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Agarwood (Aquilaria spp.)
Brazil nuts
Buriti (Mauritia flexuosa )
Devil's claw (Harpagophytum spp.)
Garcinia lucida
Locust bean products
Medicinal plants
Pau-rosa (Aniba rosaeodora )
Quassia amara
Vegetable ivory
Vegetable leather

AGARWOOD (Aquilaria spp.)

During the 12th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Plant Committee meeting (13-16 May 2002, Leiden, the Netherlands), Barbara Gravendeel, Leiden University, presented a CITES-funded study to develop species-specific DNA markers in agarwood (Aquilaria) (PC12/Inf. 1). Describing the basic characteristics of the 15 Aquilaria species, Ms Gravendeel explained that the wood could be infected by a fungus that produced a resin (gaharu) used in rituals, medicines and perfume. She said that gaharu was highly priced and that global demand was higher than available supply, and that there was only one species of Aquilaria on Appendix II. She noted that, because gaharu-containing wood was usually traded as dry samples, it could not be identified at the species level. She stated that there were few species- and region-specific mutations in Aquilaria, and that further work was necessary to isolate DNA in wood samples and to develop an easy-to-apply test for customs officials.

In reply to the European Union's inquiry about the time required to develop the test, Ms Gravendeel responded that six months were needed if fresh samples were available, although there were difficulties when working with old or contaminated wood. Mexico inquired about identification of species based on gaharu's phytochemical characteristics. Oceania asked whether there was any trade information on other gaharu-producing genera.

Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC) introduced a document on agarwood (PC12/Doc. 8.3), noting the increasing importance of DNA testing in distinguishing species. The representative from TRAFFIC identified several recommendations including, inter alia, the need for ground-truthing of populations in agarwood harvesting areas, and further field research on gaharu trade dynamics. Oceania emphasized the need for a reporting mechanism and links with traders to understand the total agarwood trade. The representative from Oceania added that Aquilaria could be a good candidate for the significant trade review process. Several delegates suggested that an Appendix III listing might be appropriate, to which the secretariat replied that the main advantage of an Appendix III listing was that the exporting and importing countries might eliminate the illegal trade. Central and South America and the Caribbean called for further taxonomic efforts to assess the species. The committee agreed to support the recommendations made by TRAFFIC, and that the chair would include the comments in her report to COP-12. (Source: Earth Negotiation Bulletin, 21(19), 20 May 2002 )

[Please see under International Action for more information on CITES.]


Brazil nut oil, a luxury product

Virgin Brazil nut oil "made in Amapa" is being exported worldwide. It is hoped that, in the long term, the oil will challenge the dominance of olive oil on the national and international markets. As well as being nutritious and rich in selenium, the product comes with a "green seal". The production area in Laranjal do Jari, Brazil, is protected by environmental laws and is managed by cooperatives formed by the traditional populations of the region. (Source: Amazon News, 4 April 2002.)

The nut that could help save the Amazon

Brazil nuts are the only commercial nut found exclusively in Amazon forests. Sustainable harvesting of these nuts not only provides a livelihood for people, but also protects the forests from being cleared for agriculture.

The Martinez family has a 300-ha plot of forest next to Tambopata National Reserve in Peru's southeastern Amazon rain forest. But instead of cutting down the forest for farmland as other homesteaders in the area have done, the Martinez family harvests Brazil nuts.

The Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) is found in the forests of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. It is one of the Amazon's longest-living trees, often reaching 1 000 years, and has a very complex and specialized biology. Its flowers depend on orchid bees for pollination. Once pollinated, a coconut-sized seed pod containing some 20 seeds, or nuts, develops for at least 15 months before falling to the forest floor. The only way for the nuts to get out of the seed pod is if a 3-kg rodent, the agouti, releases them. Squirrel-like in appearance and habits, the industrious agouti - the only forest creature capable of gnawing through the fallen seed pods - eats some nuts and buries others for the future, inadvertently planting new trees.

Brazil nuts do not only make good food for agoutis - humans like them too. Attempts to cultivate the tree on plantations have failed, making Brazil nuts the only commercial nut found exclusively in Amazon forests. "This important distinction has converted Brazil nut harvesters into guardians of the forest," explains Martinez.

There are about 1 000 Brazil nut concessions in and around the Tambopata National Reserve. When side activities such as transportation and processing are considered, the Brazil nut industry generates employment for some 20 000 people - or 25 percent of the Amazonian state of Madre de Dios. Concessions are granted by the Peruvian Government and harvesters must pay a tax based on production. Most operations are small family businesses, struggling to meet basic needs during the short January to March harvesting season.

The work is exhausting, even for the hardy. Harvesters use machetes to split open the hard seed pod and empty the tiny nuts inside, still in their dark-brown shells, into large sacks. A full sack weighs 75 to 85 kg, and must be carried out of the forest on the harvester's back, attached by a strap around the forehead. Some of these sturdy adventurers walk for several hours before reaching a road or river to transport their cargo to processing plants, where the nuts are shelled and packaged for sale.

Martinez decided there must be a better way. He and a brother teamed up with other harvesters and the Amazon Conservation Association (ACCA) to devise simple methods to improve their labour. One of Martinez's favourite methods is a small, human-powered cart that enables harvesters to wheel numerous sacks out of the forest at a time. The team has also mapped more than 40 000 ha of Brazil nut forest concessions to help the harvesters' activities. In addition, they have produced a short, local television series. The show's star attraction is the legendary Don Pancho, an elderly Brazil nut harvester who teaches the trade to his young nephew and a visiting student.

However, falling prices are threatening the struggling industry: just two years ago Brazil nuts were fetching more than double their current rate. Peruvians outside the Amazon region have not yet acquired a taste for the homebred nut, leaving Brazil nuts at the mercy of the international market which favours cashews, almonds and peanuts.

"Marketing is a major problem," says Vanessa Sequeira, field director of ACCA's Brazil nut project, explaining that most people outside the Amazon are not aware of the nut's important conservation role. In response, the group mounted a consumer education campaign under the banner "Save the Amazon, eat a Brazil nut". ACCA, together with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), also promoted certification of Brazil nut forests. In March 2001, Peru's standard for Brazil nut harvesting was recognized by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) - the first FSC standard for a non-timber forest product.

Despite these advances, Sequeira worries that time is running out for the majority of Peru's harvesters. This past year, she says, many could not afford to harvest their concessions because of low prices and high transportation costs. In addition, the Peruvian Government has not yet established a regulatory framework that would facilitate Brazil nut harvesting. If the trend continues, many harvesters could be forced to turn to damaging extractive industries for economic survival, such as panning for gold or slash-and-burn agriculture, converting these long-time friends of the forest into foes.

The Brazil nut tree is part of the delicate web of life in the Amazon. Apart from orchid bees, agoutis and the Brazil nut harvesters, the life of many other plants and animals is intertwined with this tree. The empty seed pods, for example, fill with rainwater and provide breeding grounds for damselflies, a poison frog and a toad, all of which depend on these small ponds on the forest floor. The major threat to the trees - and the myriad forms of life that depend on them - is forest clearing. The sustainable harvesting of Brazil nuts is therefore a vital way of providing protection for Peru's forests. (Source: WWF International Press Office, written by Stephanie Boyd, a freelance journalist based in Peru.)

Fungus damages Brazil nut exports

Last year, according to statistics from the Federal Office of Agriculture (Brazil), Amazonas exported around 3 200 tonnes of Brazil nuts, while Brazil as a whole exported 9 600 tonnes during the same period. However, much of the produce exported has been returned owing to the presence of a fungus which contravenes European Union legislation on food hygiene. The Ministry of Agriculture and the European Union are discussing methods of controlling the fungus. (Source: Amazon News, 13 February 2003

BURITI (Mauritia flexuosa)

Research shows that buriti oil could prevent skin cancer

A biologist from the Federal University of Acre, Nívea Maria de Paula Fernandes, has spent the last six years studying the economic and nutritional importance of the buriti palm (Mauritia flexuosa), which is commonly found on Amazonia's floodplains. Her study revealed that buriti oil has the ability to filter and absorb the ultraviolet rays which cause skin cancer.

In the light of this discovery, a well-known cosmetic company has already begun large-scale production of moisturizing products using buriti oil. (Source: Amazon News, 28 February 2002 .)

Craft goods made from buriti: the new hope for sustainable development

The Colonia Cinco Mill (Brazil) will manufacture furniture and craft goods in buriti. The next four years will be decisive in Acre's sustainable development project. The state governor, Jorge Viana, has asked the population of Acre to be involved with the project. The Colonia Cinco Mill is doing just that, forming a partnership with SEBRAE to manufacture craft goods and furniture from buriti palms. The project has already attracted attention from potential clients.

The aim of the project is to improve the local population's quality of life. The community is already in the first phase of production: collecting the raw material. The project has been approved by SUFRAMA which will fund it to the tune of $R 18 000. (Source: Amazon News, 8 January 2003 .)

DEVIL'S CLAW (Harpagophytum spp.) AND CITES

The issue of trade in Harpagophytum spp., a medicinal plant used for the treatment of polyarthritis, back and joint pains, was discussed in 2002 during the 12th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Plants Committee (13-16 May, Leiden, the Netherlands) and the 12th Conference of Parties to CITES (3-15 November, Santiago, Chile).

Plants Committee Meeting

During the 12th CITES Plant Committee meeting, on 14 May, Domitilla Raimondo, National Botanical Institute, South Africa, presented a report on the status of trade and management of Devil's claw (Harpagophytum spp.), perennial creeping herbs found in southern Africa. She said that these savannah grassland plants were traditionally harvested, mainly in communal areas, and were used to treat arthritis, rheumatism and other ailments. She reported that Namibia was currently the main exporter, with 92 percent of trade, while Botswana had 5 percent and South Africa 3 percent. She added that Namibia and Botswana opposed an Appendix II listing because of the income local people derived from trade, although Botswana believed an Appendix III listing could help with gathering trade figures. She stated that South Africa would follow the recommendations of Namibia and Botswana.

Berit Hachfeld, Institute of Botany, University of Hamburg, Germany, presented her research in Namibia and South Africa on the occurrence and density of Harpagophytum procumbens, used in the medicinal trade. She said that Devil's claw was restricted to sandy habitats in savannah ecosystems with 150 to 500 mm rainfall, but was not evenly distributed throughout its range in southern Africa. Noting that Devil's claw tended to occur in overgrazed areas with low grass coverage, she stressed the necessity of researching the surrounding vegetation and land use systems when considering Devil's claw issues.

Africa introduced a common statement made by participants at the Regional Devil's Claw Conference (PC12/Doc. 8.1.1), held in Windhoek, Namibia, on 28 February 2002. The representative said that the conference highlighted stakeholder and regional collaboration as necessary for the sustainable development and trade of Devil's claw. He noted that some participants expressed opposition to a potential CITES listing as it could decrease trade and have negative impacts on poor, rural communities.

During the discussion, the United Kingdom and other delegations noted that CITES had a public relations problem in southern Africa, but that an Appendix III listing of Devil's claw could be beneficial to range states. Oceania emphasized the need for more monitoring. Germany stressed links with importers and traders to overcome lack of trade information (PC12/Doc. 8.1.2). The secretariat added that monitoring was more important than intensive ecological research and that CITES could play an important role in addressing non-CITES-listed species, and that there was a need to develop further the documentation explaining the role of an Appendix III listing. The representative for IWMC-CH said that a species listing could be interpreted as leading to prohibition and suggested that the Plants Committee recommend export quotas at COP-12.

Chair Clemente suggested that the next Plants Committee meeting be held in southern Africa to try and change some of the negative views held about CITES and CITES listings.

On 16 May, Africa introduced a draft report on Devil's claw (PC12/WG Harpagophytum). It was recommended that, inter alia, range states provide an update on the trade and biological status of Harpagophytum spp., and that species could be listed on Appendix III if enough information were provided to range states. The Plants Committee supported the recommendations, which were to be included in the chair's report to COP-12.

COP 12

During COP 12, on 5 November, Plants Committee Chair Clemente introduced the report on the biological and trade status of Devil's claw to COP (Doc. 46, see The report contained draft decisions directing, inter alia: range states to provide an update on implementation by the 14th Plants Committee meeting; and range and importing states to negotiate for sustainable management programmes with the Devil's claw industry. South Africa and Uganda supported the European Union's suggestion to list the plant as an Appendix III species. Delegates adopted the report and its decisions. On 14 November, plenary accepted the Plants Committee's recommendation (Doc. 10.2) to repeal Decision 11.111 on the biological and trade status of Harpagophytum.

In addition to Devil's claw, discussions on the sustainable use of and trade in NWFPs were related to Guaiacum spp. (curb trade), Aquilaria spp. (trade in resins [gaharu]), species traded for medicinal purposes and Paphiopedilum orchids. (For further information, please refer to the CITES home page []. The Earth Negotiation Bulletin provides reports on the 12th CITES Plants Committee Meeting and COP 12 .)

[Please see under International Action for more information on CITES.]


Garcinia lucida is a small tree providing several non-timber forest products to rural households in southern Cameroon. In a Ph.D. study supported by the Central African Regional Programme (CARPE), Tropenbos International and the Free University of Brussels, Nicole M. Guedje identified the conditions for its sustainable exploitation.

G. lucida can be found in undisturbed or mature forests at altitudes above 500 m. Its bark is used as an additive in palm wine, while its bark and nuts also serve as an antidote to poison and a cure for stomach pains. People often extract the bark by stripping the stem all around, but this also kills the tree.

The study combined a plant demographic survey with experiments on different harvesting techniques and participatory monitoring and evaluation, in order to provide tools for an efficient, socially appropriate and sustainable management system for G. lucida.

The study revealed that the largest trees are selectively exploited. This has serious consequences for the species' continual regeneration. The practice of stripping the tree all around the stem is extremely destructive, resulting in a 74 percent mortality rate. Stripping only one or two thirds of the bark surface proved to be the least damaging practice, permitting trees to recover the extracted bark surface within five years, on average. The plant demographic survey demonstrated that G. lucida flowers and produces fruits throughout the entire year and that seeds germinate within a few weeks of falling. With a germination rate of approximately 82 percent, and a seedling survival rate of 39 percent, G. lucida has effective regeneration strategies.

Transition matrices were constructed to model the population dynamics of G. lucida. The properties of the matrices were expressed in terms of population growth rate and stable structure. The model was then used to identify the processes or the life stages that regulate or limit the population dynamics. The model was also used to assess the impact of the actual exploitation and to simulate the effects of successive debarking and different harvesting levels on the renewal of the harvestable trees.

It was ascertained that the actual exploitation of G. lucida bark does not jeopardize the existence of the population, as it hardly reduces the availability of harvestable trees. The judicious regulation of resource access and the application of improved exploitation methods could encourage sustainable management of the resource. Low-impact exploitation methods, with harvesters keeping to the levels of bark removal specified in the tests, should reduce tree mortality and allow the recovery of harvestable trees within a reasonable time span. As a consequence, the number of adults, fruit production and the regeneration of trees would increase and the genetic quality of the trees would be preserved. Traditional conservation practices and domestication of forest tree species are other management methods that could guarantee a sustainable and commercial exploitation of the resource.

The study indicates that the management of tree populations in their natural environment can be a successful way of achieving sustainable forest management. A participatory approach is required involving the forest gatherers in the evaluation and selection of the most appropriate harvesting practice. To achieve this, various extension programmes should focus on the NTFP-dependent population, in particular on those who rely on the trading of NTFPs for their main source of cash income. Integrating these recommendations into multipurpose use forest management schemes will have a positive effect on forest biodiversity conservation and improve the welfare of local people. (Nicole Marie Guedje. 2002. La gestion des populations d'arbres comme outil pour une exploitation durable des produits forestiers non ligneux: l'exemple de Garcinia lucida [Sud Cameroun]. Ph.D. thesis, Free University of Brussels [to be published in the Tropenbos-Cameroon Series].) (Source: Tropenbos International Newsletter, 27, July 2002.)


The Appalachian forests of southern West Virginia yield all manner of earthly delights: the blush of a rare orchid in the leaf litter, the earthy fragrance of a truffle. But nothing is more valuable and sought after today than wild American ginseng. Writer David Taylor takes us into the backwoods with native George Albright to look for "sang", as ginseng is known in these parts. Sang, or Panax quinquefolius, is the American version of Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), which the Chinese have used to treat a wide variety of ills for several thousand years. In Chinese medicine, Asian ginseng is considered "hot" (a mild stimulant), while its American cousin is "cool" (a calming tonic).

Over the past decade, the price of domesticated ginseng, which is easily cultivated, has plunged to about US$15 a pound [0.4536 kg] while the price of the wild variety - West Virginia is one of the nation's leading exporters - has soared, commanding up to US$500 per dried pound. (A gnarled approximation of the human body, achieved only by wild varieties, gives ginseng more therapeutic properties, according to traditional Chinese medicine.)

In 2001, Americans themselves spent about US$170 million on ginseng supplements and on ginseng products, ranging from teas and chewing gum to tinctures, snack chips and "smart" drinks, which are nutrient-enriched drinks marketed to counter stress. Its growth in popularity has come despite the lack of scientific proof that ginseng has medicinal powers.

Ginseng's effectiveness, or its lack thereof, is not likely to be definitively determined in the near future, partly because the traditional underwriters of large-scale clinical studies - pharmaceutical companies - have little incentive to test an ancient nostrum that is already widely sold and largely unpatentable. In the meantime, ginseng's most therapeutic effect may be in breathing economic life into poor, rural communities in the southern Appalachian mountains.

For more information, please contact:

David A. Taylor, 311 S. Lee Street, Alexandria, Virginia, USA.
Fax: +1 703 5486018;


Locust bean is a leguminous tree crop of the family Mimosaceae. It grows in an uncultivated state and is well distributed throughout the tropical regions, particularly the savannah areas. Some of the known varieties are Parkia bicolor, Parkia clappertonianna, Parkia fillicoida and Parkia biglobosa with Parkia clappertonianna being one of the species commonly found in Nigeria and referred to as African locust bean. The fruit of the locust bean tree is of high economic importance: its edible seed is used as a food condiment after fermentation; the yellow part of the fruit (pulp) is sweet to taste and is processed into a valuable carbohydrate food known as sikomu and dodowa among the Yoruba and Hausa people of Nigeria, respectively. The seeds of the plant are embedded in the pulp and covered by the pod. The seeds are processed into a food condiment commonly called iru by the Yorubas and daudawa by the Hausas in Nigeria. Iru is used as a food seasoning and as an ingredient in preparing household stews. The pods of Parkia biglobosa and Parkia clappertonianna and other savannah species are suitable for paper and pulp production when mixed with some imported pines. The fruits are used in the preparation of protein foods. Locust bean products are a source of income generation among women and children in the rural areas.

The pods are removed by a process known as decortication, and the yellow pulp is washed away after soaking in water thereby leaving the clean seeds for further processing. The clean seeds are cooked for about 24 hours and allowed to cool down to room temperature before washing again to remove the seed coats. The locust bean seeds from which seed coats have been removed are covered in an airtight container for three, seven or more days, which causes the seeds (beans) to ferment and take on the characteristic odour. The hard condiment (iru woro) is the product of a short period of fermentation while the soft condiment (iru pete) is fermented for longer periods. After fermentation, the product can be used directly as a soup ingredient. For effective storage and preservation, iru can be salted and dried or stored directly inside the household refrigerator after fermentation. The product is also packaged and sold for income.

Using the same procedure, the yellow part of the fruit (pulp) is processed to the local food item known as sikomu or dodowa. After the fruit pods are removed, the pulp is moistened and fermented. After fermentation, the product is filtered and the filtrate is cooked for about one hour to deactivate the enzymes and destroy the antinutritive agents. Sikomu can be taken with some other food items as a suitable meal or stored in a refrigerator for later use.

The locust bean tree is widely distributed in the tropical savannah regions of the world and grows in the wild or uncultivated state. Locust bean products are of high economic value and serve as an income-generating venture for rural households. The products, if well processed, have great export potential. (Contributed by: A.M. Olaniyan, Nigeria.)

For more information, please contact:

A.M. Olaniyan, Department of Agricultural Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Ilorin, P.M.B. 1515, Ilorin 240003, Kwara State, Nigeria.


Natural wealth from the Malaysian rain forest: Rafflesia cantleyi

Rafflesia cantleyi is one of several species of the genus Rafflesia. This parasitic plant is rare and extraordinary in that it grows out of a particular creeper on the forest floor. The Rafflesia flower sometimes measures one metre in diameter from petal to petal, hence justifying its entry into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest flower in the world. Indigenous forest communities and traditional midwives use it during childbirth. (Source: Malaysian Timber Bulletin, 8(2), 2002.)

Brazil: IBAMA creates a centre for the management of medicinal plants

Every market in Brazil has at least one stall selling medicinal plants. The collection of these plants in not always carried out in an ecologically sound manner. The popularity of certain products often leads to predatory exploitation, placing some species at risk of extinction.

IBAMA (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis) is creating a Medicinal Plants Centre to improve control over this trade and encourage the sustainable management of 221 native species considered to be "conservation priorities". IBAMA also intends to publish a book entitled Strategies for the conservation and management of the genetic resources of medicinal and aromatic plants, the first report on the status of such species.

The World Health Organization estimates that the world trade in medicinal plants is worth half a trillion US dollars annually. In 2000, sales in medicinal plants in Brazil grew by 15 percent in relation to 1999. By comparison, the synthetic medicine industry saw a growth of just 4 percent. The consumption of medicinal plants is set to double in the next few years.

The centre will launch an online database about medicinal plants in April 2003.

Some of the most endangered species are rosewood (used in the perfume industry), arnica, ipe roxo (used in the treatment of cancer) and unha-do-gato (used to treat hepatitis C).

Many medicinal plant species are exported. According to IBAMA figures, 2 842 tonnes were exported in 1998, 1 531 to the United States and 1 466 to Germany.

IBAMA has created the centre in response to concerns about biopiracy. (Source: Amazon News, 5 December 2002.)

Ghana: conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants

A three-year project (1999-2002) on the conservation and sustainable use of the medicinal plants in Ghana, funded by the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species, has recently been completed. The project involved collaboration between six organizations, three in Ghana and three based in the United Kingdom. Full details of the project and all project outputs have been posted on the Web [ plants/ghana]. This includes medicinal plant accession and specimen data from the University of Ghana Herbarium and Aburi Botanic Garden, distribution maps for each species, a manual on medicinal plants, a home gardens manual and an ethnobotanical survey.

A copy of the Web site is also available on CD-ROM, for users without access to the Internet.

For more information, please contact:

Harriet Gillett, Senior Programme Officer,
Species Programme,
UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre,
219 Huntingdon Road,
Cambridge CB3 0DL,
Fax: +44 1223 277136;

India: a new Centre for Medicinal Plants Conservation and Research (CMPR)

A new centre has come into existence under the Arya Vaidya Sala, Kottakkal for the conservation of medicinal plants. Work on field, in vitro and seed gene banks is already under way. The centre will concentrate on the rare, endangered and threatened medicinal plants of South India. Laboratories for medicinal plant taxonomy, pharmacognosy, phytochemistry, pharmacology and plant tissue culture propagation are being set up. The laboratory will be fully operational by mid-2003.

CMPR would like to establish linkages with organizations involved in medicinal plant conservation and research.

For more information, please contact:

Dr P.N. Ravindran, Coordinating Director,
Centre for Medicinal
Plants Research,
Satabdi Nagar,
Kottakkal, Malappuram 676 503, 

Global Information Network on Medicinal Plants (MEDPLANT)

MEDPLANT is a global network of networks dedicated to supporting and linking existing regional initiatives to build partnerships and improve collaboration on the sustainable use and conservation of medicinal plants.

MEDPLANT emerged out of a recognition that few mechanisms exist to allow organizations and agencies working on medicinal plant issues to share information on their activities, their successes and challenges. Although several regional initiatives exist, there is an expressed need for an international network that would allow existing regional networks to maintain their regional identity while sharing their experiences and learning from lessons of other agencies/ individuals around the world.

To address this need, MEDPLANT has created an information sharing and interactive Web site ( ).

For more information, please contact:

Rolie Srivastava, Project Coordinator, Networking on Medicinal Plants,
c/o International Development Research Centre, PO Box 8500, Ottawa K1G 3H9, Canada.

The role of the medicinal plants industry in fostering biodiversity conservation and rural development

The growing demand of consumers worldwide for herbal and natural products to meet both their health care needs and dietary supplements has opened up new opportunities for the medicinal plants-based industries. However, this market-propelled

demand has created tremendous pressure on the natural resources, which contribute more than 90 percent of the current demand for the raw materials of medicinal plants. The local communities mostly belonging to tribal communities and the rural poor do not benefit from the increased commercial activities as only a fraction of the total markets return reaches them.

A recent publication collates information describing concepts, approaches and practical experiences of the researchers, practitioners and commercialization experts in the field of medicinal plant use in the South Asian region. The research findings and case studies reported provide models and mechanisms not only on how to use the threatened medicinal plant resources wisely but also how to enhance local benefits in a sustainable manner.

For more information, please contact the editors:

Madhav Karki and Radhika Johari,
International Development Research Centre (IDRC),
208, Jor Bagh,
New Delhi 110 003,
Fax: +91 11 4622707;


Mushrooms represent a small part of the kingdom known as Fungi

Fungi are some of biology's most ancient and some of the earth's largest organisms. They provide us with some of our most potent medicines as well as being highly sought after as prized gourmet delectables (such as morels, truffles and boletes).

Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a larger underground organism. The mushroom itself is similar in function to an apple on a tree. The mushroom emerges from the soil like an apple from the branch of an underground tree and just as the apple is filled with seeds to assure prosperity, the mushroom bears spores, the fungal equivalent of seeds. Billions of spores are produced, floating literally everywhere on the air currents surrounding us. Evidence of this can be seen by the large variety of fungi that appear seemingly out of nowhere on cheeses or bread.

Thinking back to the analogy of fungus to a fruit on a tree, the mushroom is just the tip of the iceberg: meaning that the tree itself is more grand and complex than the apple it produces. In the case of fungus, the "tree" is known as mycelium. The mycelium is present all year round underground and is only revealed by the occasional seasonal appearance of mushrooms. These underground organisms can be huge, covering square miles and growing up to an inch daily. If you could see this mycelium it would look somewhat like a dense underground spider's web covering the entire forest floor.

The large mycelial "spider's webs" survive in essentially two ways: by decomposing dead organic matter such as logs, stumps and litter; or by forming a symbiotic relationship with living plants and trees.

As the spider's web-like mycelium spreads out across the forest floor, it actually surrounds the roots of trees and often penetrates the roots of plants, connecting them not only with each other but also with the entire forest floor. These organisms can cover square miles of forest floor and there can be up to one mile of microscopic mycelia strands in one centimetre of soil. When rain comes to the forest it soaks into the soil and passes through this fungal sieve. The mycelial web acts as a filter absorbing nutrients and moisture, which can be utilized by plants and trees. The mycelium then becomes a kind of underground superhighway carrying nutrients and moisture to plants and trees from areas beyond the reach of their roots. The mycelial web can expand the absorption area of roots significantly. In turn the mushrooms are gaining sugars and nutrients produced by plants and trees during photosynthesis. (Source: US Forest Service .)

The story of Buddha Mushroom - Tricholoma matsutake

A student at the University of Reading (UK) is carrying out a research project centred on "Forestlands, Forest Policy and NTFPs in Forest Rich Bhutan Himalayas".

The village of Geynekha in the Thimphu district, located at an altitude above 2 600 m, is one of many characteristic secluded village communities in the Bhutan Himalayas. The main occupation of the people is subsistence farming on their small landholdings. Both young and old natural forests cover more than 80 percent of the village. This surrounding forestland of pine, spruce, hemlock and fir trees is rich in mushrooms. The villagers collect more than ten different species of wild mushrooms for sale in the weekly vegetable market in Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital - a distance of half a day's travel on foot to the main motorway.

One day in 1988, Aum Kuchum, an old and poor woman from Geynekha with a large family, while selling her collection of wild mushrooms in the Sunday vegetable market in Thimphu, was surprised when a group of Japanese tourists took particular interest in one of her mushroom species. This led to the Japanese tourists, through a Bhutanese business firm, arranging the first dispatch of the famous matsutake mushroom from Bhutan to Japan.

The Japanese enjoy the strong aroma and flavour of the matsutake mushroom and have a long history of eating it as a great delicacy on special occasions. In 1998, about 3 495 tonnes of matsutake were consumed in Japan, of which 247 tonnes were from domestic production. The balance of 3 248 tonnes was imported from China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea, Canada, Morocco and Mexico. The import value was estimated at 16.7 billion yen (US$156 million).

The Bhutanese firm, which took up the idea of the Japanese tourists and started exporting matsutake, continued its monopoly of the matsutake trade for some five years. However, by 1997, there were nine Bhutanese export firms involved in the matsutake trade. The forest gate price for the grade A matsutake rose steeply from Nu 50 (more than US$1) in 1991 to Nu 800 (more than US$16) in 1998. In 1997, Bhutan exported more than 15 tonnes of matsutake to Japan and other Southeast Asian countries. But not all of this amount came from Geynekha; as the news of the high cash value of the matsutake spread, it was discovered in more forest areas.

The wholesale price of matsutake in Japan is a trade secret with the Bhutanese export firms. However, general knowledge is that it ranges from US$ 30 to $70 per kilogram.

For the first time in their community history the village people saw a huge amount of cash flowing, and their income level rising. Today, thanks to the matsutake industry, Aum Kuchum and her family live a self-sufficient life. Currently, seven out of her 15 family members are engaged in the full-time collection of matsutake during the season. In 1998, the family's income from matsutake collection was reported to be Nu 50 000 (US$1 000).

The villagers think that the matsutake mushroom in their forest is a godsend. Since they did not have a common local name, they christened it the Buddha Mushroom, after the Enlightened Beings in the Buddhist faith.

As the matsutake has now become a highly prized item, the village community does not allow outsiders to stray into their forest lands. This is interesting because the surrounding land from which the matsutake is collected is a government-reserved forest permitting access and a right to collect NWFPs by every Bhutanese citizen. To date, there has been no legal challenge to the actions of the Geynekha village community.

For the long-term sustainability of the matsutake resource, the Department of Forests and the Ministry of Agriculture's National Mushroom Centre have framed rules on the starting and closing dates of collection, and a minimum size for collection. In addition, the National Mushroom Centre has provided training for the farmers on mushroom harvesting methods and mushroom ecology. (A detailed report is available on the Web .)

For more information, please contact:

Mr Phuntsho Namgyel, Sibly Hall,
University of Reading,
Redhatch Drive,
Lower Early RG6 5QW,

PAU-ROSA (Aniba rosaeodora)

Common names: pau-rosa, pau-rosa itauba (Brazil); enclit rosenhout (Suriname); cara-cara (Guyana); bois de rose, bois de rose femelle (French Guiana); rosewood (English).

Basil perfume could save pau-rosa wood

Nilson Borlina Maia is a man with a mission to transform a herb used to season pizzas into perfume, thereby saving some of the most threatened vegetable species in Amazonia. Not bad, for the researcher whose work has been selected to be presented at an international congress in Canada. Maia has proved that basil, principally used in Italian cuisine, can be exploited commercially to produce linalol, an essential oil used in the composition of famous perfumes. Pau-rosa (Aniba rosaeodora), a threatened species, is currently the only source of linalol for the perfume industry.

Among coriander, orange, bay, cinnamon, camomile and lavender, basil does not have the highest quantity of linalol - only 30 percent of its oil is formed by the substance, compared with 86 percent of pau-rosa oil, but it is the easiest to cultivate.

Maia is now studying the best conditions of cultivation to increase the levels of linalol and make the oil better suited to the needs of the perfume industry. The technology needed to produce a very pure oil, CO2 supercritical extraction, is not currently available in Brazil and researchers are negotiating a partnership with an American company. The research began in 1999 and has cost just $R 4 500, financed by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development. Maia's work was one of four projects chosen from around the world to be presented at the 26th Congress of the Canadian Scientific Horticultural Society in August 2002.

It is still early to cite figures, but linalol production could reduce the cost of the product, which is used to give fragrance and fix perfumes. To attract the perfume industry, Maia is relying on the product's ecologically correct characteristics. After decades of exploitation, pau-rosa has become extremely rare. The oil is processed and sold abroad, driving a millionaire market. It is a classical example of the theft of Brazil's genetic heritage, as the country does not receive anything from the exploitation of the species. (Source: Amazon News, 23 May 2002.)

Rosewood, a sweet aroma that could fade away

The tree from which the famous oil used in the manufacture of perfumes is extracted is in danger of extinction. The Amazonian caboclos have to go ever deeper into the forest to find the rosewood tree, from which one of perfume's principal ingredients is extracted. The rosewood oil extractors spend three months at a time in the forest. The trunks are cut by hand and, weighing 100 kg, are then carried on the extractivists' backs. They earn very little for their labour.

The extraction of the oil from the tree's leaves could save the species. A research project by the University of Campinas, Brazil could allow production to continue without destroying the trees.

The disappearance of the species is not only causing concern among environmentalists. The cosmetics and perfume industries are also worried. Without the tree, which only exists in Amazonia, classic perfumes would have to modify their original formulae. Rosewood oil has a unique perfume and is rich in linalol, a substance that fixes the aroma on the body. Synthetic linalol has long been rejected by high-quality perfumiers. Research has been conducted on other plants such as sacaca and even basil.

The University of Campinas is proposing the extraction of linalol from the leaves of the rosewood tree. Researchers have already presented the alternative product to perfumiers, who all approved the substitute. The advantage of the process is that the trees do not need to be felled to obtain the product. The "ecologically correct" product should drive up the price of the oil. The research team is carrying out field tests on the plantation and extraction of rosewood. The research should help remove the species from the endangered species list. (Source: Amazon News, 18 July 2002.)


La Quassia amara, conocida en Costa Rica con el nombre común de "Hombre grande", es de amplio uso por sus propiedades medicinales, principalmente como tónico en afecciones hepáticas, debido al estímulo que ejerce sobre los órganos digestivos aumentando las secreciones salivales y biliares.

Durante ocho años, el Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) de Turrialba, Costa Rica, realizó investigaciones en la Reserva indígena de Kekoldi, Talamanca, Limón, sobre este arbolito de amplia distribución en la América tropical, para valorar la importancia económica de la biodiversidad vegetal útil presente en los bosques, con el propósito de buscar alternativas de desarrollo en el ámbito rural y mejorar la situación de las familias rurales y la de la economía de los países tropicales.

El CATIE, como resultado de este esfuerzo interdisciplinario e interinstitucional, en el que participaron el Laboratorio de Ensayos Biológicos (LEBI), el Centro de Investigación de Productos Naturales (CIPRONA), ambos de la Universidad de Costa Rica, y el Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica, entre otros, publicó en 1995 el documento Potencial de Quassia amara como insecticida natural.

En el año 2001, la empresa nacional Bougainvillea S.A., una empresa nacional con 16 años de experiencia en la utilización de la Quassia amara, se incorpora a la iniciativa de la Oficina de Biodiversidad para el Apoyo al Desarrollo Empresarial (OBADE), dentro del Programa de apoyo al desarrollo del uso de la biodiversidad por pequeñas empresas (BID-FOMIN/INBIO), y se da inicio al Proyecto de investigación aplicada para producir un insecticida botánico a partir de la madera de la Quassia amara.

Actualmente se implementa el Proyecto en la región del Caribe de Costa Rica, y se construye la infraestructura de la planta piloto para la extracción y elaboración del producto natural, y para su evaluación y posterior uso en la agricultura nacional.

Históricamente, ya en 1917 se hace referencia al uso de la Quassia amara como insecticida contra los áfidos (Homópteros), conocidos como pulgones.

Se debe a las investigaciones realizadas en el CATIE, por el personal del área de fitoprotección, que la investigación de validación del producto se dirige al control de la mosca blanca (Bemisia tabaci), que constituye un problema en diversos cultivos agrícolas en América. Constituye la meta del Proyecto que, luego de la etapa de validación del insecticida botánico y del estudio de mercado, y de acuerdo a los resultados satisfactorios obtenidos, lanzar la etapa de producción y contribuir de esta manera al desarrollo agrícola sostenible.

Actualmente, las poblaciones de Quassia amara se encuentran distribuidas de manera natural en las regiones húmedas y bajas de Costa Rica, y un aprovechamiento irracional podría conducir en un futuro cercano a la extinción de la especie en su ambiente natural. Por esta razón, Bougainvillea S.A., con recursos propios, está llevando a cabo en forma paralela acciones de domesticación de la especie y con la participación de agricultores interesados de la región ha establecido siembras en condiciones agroecológicas en Matina, Limón. La meta es contar con una población de 100 000 arbolitos para el año 2005, para abastecer la demanda nacional e internacional.

En la actualidad existen ya 16 000 arbolitos plantados y se cuenta con un dispositivo de investigación aplicada, constituido por el conocimiento ("know how") sobre el manejo de un recurso natural subutilizado, que constituye la clave del éxito para el futuro de la empresa. Sin embargo, es importante señalar que la implementación de la empresa no ha sido fácil, por diversos factores, entre ellos técnicos y de infraestructura, que surgen precisamente cuando se busca establecer un modelo de desarrollo a nivel rural.

La gestión de la biodiversidad, tal como se promueve actualmente en nuestros países, necesita con urgencia de un enfoque diferente por parte de los investigadores de las universidades, si se proponen contribuir al desarrollo, así como por parte de las empresas cuya respuesta a las necesidades técnicas debe corresponder a las particularidades especificas necesarias para obtener el desarrollo industrial de un producto de la biodiversidad, y que no es sólo la clásica respuesta de la investigación de punta, que es de suma importancia, pero no suficiente.

En el aspecto de la infraestructura, a parte la infraestructura en comunicación ya existente en ámbito rural pero que no contribuye específicamente al desarrollo industrial, resulta necesario contar a nivel rural con el suministro de energía eléctrica que posibilite la instalación de equipos de alta eficiencia tecnológica y que contribuyen a disminuir la contaminación.

Finalmente, el cambio de actitud de los profesionales al sentirse en adecuadas condiciones en el medio rural, va a contribuir al desarrollo rural de los países tropicales y a disminuir la contaminación del medio ambiente urbano.

Para más información, dirigirse a:

Ing. Rafael A. Ocampo S., Bougainvillea S.A., Apartado Postal 764-3100, Santo Domingo, Heredia, Costa Rica.
Correo electrónico:


Because of the overall interest in plant-based products, there is a growing need to help traders authenticate and check the quality of plants. To date, there is little formal regulation on the quality of plants being traded and this could result in more people suffering adverse responses if poor-quality material or incorrect plants are supplied. There are also many conservation issues in the increased demand for plants. Although many plants being supplied to the trade are from renewable sources, some, such as sandalwood, are not always being sustainably harvested.

Dr Melanie Howes has been studying the quality and source of sandalwood extracts currently being traded in the United Kingdom. Few companies could confirm the source of their sandalwood, and many extracts did not meet the international standard for sandalwood oil of a minimum free alcohol (santalol) content of 90 percent. The results were presented by Professor Monique Simmonds at a conference in February 2002 on the Industrial Leadership for the Preservation of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, held in Philadelphia, United States. The aim of this project is to enable companies to locate good-quality sandalwood from renewable sources. (Source: Kew Scientist, Issue 21, April 2002.)

For more information, please contact:

Prof. Monique Simmonds,
Head of Biological Interactions,
Joderell Laboratory,
Kew Gardens, Kew,
Richmond TW9 3AE,


Seabuckthorn (Hippophae spp.) is a thorny temperate bush which grows in temperate climates and is indigenous to the regions of Lahaul and Spiti, Kinnaur and some parts of Chamba in Himachal Pradesh, Kumaon and Gharwal Hills of Uttaranchal, the Ladakh area of Jammu and Kashmir and some parts of Sikkim.

It grows widely and abundantly in the temperate climates of Europe and Asia. In Asia, it is commercially grown in China, the Russian Federation, Nepal and Pakistan. It is regarded as a "magic plant" because of its high nutritional value, medicinal properties and its ability to replenish and conserve the soil in the fragile ecosystem of the temperate Himalayas.

It is indigenous to the temperate Himalayan region, but it is paradoxical that few people know of its existence and tremendous medicinal value. It is time for research institutions, government agencies and the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries to understand the global trends and benefits of evolving advanced technologies for utilizing seabuckthorn and bring about a new revolution in the Asian economy.

Seabuckthorn is a thorny bush which grows in temperate climates. It grows selectively in the snow-covered mountains of the Himalayas and can withstand temperatures as low as minus 40°C. It can even flourish in rocky, sandy or marshy soils. Its well-developed root systems extend 3 m vertically and 10 m horizontally, producing 30 to 40 sister plants of several generations, which hold soil particles and stones even on steep slopes. Its extensive root system protects the soil against erosion by high-velocity winds, which are a common feature of cold deserts. Thus, the plant is considered to be an effective soil binder in the erosion-prone soils of cold and barren mountains.

Seabuckthorn has many reputed nutritional and medical properties. Its fruit and other plant parts are used in making herbal remedies against malnutrition, skin diseases, lung problems, ulcers, gastro-intestinal problems and colds. It is reported that it can also be used against cancer to counteract the effects of free radicals. It has been prescribed for patients with coronary disorders since it is believed to reduce cholesterol levels drastically.

It is rich in Vitamins A, B and K and is the richest source of Vitamin C. It is also a potential source of proteins, organic acids, carotenoids and flavonoids, etc. The fruit is the main repository of these compounds but the whole plant is a rich source of nutrients. It is also extremely rich in minerals such as iron, cobalt and molybdenum. Thus, seabuckthorn has great medicinal properties and is currently used in about 200 industrial products such as medicines, cosmetics and health food products. (Source: Extracted from an article by A.K. Choudhary and R.C. Jaggi in Tiger Paper, 29(1), January-March 2002.)


Project to produce vegetable ivory in Amazonia

Palm seed, with properties similar to ivory, could be an alternative source of income in Acre, Brazil. A joint project funded by the non-governmental organizations Centre for the Workers of Amazonia (CTA) and BrasilConnects hopes to organize production and create a market in Brazil for vegetable ivory, as the seed of the jarina palm is known. The palm is found in the states of Acre, Rondonia and part of Amazonas. Practically unknown in Brazil, the species is also found in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, where the exportation of the product, principally to the United States, is worth around US$50 million per year.

The partnership will undertake a survey of resources and studies of the management, collection, processing and commercialization of the jarina (phytelephas ssp.) seeds in two agro-extractivist settlements in Acre, São Luís do Remando and Porto Dias. Rocio Chacchi Ruiz, coordinator of the non-timber part of the Forest Management Programme at CTA, said that these communities have already worked with timber and non-timber extractivism, but the collection of jarina is still sporadic and disorganized.

Vegetable ivory is the product of the polishing of the jarina seeds. With physical characteristics similar to animal ivory (durability, colour, shine), it is used in the production of jewellery, craft goods and other objects, such the embellishment of guitars. The Brazilian species, with a diameter of around 3 cm, is smaller than that found in Ecuador, with a diameter of approximately 6 cm, but can be used in the same way.

The aim of CTA is not only to organize local families to collect the product but also to help them attain the highest possible level of processing and train them to manage the business. As well as financial support of $R 200 000, in two years' time BrasilConnects - the São Paulo-based organization which aims to provide an incentive for Brazilian culture and ecology - will act in a managerial role, publicizing the product and identifying potential markets. BrasilConnects is already talking with a jewellery designer in São Paulo to foster the use of jarina and other Amazonian raw materials. Jarina could become an important alternative source of income in the state of Acre. (Source: Amazon News, 1 August 2002.)


Vegetable leather constructs forest citizenship in Acre

In 1988, ecologists began to look at what was happening in Amazonia with a certain reverence, particularly the struggle of forest people. In Rio de Janeiro, environmentalists participated in a march to Pão de Açúcar mountain and mounted a banner stating simply "Save Amazonia". The aim of the demonstration was to call attention to the struggle faced by rubber tappers in Acre to defend the forest. One month later, the leader of the rubber tappers, Chico Mendes, was murdered.

It was this incident that inspired Rio-based businesswoman, Bia Saldanha, one of the inventors of vegetable leather, to seek alternative ways to participate in the movement to defend the forest. She and her partner, João Augusto Fortes, decided to open up the market to forest products. As business people, they thought that the best contribution they could make would be to open up a new horizon for the rubber tappers of Amazonia, through the development of economic alternatives. They established a shop called Ecomercado in Rio de Janeiro and began to research products, resulting in the discovery of "vegetable leather", a traditional product of rubber production. Saldanha and Fortes invested time and money in the development of the product. The result was a new fabric called "Tree Tap" which may be used in the production of accessories such as bags, rucksacks, caps and other clothing articles.

Today, 200 families produce the vegetable leather in the Alto Jurua Extractive Reserve and the Kaxinawa Indigenous Territory. Saldanha attributes the project's success to the social movement of forest citizenship which is the legacy of Chico Mendes and the support of the state government. She added that the construction of "forest citizenship" is the essence of the project. One of the most important results of the project is the improvement in the rubber tappers' quality of life through the creation of an alternative source of income. "The way in which we have developed the vegetable leather is in harmony with and valorizes the rubber tappers' culture and environment."

The company hopes to establish a factory in the Xapuri region of Acre. The rubber tappers have gained a source of income, but Saldanha and Fortes know that vegetable leather can bring them other riches. There are certification projects involving vegetable leather, which could bring parallel benefits, and also issues of food security and even social questions.

The award-winning project now exports to Italy, France and the United States, with support from the World Wide Fund for Nature. "It is not only vegetable leather which is successful. It is the whole concept of socially and environmentally responsible products, in which we are pioneers, which is expanding," Saldanha said. (Source: Amazon News, 26 September 2002 )

Amazonia produces ecological sandals

The D'arvore sandal, made from vegetable leather and other natural rubber derivatives, is the result of the project to develop products using raw materials taken from the Amazonian rain forest. The project is sponsored by Ecoamazon and the Association of Small-scale Rural Producers and Extractivists of Epitaciolância and Brasiléia. The aim is to contribute towards the improvement of the social and economic conditions of the population of Amazonia.

According to the project's coordinator, João Tezza, experiments were carried out using various types of material. The products selected are extracted from the rubber tree and are used to manufacture both the soles and the straps of the sandals. "If necessary, we can reinforce the straps with animal leather or canvas," Tezza explained. "It was because of the origin of the products that we selected the name of the mark: D'arvore (From the tree)," he added.

Twenty-eight associations of rural producers in Acre's Extractivist Reserves are responsible for the production of the rubber products, along with the Kaxinawa Indians. An institution in Rio Grande do Sul has been contracted to manufacture the sandals.

Tezza said that in buying a D'arvore sandal, consumers are participating in a broader project: that of environmental preservation. In June 2002, the project received the World Bank's "Innovative Social Initiative" prize, worth US$10 000. The aim of the project, launched in 2001, is to make sustainable development viable.

The project is coordinated by Ecoamazon and financed by the non-governmental organization, WWF-Brazil. (Source: Amazon News, 25 July 2002.)

Amazonlife wins New Ventures Prize

Amazonlife, the Brazilian company which manufactures bags and accessories in vegetable leather, was one of the three winners of the international New Ventures Prize. The socially and environmentally correct company will receive investments of US$500 000 for marketing its product, the development of new products and increasing its product distribution. Business consultants Booz Allen Hamilton will offer their expertise to the company and a number of potential investors have expressed an interest.

Amazonlife has become internationally known thanks to its partnership with a French fashion house, which created a line of products using vegetable leather. The company is now researching other Amazonian products, such as seeds, dyes and fabrics woven by Indians, and now needs new investments in order to expand.

The prize is a showcase for sustainable business which rewards companies with the potential to create "profitable solutions to environmental and development challenges". The aim is to guide the winners, through investment and training, from peripheral markets to the world's key markets. (Source: Amazon News, 21 November 2002.)

"All my life I've eaten fruit from trees I did not plant."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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