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Beyond the Biodiversity Convention:

the challenges facing the biocultural heritage of India's medicinal plants

Darshan Shankar and B. Majumdar

Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT)
No. 50 MSH Layout, Anandnagar
Bangalore-24, INDIA
Phone : 333 6909, 333 0348 Fax : +91-80-333 4167
E-mail :

FRLHT is engaged in one of the most comprehensive efforts being implemented in India to 'conserve' medicinal plants in their natural habitats. Its work is supported through a bilateral aid agreement between the Government of India and DANIDA. FRLHT is concerned not only with the question of conserving the medicinal plant diversity but also its associated cultural diversity. India has one of the richest and oldest, unbroken bio-cultural heritage related to medicinal plants.


It cannot be denied that the initiative for the biodiversity convention was a northern initiative, one inspired by two compelling needs: First, a sense of insecurity due to the precarious nature of the planet's ecology (caused, in the first place, almost entirely by the western model of unsustainable development); and second, a desire to have access to the South's abundant biogenetic resources.

The South has reacted to the North's agenda by asking for financial compensations to conserve its tropical forests and has demanded transfer of the North's biotechnology on favourable terms. The North has accepted some of the South's demands after hard bargaining and negotiations are still going on.

Amidst these negotiations on biodiversity conservation and its high-tech utilisation, we in the South seem to have paid insufficient attention to the fact that millions of our people have traditionally been using biodiversity for a wide variety of purposes. Many of these traditional uses have relevance both to our present way of life and to our future well being. As they have a time-tested competence, they are likely to represent the most ecologically sound, safe and sustainable ways of using our bioresources.

India's (and other southern countries') own agenda in biodiversity conservation should not be merely to see on what financial terms access to our biogenetic raw materials should be granted but more importantly to engage creatively in the revitalisation of traditional sciences and technologies, and to use their fruits for the benefit of our own people and to share them on fair terms with the rest of the world.

India's legacy of medicinal plants

The ethos of conserving biodiversity is deeply ingrained in ancient Indian culture. Traditionally, patches of pristine forests were set aside as sacred groves; planting of shade and fruit bearing trees had religious sanction, as also prescriptions to regulate hunting, e.g. ban on killing a pregnant female animal and designating certain parts of the year as closed season. This serious concern for ecology continued to thrive side by side with developments related to economic progress, international trade, and science and technology. In fact the Indian health system which goes back to 1500 BC, and is mainly based on plants and animals, symbolises how deep-rooted was this concern for biodiversity conservation and its sustainable use.

The Indian people know a great deal about medicinal plants. Studies reveal that the largest proportion of the biodiversity in all our ecosystems is used by village communities for human and veterinary health care (See Table 1).

Table 1. An example of uses of biodiversity by "ecosystem people": Some of the medicinal and other plants used by the Mahadev Koli Tribals.*

Number of species
Medicinal uses
Veterinary uses
As fish poisons
For pest control
For water purification
As wild edible plants
As fodder plants
For fuel
Hunting purposes
Cultural and religious purposes
*Source: D. K. Kulkarni Agharkar Institute, Poona.

Over 7,500 species of plants are estimated (AICEP, 1994) to be used by "the ecosystem people" (See Fig. 1) who belong to some 4635 ethnic communities (Anthropological Survey of India, 1994). India probably has the oldest, richest and most diverse, cultural traditions in the use of medicinal plants.

Medicinal plants continue to provide health security to rural people in primary health care (Table 2 ). According to WHO estimates (Farnsworth and Soejarto, 1991), over 80% of people in developing countries depend on traditional medicines for their primary health needs. In India the coverage of rural population by the modern health system varies between different regions from three to thirty percent (Darshan Shankar, 1992). Thus, for some 4-5 hundred million people, traditional medicine is the only alternative. This is also borne out by the fact that there still exist over one million traditional, village-based carriers of the herbal medicine traditions in the country (LSPSS, 1993).


Figure 1: Resource base of traditional medicine

Table 2. Richness of folk medicine: Examples of ethno-medicinal plants with ten or more
uses reported across ethnic communities in South India.*

Plant species
Reported number of uses
Centella asiatica
Pergularia daemia
Aristolochia indica
Ichnocarpus frutescens
Alstonia scholaris
Holarrhena antidysenterica
Trachyspermum ammi
Hygrophila auriculiculata
Trianthema portulacastrum
Semecarpus anacardium
Hemidesmus indicus
Catharanthus roseus
Apama siliquosa
Anacardium occidentale
Costus speciosus
Justicia gendarussa
Pergularia extensa

*Source: FRLHT Research Department.

Table 3. List of species banned from export by the Ministry of Commerce (vide notification no. 47 (PN)/92-97 dated 30 March 1994.
Aconitum sp. Gnetum sp.
Acorus sp. Gynocardia odorata (Chaulmogri)
Angiopteris sp. Hydnocarpus sp.
Aristolochia sp. Hyoscyamus niger (Black henbane)
Artemisia sp. Iphigenia indica
Arundinaria jaunsarensis Meconopsis betonicifolia
Atropa sp. Nardostachys sp. (Jatamansi)
Balanophora sp. Nepenthes khasiana (Pitcher plant)
Berberis aristata (Indian barberry; Rasvat) Osmunda sp.
Colchicum luteum (Hirantutya) Paphiopedilium sp. (Ladies' slipper orchid)
Commiphora wightii Physochlaina praealta (Bajarbang)
Coptis sp. Podophyllum hexandrum
Coscinium fenestratum (Calumba wood) Pratia serpumlia
Costus speciosus (Keu, Kust) Rauvolfia sp. (Serpgandha)
Cyathea gigantea Renanthera imschootiana (Red vanda)
Cycas beddomei (Beddomes cycad) Rheum emodi (Dolu)
Didymocarpus pedicellata Rhododendron sp.
Dioscorea deltoidea Saussurea lappa (Kuth)
Dolomiaea pedicellata Strychnos potatorum (Nirmali)
Drosera sp. Swertia chirata (Charayatah)
Ephedra sp. Taxus baccata (Yewu, Birm)
Gentiana kurroo (Kuru, Kutki) Urginea sp.
Gloriosa superba Vanda caerulea (Blue vanda)

Table 4. A first red data list of South Indian medicinal plants (based on CAMP report; IUCN version 2.2).
Species Status*  
Acorus calamus VU/N &CR/R Lamprachaenium microcephalum EN
Adenia hondala VU Madhuca diplostemon E
Adhatoda beddomei CR Madhuca insignis EX
Aegle marmelos VU Michelia champaca VU
Aerva wightii EX Moringa concanensis VU
Amorphophallus paeonifolius VU Myristica malabarica E
Ampelocissus araneosa VU Nervilia aragoana EN
Ampelocissus indica EN Nilgirianthus ciliatus EN
Andrographis paniculata LR Nothapodytes nimmoniana VU
Aristolochia bracteata LR Ochreinauclea missionis VU
Aristolochia tagala VU Operculina turpethum LR
Artemisia nilagirica LR Oroxylum indicum VU
Asparagus rattleri EX Paphiopedilum druryi CR
Balanites aegyptiaca LR Phoenix pusilla LR
Buchanania lanzan LR Piper barberi CR
Cayratia pedata CR Piper longum LR
Cleome burmanni DD Piper mullesua VU
Commiphora mukul VU/R Piper nigrum VU 
Coscinium fenestratum CR Plectranthus vetiveroides EW
Cycas circinalis VU& CR/R Pterocarpus santalinus E
Cyclea fissicalyx E Pseudarthria viscida LR
Drosera indica LR Puereria tuberosa LR
Drosera peltata VU Rauvolfia serpentina E
Elaeagnus conferta LR Saraca asoca VU E/R
Embelia ribes LR Schrebera swietenioides VU
Garcinia indica VU Symplocos cochinchinensis laurina VU
Garcinia morella VU Symplocos racemosa LR
Gardenia gummifera LR Syzygium travancoricum CR
Glycosmis macrocarpa LR Tinospora sinensis VU
Gloriosa superba LR Tragia bicolor VU
Hedychium coronarium LR Trichopus zeylanicus CR
Heliotropium keralense EN Utleria salicifolia CR
Holostemma annulare VU Vateria indica LR
Hydnocarpus macrocarpa VU Vateria macrocarpa CR
Janakia arayalpathra CR Vernonia anthelmintica  LR
Kaempferia galanga CR/R Woodfordia fruticosa LR
Kingiodendron pinnatum E

*CR = Critically endangered; E = Endangered; EX = Extinct; VU = Vulnerable; LR = Low-risk; DD = Data-deficient; EW = Extinct in wild; R = Regional

Source: FRLHT Research Department

Today these biodiversity-dependent rural communities are facing a serious resource threat because of the rapid loss of natural habitats, and the over-exploitation of medicinal plants from the wild (Figs. 2, 3 and 4, and Tables 3 and 4). To meet the demands of the Indian herbal industry which has annual turnover of about US$ 300 million (ADMA, 1996), tons of medicinal plants are being harvested every year from some 165,000 ha of forests (estimates based on extrapolation of regional trade figures by FRLHT Research Department).

Figure 2: Destructive collections: distribution of medicinal plants by parts used
(72% destructive and 28% non-destructive)

Figure 3: Distribution of Ayurvedic medicinal plants among the ten most represented families

Figure 4: Diversity of medicinal plants of South India: habitat-wise analysis of 1079 species

The biodiversity loss is not only a threat to ecology of the planet but a more immediate threat to the livelihood security of rural communities.

Nature of traditional medicine in India

The biodiversity of medicinal plants is associated with a very rich cultural diversity related to India's traditional systems of medicine. Traditional Medicine as practised in India consists of two streams, viz. folk medicine and the codified systems of medicine.

Folk medicine

This is a diverse stream which is ecosystem and ethnic community specific. It is an oral tradition purely empirical in nature that exists in all rural communities throughout the length and breadth of India (Table 5).

Table 5. Types of carriers of village-based health traditions.*
Traditional carrier Conditions treated Numbers
Housewives and elders Home remedies, food and nutrition-related millions
Traditional birth attendants Normal deliveries 700,000
Herbal healers Common ailments 300,000
Bone setters Orthopaedics 60,000
Visha vaidhyas (snake, scorpion , dog bite specialists) Natural poisons 60,000
Other specialists Eyes, skin, respiratory, dental, arthritis, mental diseases, gastro-intestinal, wounds, fistula, piles 1,000 in each area

* Figures bases on extrapolations from micro-studies by FRLHT Research Department.

One comes across many examples of the great depth and range of the folk tradition in unpublished reports on medical practices in different regions. For instance, in 1793, two medical officers of the East India Company - James Finlay and Thomas Cruso - reported on the practice of rhinoplasty by a potter's community in Pune district in the Madras Gazette (and later in 1794 in the London Gentleman's Magazine). It was this technical report that led to further developments in Britain of plastic surgery of the nose. To cite a current example, it is well known in south Karnataka that certain paralytic conditions can effectively be treated using 'Ankola' oil (In a place called Ankola in southern Karnataka, this treatment is administered by a tribal practitioner). Ankola is the name of a village; this particular herbal oil is part of its folk medical legacy. There is also the case, in Tamil Nadu state, of the so-called 'Coimbatore orthopaedic treatment' for straightening out a club foot by the combined use of a special herbal oil which softens the bony tissues and traditional forms of traction (Telungu Palayam Original Hospital in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, is a traditional orthopaedic centre where club foot and other outstanding orthopaedic procedures are practised). Yet another example is the use of the bitter aqueous extract of Alstonia scholaris bark by many rural communities at the start of monsoons, as a protection against malarial fevers.
Codified traditional medicine

Systems like Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and the Tibetan system are expressions of this stream. The 'codified' stream consists of medical knowledge with sophisticated theoretical foundations expressed in thousands of regional manuscripts covering treatises on all branches of medicine and surgery. However, of an estimated 100,000 medical manuscripts lying in oriental libraries and private collections in India and abroad, less than one percent are available and in current use by students and teachers in Indian medical schools. The earliest Ayurvedic texts, the Susruta Samhita and Caraka Samhita, are believed to have been written between 1500 and 1000 BC. The main branches of Ayurveda are Kayacikitsa (General Medicine), Balacikitsa (paediatrics), Grahacikitsa (Psychiatry), Salakya Tantra (Ophthalmology and ENT), Salya Cikitsa (Surgery), Visa Cikista (Toxicology), Rasayana (Rejuvenation) and Vajikarana (reproductive health). Besides these, there are specialised treatises on a range of subjects including Pharmacy (Bhesaja Kalpana), Pharmacopoeia (Nighantu), Diagnostics (Nidana), Special diagnostic techniques like Pulse diagnosis (Nadi Cikista), Iatrochemistry (Rasasastra), Dietetics (Pathyapathya), Pharmacology (Dravyaguna) and Positive health and preventive medicine (Svastha Vrtta).

Today there are over 400,000 licensed registered practitioners of the codified stream practising in the towns and cities of India (Ministry of Health, 1991). They offer a wide range of treatments as shown in the examples listed in Table 6.

Unfortunately, despite the large presence of a "living bio-health culture" in villages throughout India, it receives marginalised policy and financial support from national and international agencies, either for conserving its bioresources or for maintaining its indigenous knowledge base. This is evidently due to the western ethnocentric bias in health policies around the globe (Bodeker, 1994).

Challenge facing the cultural heritage

Whereas the reasons for loss of plant diversity are well known, the reasons for loss of cultural diversity are much less understood. These are briefly outlined here as a detailed treatment of the issue is outside the scope of this article.

In the domain of knowledge, non-western medical systems like Ayurveda have so far failed to stake their claims to originality. Their epistemological foundations lie unexplored outside of their cultural worlds. The universal attributes of the indigenous knowledge systems remain unrecognised due to the marginalised political status of the southern societies and more mundanely due to the limitations of language and ethnicity.

A major problem that non-western societies have to contend with in any serious evaluation of their own indigenous knowledge systems, is the common claim of all western scientists and philosophers that, after all, science is one, universal and uniquely expressed in the western scientific paradigms. Thus, while it may be possible to conceive of alternative methodologies, theories and practices in other domains such as music, linguistics, logic, art and politics, there is no such possibility conceded with regard to alternative sciences.

Table 6. Examples of strength of codified stream.
Discipline Nature of treatment or advice offered
Prenatal care detailed diet and promotive herbs; behaviorial advice for healthy progeny and for all stages of foetal development
Obstetrics reliable advice which can help in ease of delivery
Post -natal care herbs that can raise the general immunity of the mother & child
Food & nutrition advice on seasonal diets suited to different constitutions; advice on specific (therapeutic) diets for various ailments/disease stages; food values provided on a range of relevant parameters different from modern nutrition; advice on incompatible foods
Gynaecology Safe herbal treatments for all typical ailments of women; better management of suspected infertility conditions
Respiratory disorders Safe herbal treatments for entire range of respiratory disorders including asthamatic conditions & allergies
Skin disorders Safe herbal treatments for wide range of skin conditions including diseases like Psoariasis and Erysipelas
GIT disorders Safe herbal treatments for hyperacidity, ulcers & metabolic disorders
Cardiac diseases herbal drugs for lowering chlorestrol, chronic angina and congenital heart diseases
Ophthalmology Safe herbal treatments for intra-occular haemorrhage, diabetic retinopathy, paediatric myopia and a range of common eye diseases
Orthopaedics management of compound factures with open wounds; management of polio; management of osteal deformities
Nervous & muscular disorders herbal drugs for degenerative diseases in their early stages; hemiplegia, paraplegia, cereberal palsy etc.
Mental health safe herbal drugs for anxiety neurosis, obsessions, hysteric manifestations, epilepsy etc.
Specific diseases Herbal treatments for non-insulin-dependent diabetes, arthritis, hepatitis, rheumatic fevers, gall & kidney stone, ano-fistulas & haemorrhoids, promotive care of cancer and AIDS cases

The fact, however, is that different cultures have developed fundamentally different ways of perceiving and viewing nature and this in turn has given rise to different traditions of knowledge (See Fig. 5).

The chart in Fig. 5 depicts the differences in foundations, concepts and categories of Ayurveda and modern medicine. These differences should cause no surprise to anyone who is willing to accept the inevitable plurality of cultures.

Can traditional systems of medicine be explained in terms of modern medicine?

Figure 5: Epistemological foundations of Ayurveda and modern science

The comparative understanding between Ayurveda and modern medicine in fact has not progressed sufficiently to correlate diagnosis of the two systems of medicine or translate Ayurvedic pharmacology (Dravya gun shastra) in terms of modern pharmacological parameters or reduce Ayurvedic lines of treatment to satisfy Allopathic therapeutic logic.

Efficacy of disease management by Ayurvedic means and methods based on its own theories and monitored using modern parameters could form the basis for a dialogue between the two systems where the outcome would be in the form of prima facie evidence of success or failure in management but not a one-to-one correlation in diagnosis or a modern explanation of how and why of the traditional line of treatment.

The scope of this kind of comparative research designs from the modern medicine viewpoint will inevitably be limited. It will provide modern medicine only with some evidence of the efficacy or otherwise of Ayurvedic management. If modern medicine wants to apply the success of Ayurvedic treatment more widely based on the prima facie results, it will have to take the trouble to learn Ayurvedic principles and its diagnostic, pharmacological and treatment theories and procedures. The kind of comparative research outlined above will not, for instance, lead to any 'short-cut' ways to directly co-opt Ayurvedic drugs into the modern Materia Medica. This should be seen as a short-term loss. A pursuance of genuine dialogue with the traditional systems of medicine may pave the way for more meaningful long-term advances in world medicine that may broaden the scope of modern understanding of health and disease at more fundamental levels.


Conservation of medicinal plants in its biocultural perspective not only implies conservation of biodiversity but also places an equal emphasis on conservation of cultural diversity. The debilitating ecological consequences of monoculture in biological life are well known. The effects of promoting a monoculture in the civilisational context is only now being recognised.


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