Preserving forests, promoting medicinal plants

Dhaka,  Sun,  24 September 2017
Published : 20 Mar 2017, 20:11:26

Preserving forests, promoting medicinal plants

Md. Habibur Rahman
Today, March 21, is the International Day of Forests. Bangladesh is rich with 6,500 plant species out of which 650 have medicinal values. More than 500 pharmaceutical companies are producing herbal medicines from 300 plants of which 25 have high values. In addition, there are over 8,000 registered and unregistered traditional herbal practitioners (Kabiraj) who use various formulations of medicinal plants in their preparations. 

About 20,000 tons of medicinal plants, valued at Tk 10-12 billion, are annually used in the country. But there is little supply of medicinal plants from the country's natural forest sources. These are  mostly imported from India, Nepal and Pakistan.

The knowledge about the use of medicinal plants has historically originated from and remained restricted among forest-dependent communities in Bangladesh. The traditional knowledge of these communities has made an outstanding contribution to the origin and evolution of many effective herbal treatments. 

CHUNATI WILDLIFE SANCTUARY: An ethnomedicinal study has been conducted in Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) - the first and largest wildlife sanctuary in Bangladesh. With an area of 7,764 ha, the sanctuary is located in Chittagong and Cox's Bazar Districts. According to Arannayk Foundation, the sanctuary is the home of 691 floral and 482 faunal species. 

CWS is a degraded forest due to illicit felling, encroached by agriculture, betel leaf cultivation, illegal brickfields, 100 human settlements and infrastructural development activities. Only scattered patches of natural forest still remain. In response, the Forest Department (FD) has taken up several forest landscape restoration and conservation programmes with the financial and technical support from USAID and Germany's Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit ( GIZ).

These programmes have targeted to restore 5,000 ha of forestland with plantations by native, medicinal and exotic fast growing tree species as well as natural regeneration management. Social forestry plantations have also been undertaken in the buffer zone surrounding the sanctuary in collaboration with beneficiaries. Those beneficiaries tend the plots and share in the harvest according to Social Forestry Rules. 

Under these programmes, some community-based conservation committees were formed and the responsibilities to protecting the reforested areas were handed over to them. 

The ethnomedicinal study has identified 134 plant species which possess therapeutic values. Among them, 56 species are trees, 22 shrubs, 36 herbs, 16 climbers, two kinds of grass, one bamboo and one cactus. These plants allow local communities to collect a wide range of plants and plant-parts for their informal, everyday healthcare. Most of the species were collected from inside the forest followed by homestead gardens, fallow lands, roadsides, around watershed areas and from local markets.

Both the aerial and below-ground plant parts are used in healthcare treatments. Leaves are most widely used parts of the medicinal plants; fruits, barks, roots, stems, flowers, latex, seeds, twigs and whole plants are also used. In most cases, the juice from leaves, roots, rhizome and bark  are used as medicine, while fruits are eaten raw. Most plant parts  are consumed orally after processing such as macerating, pounding, squeezing, blending, soaking or boiling in water, rubbing, or burning. Some are taken raw, some after cooking as vegetables and some are applied externally to different body parts for cuts and wounds, scabies, pain or skin diseases. In general, the fresh plant parts are used for the preparation of medicine; parts are also used when fresh parts are not available.

Medicinal plants are generally used to treat fever, cold and cough, cuts and wounds, diarrhoea and dysentery, vomiting, constipation, tooth ache, hair treatment, skin diseases, snake bite, weakness, sexual problems, eye infections, cattle diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, heart diseases and urinary tract infections. The highest numbers of medicinal plants are used to treat dysentery (31 species), cut and wounds (29 species), fever (22 species), stomach problem (21 species), jaundice (20 species), skin diseases (14 species), cough and gastric (13 species each), cold (12 species), and diarrhoea (12 species). 

The dosage patterns vary with the drug preparation, the age of the patients, the severity of the diseases, and personal judgment of the practitioners. At the family level, elder family members, who have good knowledge on the medicinal value of specific plants, generally prepare the medicine. People also share medicinal plants with each other, so that the demands of neighbours and people living further away can easily be met.

In the CWS, there is a scarcity of planting materials of medicinal plants. The FD has established no nurseries, but the dependence on forest plants for healthcare practices is increasing rapidly.

The most common problems for the conservation of medicinal plants in CWS are the extensive plantation with exotic tree species, conflict over land distribution and use among the different ethnic and cultural groups, over-harvesting of important medicinal plants, massive encroachment of forest areas, lack or no awareness-raising programme, no recorded documentation of medicinal plants, no medicinal plants-based income-generating activity, and no organized marketing channel for selling the medicine products prepared by Kabirajs.

The use pattern of medicinal plants documented in ethnomedicinal study at Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary may be helpful for other people to use such plants in their traditional healthcare practices. Considering the rapid environmental, social and forest land use changes, the community-based conservation initiative is appropriate for the conservation and management of medicinal plants in CWS. Communities should be involved in the formulation of effective management guidelines for community-based conservation of medicinal plants including monitoring, sustainable harvesting and marketing. The youth should be encouraged to learn such traditional knowledge to preserve it from being lost with the older generation.

The government has declared medicinal plant-based drugs as one of the top five priority export sectors. Many top pharmaceutical companies of the country like Square and Incepta have also set up separate units for herbal medicine. The Forest Department and NGOs should take initiatives to develop community-based medicinal plant enterprises as at Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary. These should be on the basis of public-private partnership between government, community, NGOs, academic and research institutions, and pharmaceutical companies.

The writer is a Research Fellow at Bangladesh Institute of Social Research (BISR) Trust. He was awarded the 'GIZ Young Researcher Award 2012' by the GIZ on International 

Day of Forests 2013.
Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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