Biodiversity is inextricably woven into the social fabric of the local people besides providing the sources of livelihood for them. Different kinds of plants form essential requirements of ceremonies and festivals. Loss of biodiversity would lead to fragmentation of the society, decline of social and religious practices. The people depending on forest resources for their livelihood will have to find alternate ways of living, resulting in rural poverty, occupational hazards and sometimes migration to industrial areas.
Several traditional herbal practitioners living in rural areas have been serving local people by giving medicines collected from the surrounding forests. This is a family tradition for many practitioners and is traditionally rendered gratis. For example, Narayanamurthy, a traditional medicinal practitioner and an honorary member of 'Saravathy Valayabhivrudhi Sanga' in Maradavally forest range provides herbal medicines to a large population of patients every week. Similarly, hundreds of local villagers receive medicine from Mr. Thirumalaiah, a folk medicine practitioner in Urudugere Village. A majority of the patients who receive herbal medicine from these practitioners are poor villagers who have no financial resources to go to towns and cities for their healthcare. Moreover, villagers tend to have a strong belief in traditional herbal medicine, and trust in local practitioners. Depletion of medicinal plants in the natural habitat, is liable to destroy this facility and could lead to socio-economic problems. Urban dwellers who lean towards this system of medicine, in the hope of a better cure will also be affected.
There is a very interesting relationship between biodiversity and cultural diversity in the area of medicinal plants. This relationship is being lost because of the loss of cultural diversity associated with the natural habitat and the various pressures that generally operate on biodiversity.
Medicinal plants have the potential to make the rural people self reliant in primary health care. In Maradavally village, every family knows the uses of at least 5 medicinal plants for their immediate health care. More than 50% of the families have the knowledge of more than 25 species and their availability in surrounding areas. The depletion of certain species of plants has eliminated certain cultural traditions of the community. For e.g.: the leaves ofCariota urenswere invariably used to decorate the marriage pendals and the juice ofGarcinia cambogiawas a sacred drink in all religious and ceremonial gatherings in the village. Presently both these traditions are no longer found because of the non availability of these species in the surrounding areas.
As urban demand in India begins to lean towards traditional herbal medicines, possibly partly due the preference for herbal cosmetic products and due to the increase in prices of allopathic drugs due to the World Trade Organization reforms, there is a concomitant need for planned development in the source regions for MP. The current void in this area allows middlemen to manipulate providers by offering high prices in the initial stages to the extent of generating excess supply which allows them to drastically lower prices subsequently. The prime casualties are forest reserves and the low income providers themselves.
The communities that inhabit the regions of supply are minor beneficiaries of the process of collection as the two case studies show. The primary role of the development of an appropriate system for collection, cultivation, management and marketing should be to direct the principal revenues to the primary producers. In so empowering communities in source regions, a vested interest combined with awareness may possibly be the surest mechanism for biodiversity preservation.