanne Honnef, Head of TRAFFIC’s Medicinal Plant Programme.

WWF, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), their joint affiliate, the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, BfN and partners have set up an initiative directed to "Saving Plants that Save Lives and Livelihoods". The initiative was highlighted at the Ninth Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) with the release of a new film on the issue.

In many developing countries, wild-collected plants provide the only effective medicine for the majority of the rural population, because other forms of medication are either unavailable or unaffordable. In richer countries, many people have rediscovered the benefits of natural medicine.

New guidance on harvesting
Adding consumer demand to traditional demand, however, is a key factor behind over-exploitation and illegal harvest and trade in wild plants. Teaming up with the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), the three groups began work in 2004 on an International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP).

“Published in early 2007, this standard now provides companies, governments, resource managers and other stakeholders in the MAP sector a specific guidance tool to develop sustainable use management systems for MAP collected from the wild,” said Uwe Schippmann, Head of the Plant Conservation Section of BfN.

Traditional plants, traditional peoples
Central to ISSC-MAP are the customary rights of local communities and indigenous peoples, and the establishment of benefit sharing agreements over genetic resources and management responsibility, reinforced by adherence to such concepts as prior informed consent (PIC) and mutually agreed terms (MAT).

The “Saving Plants that Save Lives and Livelihoods”, supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), has started implementing ISSC-MAP in projects world-wide. Projects, operating under a variety of conditions and organizational structures, are underway in Brazil, Cambodia, India, Lesotho, Nepal and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and with alternative funding, in China and the Ukraine.

In the tropical Amazon region for example, a women's group that has struggled for sustainable harvesting of local plants for years will use ISSC-MAP within their project and check potential links to other standards relevant in the region.
Nepal, with its amazing variety of ecosystems from the Terai lowlands in the south to the world's highest peaks in the north, is home to an astounding plant diversity, with more than 1,500 plant species used for medicinal purposes. Like in India, community forest management structures are often already in place, which is a good starting point for ISSC-MAP implementation.

For several collectors in Lesotho, wild collection of Pelargonium is the only source of cash income. This species has been highly valued for its healing power in fighting cold and other "winter" infections. The development of management systems involving all relevant actors are urgently needed to ensure the long term survival of the species.

“We are happy to see the ISSC-MAP being adapted to local contexts and used on the ground. Several governments, communities, forestry departments and companies have shown a keen interest to support the ISSC-MAP and promote its uptake in their countries” says Frank Fass-Metz, Head of Division Environment and Sustainable Use of Natural Resources of BMZ.

“This will help the development of capacity-building, technology transfer, and financial support programmes to assist developing countries with the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).”

According to Jane Smart, Head of IUCN’s Species Programme: “ISSC-MAP is an excellent toolkit that can help contribute to national, subregional and regional implementation of the CBD’s Global Strategy for Plant Conservation.”

The CBD meeting is expected to review the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, following recommendations made at the Convention’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice meeting in Paris in 2007.

“We all profit from the unique therapeutic effects of medicine from nature’s pharmacy”, says Sue Lieberman, Director of the Species Programme of WWF International “but it is high time for an effective therapy for natural plant populations under pressure.

“We welcome governments, and committed companies and NGOs to join the initiative, and work to ensure products from wild plants are harvested in compliance with the ISSC-MAP,” adds Susanne Honnef of TRAFFIC.

More information and photos:
Richard Thomas
, Communications Co-ordinator, TRAFFIC, t + 44 1223 279068, email richard.thomas@traffic.org