Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Collection, utilization and marketing of medicinal plants from the forests of India

Exploitation of NWFPS
Marketing rights
Income and employment generation from NWFPS
Trade flows and international trade of NWFPS
Prospects for future development of NWFPS
Recommendations for developing NWFPS

M.P. Shiva
Managing Director
Centre of Minor Forest Products
Debra Dan (India)


Of late, the importance of Non-Wood Forest Products (NWFPs) has been realised the world over. India is a pioneer in the field of NWFPs, owing to its rich biodiversity and use of different NWFPs from times immemorial. About 45,000 plant species abound in India, which is 12 percent of the global wealth of flowering plants. Of these, about 33 percent are endemic (Jain, 1987). About 3,000 plant species are of economic value in India.

Among the Asia-Pacific countries, the importance of NWFPs was probably first realised by China, then by India, followed by Indonesia, Thailand and others. Various economic plants have been traditionally used by the people, although they were not always named "Non-Wood Forest Products."

A large number of plants have long been used in indigenous systems of medicine by most of the countries of the region. Therefore, when people think of NWFPs, they often first think of medicinal plants.

Exploitation of NWFPS

Both wood and NWFPs should be managed in an integrated manner. NWFPs can be sustainably harvested and collected without detriment to the ecosystem. The process can be environmentally friendly with the application of sustainable forest management principles compatible with the conservation of ecosystems and maintenance of biodiversity.

Overall, NWFPs have strong linkages and complementarities for sound environment and sustainability, especially in the rural areas. With the above strategies in mind, collection, utilization and marketing of all the NWFPs, including medicinal plants, needs to be properly addressed from the social, economic and cultural dimensions.

Channels of exploitation

In India, generally all NWFPs, including medicinal plants, are collected from naturally-regenerating forests. In this process, collectors are at the grassroots level because they are the inhabitants living near the forest. Depending upon the economic importance of different NWFPs, marketing channels are created and regulated. Accordingly, all the products are classified into three groups depending upon their degree of use, as indicated below:

· Products restricted to local use (saleable only in the village market);

· Products of moderate commercial importance (saleable in bigger markets at district and state level); and

· Products of high commercial importance traded within the country and abroad.

These are all governed by their different impacts of society, economy and culture of the country. Therefore, collection and marketing of different NWFPs are addressed from these angles.

Rights and concessions for collection of NWFPs

Collection of medicinal plants and other non-wood forest products form an integral part of the economy of the tribals or forest dwellers who are inhabitants of the forest. The local tribal population, however, has not been able to realize the full economic benefits from their collection of medicinal plants. Moreover, the tribal populations are being increasingly exposed to problems arising from increased commercialization of minor forest produce and greater interest by middlemen, contractors and agents in these forest products.

There is growing evidence that the controls, usufructuary rights and tenure status of land, trees, and forest products are critical factors in determining the ways in which users view their resources and manage them. Regardless of market demand levels, inappropriate tenure and trade policies and government imposed field-level regulations often lead to poor management of forest products and low revenues for collectors.

Unlike agricultural commodities, most NWFPs are produced on public forest lands for subsistence use. NWFP collectors often have few or no rights over this domain, and as a consequence their ability to control access, or intensify management through pruning, weeding, enrichment planting, or fertilization is limited. In fact, because of the tenure conditions affecting public forest lands, local users have incentives to overexploit NWFPs, gathering them as quickly and abundantly as possible, to avoid losing them to others.

As a consequence, on public forest lands, the unsustainable exploitation of NWFPs is often driven more by unclear usufructs and open access utilization, than by high market prices. Where NWFP producers generate such goods on private lands, they are often subject to overlapping regulations which affect the trade in many forest commodities. Consequently, any study of NWFP markets must be cognizant and informed regarding the larger political-economic environment in which forest management and trade decisions take place.

Various NWFPs belong to forest departments and are collected from forest areas which are governed by different state forest departments. In some states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, free rights have been given to the tribals for the collection and use of forest products. In some other states like Kerala, tribals are allowed to collect medicinal plants and other forest produce at concessional rates. Ideally, a uniform system would be maintained, but such a system has not yet evolved in India.

Since the forest dwellers need some timber, bamboos, canes, and reeds for repair and construction of their houses and agricultural implements, grasses for thatching of roofs, branches and twigs for domestic fuel purposes, and grass for fodder, any curtailment of collection rights results in disputes. Therefore, guidelines must be developed which look after the welfare of village dwellers as well as preserve the forest wealth. The following problems are generally faced:

1. It is not possible to accurately determine the amount of NWFPs required by tribals. Provisions do exist for the granting of concessions to tribals but estimates of actual needs of the tribals are not being quantified properly. In some states, estimates are low compared to actual requirements, while in other states they are high. In those states where the estimates and allocations are below actual requirements, tribals are forced to encroach upon the forest to meet their needs. The solution to these anomalies can be achieved by striking an appropriate balance between the genuine requirements of the tribals and the existing forest wealth.

2. There is no simple remedy to check the misuse of the rights and concessions of forest dwellers. Strict laws are needed as a remedial measure.

3. There is no clearcut identification of forest dewellers personal day-to-day needs relative to the demands posed by contractors, agents and other middlemen. Even if these demands are segregated, the tribals are exposed to increased pressures by middlemen who lure them with monitory rewards to exact valuable NWFPs at costs which are much below market prices. The exploitive middlemen can be overcome by establishment of forest labour cooperative societies, tribal labour cooperative societies and forest development corporations, as has already been done in some states. The NWFPs collected by these societies may be purchased by the Forest Development Corporation which processes markets, and prepares the finished products. This way the tribals receive the commensurate monetory return. The societies can also collect medicinal plants which can be marketed through the pharmaceutical corporation and marketing federation.

4. There is no proper solution available to sort out the conflicts between the need to preserve the forest wealth and the need for a better deal for tribal or forest dwellers. This may be regulated by the forest department. Since a proper understanding of the actual needs of the tribals is necessary, forest officers will need to collaborate with the tribal cooperative societies to improve the sustainable harvesting of NWFPs by regulated extraction. In addition, forest dwellers may replenish the growing stock by creating plantations. In case of excessive exploitation, a ban may be imposed on felling NWFP bearing trees.

Scope and strategies of medicinal plant collection in the Indian context

A great wealth of medicinal plants are found in the forests of India. Among those commonly used in pharmaceutical preparations are: Terminalia chebula, T. bellerica, Emblica officinalis (these three yield the myrobalans), Azadirachta indica, Aegle marmelos, Saraca ashoka, Holarrhena antidysetrica, Berberis aristata, Tinospora cordifolia, Adathoda vasica, Ichnocarpus frutescent, Glycyrrhiza glabra, Rauvolfia serpentina, Acorus calamus, Boerhaavia diffusa, Cyperus rotundas, Withania somnifera, Piper longum, Swertia chirayita, and Cinchona sp.

The season in which medicinal plants are to be collected is of prime importance. Also important is the stage of growth of leaves, flowers, fruits, roots or the whole plant when collected, because the percentage and quality of the active properties is directly related to the stage and season of collection For the efficacy of medicinal plants, these are very important parameters. Additional salient points are briefly summed up below (Vijayalakshmi, 1994):

· Freshly collected plant parts should be used, however, products like honey, coriander and pepper should be old and stored.

· Generally, drugs should be collected in the autumn season.

· Drugs used as emetics and purgatives should be harvested after the termination of the spring season.

· Roots should be harvested in winter and summer.

· Leaves should be collected in the spring and rainy seasons.

· Barks, bulbs and exudations should be collected in the autumn season.

· Piths (the soft spongy substance in the centre of the plant stems) should be collected before winter.

· Fruits and flowers should be collected in the seasons in which they appear.

Property rights

The rights of property of NWFPs in the raw form lies with the Forest Department or with village panchayat and farmers who grow NWFP species on their own land. Since the NWFPs have not been given the attention they deserve in forest management, property rights have not been well defined. In the case of panchayats, property rights are not well controlled due to villagers' lack of knowledge. In the case of farmers who grow particular NWFPs, they exercise full property rights. In India, in case of NWFPs obtained from trees grown by the farmer, farmers hold right only to usufructs, while the tree itself becomes the property of Forest Department. Thus, the farmer cannot use the tree crop (i.e., timber) without obtaining permission from the Forest Department.

Legal provisions

No clearcut legal provisions have been made to control the damage caused by unregulated collection of NWFPs. Villagers or contractors are not dealt with legally in the event of disastrous harvesting and improper collection that damages the forests. No warning is being given for the collection of raw materials in the wrong season or at inappropriate stages of growth.

Marketing rights

The forest and village dwellers, including tribals who collect NWFPs, are exposed to problems arising from increased commercialization of minor forest produce and greater interest by middlemen and contractors. The middlemen and contractors often take advantage of collectors' ignorance of actual market prices and collectors' inability to hold their collections for any length of time or market them through channels other than those established by the traders/contractors.

Marketing through societies, cooperatives and federations fetch better remuneration for the rural poor who are dependent on the collection of the medicinal or other minor forest products.

Problems in marketing

Most NWFPs are sold without any processing or value addition. The producers' access to consumers is limited to sales made in local villages and weekly markets. A major portion of their products is sold to intermediaries like contractors and commission agents who operate in the area. Thus, although these products reach a very large market, the market is geographically very limited as far as the producers are concerned.

The limitation in access to market is more pronounced in the case of items like handicrafts made from wood and bamboo, lac products and leaf plates. Except for a small demand in nearby villages for specific items, the rest of the market is geographically dispersed over a wide area and remains inaccessible. This is particularly true for women entreprenuers. Burdened with other family roles which are traditionally assigned to women, they are unable to look for far-off markets. The small size of their production further aggravates the problem, causing the vicious cycle of a small market, because they have limited bargaining position.

The limited access to markets and the dependence on intermediaries have a direct effect on prices. The prices of produce whether sold to consumers or to intermediaries - bears no relationship to the cost of labour, input and transportation. In the case of direct sales, these factors combine to depress prices. Localised activity for localised markets creates a supply which exceeds local demand. Traders in the same commodity control the market and dictate the prices.

In the case of sales to intermediaries, the situation is worse because producers have absolutely no control on prices or quantity. Studies show that the poor producers' income always remains low.

Marketing of medicinal plants in Kerala

In Kerala, the major NWFP marketing groups are the Kerala State Federation of SC & ST Development Co-operatives Limited, private traders, and the collectors themselves. The four branches of the Federation, located in Trivandrum, Adimali, Trissur and Kalpetta districts, market the medicinal and other forest produce of 34 Tribal Co-operative societies spread over different districts in the state.

Every year, the Minor Forest Products Committee allots forest areas to different tribal societies for the collection of NWFP's. To facilitate collection, societies establish collection depots inside the forests during the peak collection season. These depots are managed by commission/agents/depot managers who are mainly tribals.

When adequate quantities have been collected from the different depots, auction notices are sent by the Federation to all the parties who have registered interest in the auction.

Another marketing practice adopted by the Federation is direct negotiation. This is resorted to for sales of Sida rhombifolia, Desmodium gangeticum, Pseudarthria viscida and Nilgirianthus ciliatus. These plants are needed in the raw form and cannot be stored for long periods. Therefore, the Federation enters into an agreement with the parties interested in purchasing these items and supplies them at a mutually agreed price.

Inadequate storage facilities and lack of funds during the peak collection season are the two major hurdles that impede the smooth functioning of the society and the Federation.

In spite of the efforts of the Federation and the Forest Department, nearly 60 to 70 percent of NWFPs are marketed by private traders. The traders, therefore, exert considerable control over collectors. The private traders provide the tribals with food, clothing, and financial assistance. This in turn forces the tribals to sell their products to repay the loans. Thus a vicious circle is formed and maintained. Private traders offer higher prices than those offered by the societies, but the collectors are cheated by the traders because their products are weighed at less than their actual weight. In remote areas, where tribal societies do not function, the prices paid by the private traders are very low. The products are then transported to wholesale dealers or exported to other states.

The Federation often faces stiff competition from the private traders in procuring and marketing medicinal plants in Kerala. The private traders compete with the Federation by offering higher prices to the collectors. This results in the flow of products to the private sector and weakens the position of the Federation as a marketing agent.

Besides the Federation and private traders, primary collectors directly auction their NWFPs. This practice is found at Kottur, situated in the Agastyavanam Biological Park Range. This is locally known as Kaani chantha (Kaani market). The local tribals come together every Wednesday and Saturday to market their NWFPs. These items are auctioned off under the supervision of Forest Department officials. The auction procedure is a highly informal one when compared to that of the Federation. This is a unique marketing system in Kerala where the tribals meet together in one place to market their commodities.

The main drawback of this system is that the products are not weighed properly. Only a guesstimate is made by the auctioneer. No official sanction or recognition has been accorded to this form of marketing by the Forest Department even though it has been in existence for the last 15 years or so.

Marketing of medicinal plants in Madhya Pradesh

It is estimated that Baiga tribals in Madhya Pradesh collect more NWFPs than any other forest-dwelling group in the world. Out of a total population of 66.1 million in the state, 23.3 percent are tribals. These tribal communities largely dwell in forests and subsist on forest products.

Harra (Terminalia chebula), known as chebulic myrobalan, and two other commercially known myrobalans (Terminalia bellirica and Emblica officinalis), are important medicinal fruits common in Madhya Pradesh forests. Among the medicinal plants, Terminalia chebula has been nationalised because of its significance in employment generation and the economy of rural people, as well as in recognition of the; product's economic role in industry.

Other medicinal plants collected from the forests of Madhya Pradesh for sale and trade include Psyllium, Senna, Cinchona, Digitalis, Atropa belladonna, and Liquorice. There is a market for some valeriana in the Federal Republic of Germany. While Dioscorea, Ipecacuanha and Rauvolfia have only limited trade potential, the local use these plants is often significant.

Although medicinal plants have tremendous economic and medicinal value, very little information is available regarding their marketing system. The entire trade is in the informal sector. Market surveys are being conducted to identify marketing channels, price spread, prospective markets, and consumption within the country and abroad.

There are many links in the marketing chain from collectors to consumers of medicinal plants. Changes need to be made to share profits more equitably in the market channel. A detailed study of the medicinal plants collected by the rural population is necessary for stabilizing the trade and ensuring proper margins to the collectors.

Marketing in Tamil Nadu

Terminalia chebula and other medicinal plants are collected by tribals who have access to these trees. Contractors also arrange to collect products. Chebulic myrobalans are the main medicinal plants collected in the state. In fact, medicinal trees are frequently tended by the tribals of that area.

The role of corporations and LAMPS (Cooperative institutions) is gaining momentum in the state. The cooperative institution of the state, functioning under state control, is already the monopoly purchaser of Terminalia chebula and other medicinal plants. Co-operative institutions, whose members are duly elected from local members function in the collection of NWFPs, and derive the maximum benefit in marketing them.

Support prices are fixed for medicinal plants and other minor forest products through duly elected statuary bodies. The medicinal plant products are usually sold through contractors or co-operative institutions where the quantity to be sold and the sale price are periodically reviewed and fixed.

In case of Terminalia chebula and other medicinal plants, though the state has no direct control over the marketing pattern, it is still the owner of the produce with indirect market control over their sale.

Marketing in Maharashtra

In the tribal areas of Maharashtra, NWFPs are collected through the Tribal Development Corporation (TDC). The State Government has given the concession to the TDC to collect and transport the specified NWFPs without payment of royalty. The TDC and other corporations dealing with NWFPs have processing units to add value to the collected produce.

The NWFPs in Maharashtra are mostly sold as a standing crop. No expenditure is incurred by the government for their harvest. The total revenue realised from the NWFPs is of the order of Rs.700 million (US$ 23 million) annually of which nearly 77 percent is from tendu leaves. Similarly, apta leaves yield a gross revenue of about Rs.700,000 (US$ 23,000).

The Tribal Development Corporation is losing money as their overhead expenses are more than the permissible limits and hence they are unable to sell their entire produce. Neither the TDC nor the Forest Department have undertaken any market surveys to determine demand for specific NWFPs. There is also no scheme to supply a specific product to manufacturers on a sustained basis mainly because of the uncertainty of availability in the specified quantities. Bombay is the biggest market for most of the NWFPs as it is the center for pharmaceutical companies in the country.

Marketing in Gujarat

Gujarat State Rural Development Corporation (GSRDC), Gujarat State Tribal Development Corporation (GSTDC), Large Argiculture Multipurpose Society (LAMPS) and other corporations in the state related to NWFPs have played major roles in establishing the linkages between collector and buyer. As a result of this interaction, information on the extent of production and utilisation of a particular NWFP is readily available to support its intensive management. Moreover, LAMPS have helped at the grass roots level to motivate local people in their developmental activities. During lean periods, particularly during non-agricultural seasons, the societies provide alternative employment and help in the co-operative management.

The GSRDC has appointed these societies as agents during the collection season to provide local employment. The GSRDC also grants concessions, commissions, loans etc. The market wing of GSRDC is headed by a General Manager supervising different activities of NWFPs. A Senior Divisional Manager undertakes market surveys, research, intelligence, retail sales, exhibitions, publicity, advertising etc. with the help of Divisional Managers, (Marketing) and Sale Assistants. Market surveys are conducted for various NWFPs by gathering information from the local market and adjoining states through Divisional Managers.

TRIFED plays a role in gathering information through market surveys, research and intelligence to identify export markets for important NWFPs like gums, essential oils, neem seeds, mahuda flower, myrobalans etc. to insure their better utilization and management.

Despite good intentions, government-run marketing and co-operative schemes like the Forest Development Co-operatives, TRIFED, LAMPS and others, have frequently failed to get better prices for NWFPs.

The GSRDC purchases various nationalised NWFPs as per the provisions of the Gujarat State Minor Forest Products Nationalization Act, 1979. The GSRDC has been given monopoly purchasing rights in order to stop middlemen from dealing with local people. However, nationalisation reduces the number of legal buyers, chokes the free flow of goods and delays payment to the gatherers. Monopoly purchase by the GSRDC requires sustained political support and excellent bureaucratic machinery.

Transit permits are necessary for trade of various NWFPs in Gujarat. In case of nationalised NWFPs, the permits are issued by the Gujarat State Forest Development Cooperative (GSFDC) to purchasers to transport their goods from one place to another within the framework of the rules and regulations of the Gujarat State Minor Forest Produce Trade Natinalisation Act, 1979. However, the transit passes are also issued to the purchasers by the Forest Department in case of non-nationalised NWFPs. Moreover, no-objection certificate (NOC) is also given to transport NWFPs from one state to other. In this way, NWFP trade is checked and regularised by GSFDC to control illicit activities.

Income and employment generation from NWFPS

NWFPs have held a secondary status relative to wood products, even though nearly 60 percent of all the recorded forest revenue in India comes from NWFPs. Unofficial estimates place the figure even higher. Most of India's 50 million tribal people receive a substantial proportion of their cash and in-kind income from NWFPs, while about 200-300 million village people depend on products from forests in varying degrees. Most of the NWFPs are locally consumed.

NWFPs are estimated to generate 70 percent of all employment in the Indian forestry sector. Commercial NWFPs alone are estimated to generate Rs.3 billion ($ 100 million) annually. NWFPs provide employment for tens of million of rural Indians who would otherwise be forced to migrate in search of jobs as agricultural laborers or marginal urban job seekers. One study estimated that NWFP collection generates over 2 million person-years of work annually and that this could be increased to 4.5 million person-years. In addition, millions of individuals are employed in NWFP processing and marketing. Yet, NWFPs generate some of the lowest wages of the rural employment sector. While the minimum wage in most states ranges from Rs.30 to 40 per day ($1 to $1.30), most NWFP collectors earn from Rs.5 to 15 ($0.25 to $0.50) per day. Low wages reflect the low productivity of the forest arising from poor management, and depressed prices imposed by state trading monopolies and private buyers (Poffenberger, 1994).

Trade flows and international trade of NWFPS

Various NWFPs are traded within India and abroad. Trade flows within the country depend upon the product requirements from one state to another. Those commodities which are exported are generally stocked in Bombay markets. India has the monopoly trade of some NWFPs like sandalwood oil, gumkaraya obtained from Sterculia urens and bidi leaves, and enjoys an important place in the trade of other NWFPs. India exports a large number of NWFPs to other countries after meeting internal requirements. Current foreign exchange earnings total about Rs. 10 billion US$ 384 million) annually. Major NWFP exports include walnuts, cashew nuts, myrobalans, medicinal plants, sal seeds, essential oils, katha, cutch, palmyra palm fibres for brushes and brooms, lac and shellac, silk and a large number of other raw materials and manufactured commodities.

Prospects for future development of NWFPS

It is essential for India to develop a sound forest management system. As the growth of timber species is generally slow, there is a need to propagate fast-growing species, which may be multipurpose tree or shrub species. In this endeavour, NWFP-oriented sustainable forest management is likely to ameliorate the situation because the growing of economic species will be appreciated by the people. Species selection will most often depend on potential end uses and economic prospects. It will also be preferable to raise multi-tiered plantations of profitable tree, shrub and herb species by developing appropriate agroforestry, social forestry, and farm forestry models. These should involve people's participation, as should traditional forest department plantations. NWFPs include all the economic species of vegetational wealth and therefore, have a large potential for meeting the global challenges of maintaining biodiversity and promoting socio-economic development.

Recommendations for developing NWFPS

Problems should be tackled with a multipronged approach to ensure the integrated development of forest resources, particularly NWFP species. The various tasks which should be addressed in a well planned manner include the following:

· Research
· Training
· Extension
· Follow up-actions.

The details of each component must be formulated to tackle the problems of NWFP development. Consultations on NWFPs may further define the strategies below:

· introduce proper methods of collection/harvesting of NWFPs from the naturally regenerating forest;
· create plantations for replenishing the growing stock simultaneous to collection/harvesting;
· undertake adequate research relevant to the problems relating to NWFPs;
· develop economically viable models for planting on public lands;
· develop integrated resource development plans for management of NWFPs;
· develop processing, product refinement and manufacturing of value-added products for fetching better returns;
· identify the property rights of village and forest dwellers relative to NWFPs;
· inform the people about their rights in forest and community lands;
· improve trade and marketing practices while giving due consideration to the institutional aspects;
· popularise Joint Forest Management (JFM) to increase productivity and provide protection to forest resources;
· enhance publicity on all issues related to NWFPs;
· encourage a change in attitudes toward NWFPs on the part of all those involved in forest management.


Jain, S.K. 1987. The problems of endangered species. Its study and solution. Presidential address, Biological Sciences, 57th session of National Academy of Sciences. Allahabad.

Poffenberger, M. 1994. Non-timber products and tenure in India . considerations for future research. Paper presented in the International Seminar on Management of MFP, 13-15 November 1994. Dehra Dun

Vijyalakshmi, H.L. 1994. Utilisation of forest products in Ayurvedic system of medicine. Paper presented in the International Seminar on Management of MFP, 13-15 November 1994. Debra Dun.

Medicinal plants products are incresingly accepted in Western as well as Asian markets.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page