Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
EARTHSCAPES: May 20, 2001
Green health boom
Darshan Shankar and A. V. Balasubramanian
Darshan Shankar is Director, Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, Bangalore A. V. Balasubramanian is Director, Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems, Chennai.
The words of a tribal song say: "I love the forests, they keep me, my animals and my fields healthy . . ." Biodiversity and health are intrinsically linked. This link can be clearly seen, firstly, if we understand the basics of biodiversity itself. A variety of life forms exist and flourish across diverse ecosystems: mountains, coasts, seas, forests, lakes and rivers, and so on. Millions of species of plants, animals and micro-organisms exist in a "healthy" way in their own natural habitats. Health is therefore implied in the very "existence" of biodiversity.
From this simple yet powerful principle, flows an understanding of the relationship of biodiversity to human health.
Biodiversity-based health traditions
From 1986 to 1996, an All India Coordinated Research Project on Ethnobiology was carried out by the Department of Environment of the Indian government. This project concluded that tribal communities alone (who constitute only a small percentage of our population) use over 9,000 species of wild plants, of which the single largest use category - medicinal plants - number over 7,500 species. Besides this, 3,900 are for edible use, 700 for material and cultural requirements, 525 for fibre and cordage, 400 as fodder, 300 as pesticides, 300 as gums and dyes, and 100 as incense and perfume.
There is a verse in the Ayurveda classic Charaka Samhita that explains how local communities understood and explored nature's gift of medicinal plants: "Yasmin deshe tu yo jaatah tasmin tajjoshadham hitam". "Nature is so (benevolently) organised that it has provided every micro-environment, the natural resources (in the form of plants, animals and minerals) necessary for the typical health needs of the people living in that environment."
Another tale from ancient texts is even more powerful. Punarvasu Atreya, the distinguished Ayurvedic Aachaarya had six disciples, namely, Agnivesha, Bhela, Jatukarna, Parasara, Haritha and Ksarapani. It is said that on one occasion, the Aachaarya assembled all his disciples and bid them to set forth in various different directions. Their task was to return with all the plants they encountered, that had no medicinal use. While five disciples came back with several plants, Agnivesha returned empty handed. He said that every single plant that he examined had some medicinal use. Agnivesha was thus considered the foremost disciple of Atreya. While each of the six disciples prepared a compendium of Ayurveda, Agnivesha's work is the most outstanding. It has been redacted by Charaka and then by Drdhabala, and is known today as the Charaka Samhita.
Darshan Shankar and A V Balasubramanian
At the folk level, in every ecosystem from the trans-Himalayas to the coast, local communities have keenly studied the medicinal plants found in their locality. Every 100 km or so, throughout the country, one can observe variation in ethnic names and use of local species, indicating the intimate and independent appraisal that local communities have made of their local resources. Striking illustrations of ecosystem knowledge include the Thakur tribals of coastal Maharashtra, who use over 500 species of plants, including 168 trees, 207 shrubs and herbs, 105 climbers and creepers, 13 grasses and 16 lower plants. Even in this day of increasing spread of allopathic medicines, there are hundreds of millions of people in India who are dependent on biodiversity for their health needs (see Table). Indeed, the World Health Organisation estimates that four-fifths of the world's population uses nature for a substantial part of its medicinal and health requirements.
The distinctive health traditions of diverse communities in India, are partly based on the distinct ecological niches that different medicinal plants occupy. So for instance, plants like Aconitum violaceum and Rheum spiciforme, are found in the trans-Himalayan areas; Acacia senegal and Capparis decidua in the desert regions of Rajasthan; water plants like Ipomoea aquatica in the Konkan areas of Maharashtra; Cassia fistula and Anogeissus latifolia in the deciduous forests of the Deccan; Capparis aphylla and Balanites roxburgii in the scrub jungles of Karnataka; Myristica malabarica and Vateria indica in the swamps of the western coast; Pandanus tectorius and Thespesia populnea in the coasts of Kerala; and so on.
Nature has also situated bio-resources almost as if knowing what humans needed. To illustrate, Neem (Azadarichta indica), occuring in dry, arid and hot habitats, has cooling properties, ideally suited to correct the health imbalances that could occur in such environments. The plant Epedera vulgaris, occurring only in high altitudes, has a broncho-dilatory property, very useful in rarified atmospheres.
Traditional communities have used biodiversity not only to deal with the health needs of humans, but also those of livestock and for needs of crop plants in agriculture. And if one were to take a less human-centred attitude, one would realise that the diversity of life itself is a major component of the health of natural ecosystems, and in turn healthy ecosystems provide the conditions for plant and animal species to flourish.
Though not very systematically documented, there is a clear relationship between biologically diverse agriculture, and human/livestock health. The most obvious link is nutrition; ask elders in any village, and they will tell you how their traditional diversity of food was so much more nutritious than what is available from the markets now. Across large parts of India (though there were also traditional pockets of malnutrition and under-nutrition), traditional agriculture provided a range of crops, livestock-related products, semi-wild species (such as shrimps and frogs in paddy fields), and other inputs (see article on Agricultural Biodiversity, in this issue). Various nutritional inputs needed by the human body, were provided by such a diversity of produce. With the change in agricultural systems to monocultural plantations, this diversity and the related nutrition are lost, and the replacements from the market do not necessarily make up for this. On top of this loss, the use of chemicals creates other health problems!
Biodiversity loss, health and culture
When biodiversity is destroyed or eroded, as is happening with alarming rapidity across the world, the health of ecosystems as a whole and of their individual members is affected. Health and biodiversity links are a sub-set of the larger relationship between biodiversity and cultural diversity, so the loss of cultural diversity in the face of the increasing spread of "modern" monocultural systems, also leads to a direct loss of people's knowledge that relates biodiversity with health. The spread of the lure of allopathic medicine is so strong, that even in remote areas, villagers are beginning to prefer the pill and the injection over plant-based medicine. A cheap and locally available input is being replaced by an expensive, externally controlled one. This is not to say that all health problems can be tackled by local traditional health systems, or that biodiversity has the answer for all diseases, but simply that haphazard replacement of such systems by allopathic ones creates serious imbalances and loss of control.
Unfortunately, whereas there are many studies on the specific bio-resources used by ecosystem people for health needs, there are hardly any studies that have shown the epidemological effects on humans and other species, due to loss or disturbance of natural habitats. The economic value of such functions, and of medicinal plants, to human health and welfare, have also not been estimated. Take the example of just one use of one plant, the neem. Half a billion people still use neem branchlets as a toothbrush. To replace this with a commercially available toothbrush and toothpaste, they would have to spend about Re.1 each, per day per person. This means that the value of neem datuns alone is a billion rupees per day. Add to this the hundreds of other uses of neem, and its value would be magnitudes more than the medicinal exports of India.
It is to be hoped that the new-found enthusiasm of the Indian government, illustrated in the setting up of a National Medicinal Plants Board, would encompass such studies and related action, though this is not yet clear from the mandate of the Board.
It is in this context, that the ongoing National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) process (see Introductory essay) is attempting to bring back focus on the above issues. A specialist Thematic Working Group is drafting a national level action plan on Biodiversity and Health. At many of the State and substate levels at which the NBSAP process is being carried out, medicinal plants and health traditions, are a key focus. At Vidarbha, Maharashtra, for instance, a people's health organisation is doing a series of consultations with villagers, government officials and NGOs, to prepare a plan to conserve the biodiversity of the region and thereby secure the livelihoods, health, and security of lakhs of villagers.
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