Non-timber forests products and tribal medicine


This vendor has been at the same spot in Fort, Mumbai for over 30 years!

Ever since moving back to India, I have come across numerous small street-side footpath vendors, usually members of India’s vast and diverse tribal population selling a whole range of ‘forest medicine’ with the promise of curing a range of diseases and ailments. So far, I have been offered cures for greying hair, improved sleep, growing muscle, eczema, increased sex drive, balding, simple cold and cough, headache among many others I can’t remember. Yikes, they must believe I need help with these issues!


In 2015, I visited Laos to undertake a subject as part of my Masters Degree in Environment at the University of Melbourne. A very unique degree where one can choose from over 140 subjects and design their own speciality and focus on a specific or multiple interest/s. An absolute boon for a curious individual like myself, over the 3 years I took to complete my degree I delved deep into a diverse range of subjects; all collectively giving me a well rounded but deep understanding of the crises humanity has created and now faces!


One of these subjects was called Forests in the Asia Pacific, where we were taken on a study tour to Laos and Vietnam, to get a first hand understating of various forest related issues and

 the necessary nexus between government, private sector and indigenous peoples to achieve anything that can be defined as ’sustainable forest management’.



In better understanding the concept of forest ownership and property rights; I encountered for the first time the term Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs). Until this moment, when I though forests and resources, all I thought was wood and timber and how this has been an important resource for humans for thousands of years. However, more important are NTFPs, defined as any product or service other than timber that is produced in forests. They include fruits and nuts, vegetables, fish and game, medicinal plants, honey, resins, essences and a range of barks and fibres such as bamboo, rattans, and a host of other palms and grasses. 


These products have and continue to constitute an important source of income, nutrition and sustenance for many forest-based communities across the world. These communities both tribal and non-tribal relate to NTFPs for their socio-economic and cultural lives. Since time immemorial, have constructed belief systems, rituals, superstitions and most importantly derived medicinal benefits from NTFPs extracted from the forests that they inhabit or roam to forage in. 



To this day, NTFPs remain an important source of raw material for traditional systems of medicines like Ayurveda, Chinese, Unani, Siddha, Tibetan and others across the globe and many modern medicines are also based on wild plants or their extracts. According to the World Health Organisation, large populations in developing countries with limited access to modern medicine rely on traditional plant based drugs, for their primary health care. 


In the Indian context, the collection of NTFPs vary from state to state generally at a rate directional proportional to the amount of forest cover and the number of tribal communities that largely occupy the forest regions. In some North Eastern states, up to 90% of the population depends on forest products in some way or another. It is estimate that 275 million poor rural people in India, that is almost 25% of the population depend on NTFPs for at-least part of their subsistence and cash livelihoods. 


Back to the use of NTFPs for traditional medicine, the inspiration for this blog post. Since I was made aware of these forest resources in Laos; and then coming across these street vendors in India, I started documenting and photographing them. 



WHAT COMES TO MIND

  • Commerce and how tribal folk are also engaging in it to gain income in the capitalist society. While one may perceive tribal communities to largely occupy forests regions living in isolation from the mainstream life, maintaining harmony and a symbiotic relation with nature; this is not completely true as these populations are being constantly forced out of their traditional way of life. This is true in India as it is across the globe; here in India we are experiencing rapid growth, and unfortunately tribal communities have one of two options, adopt or perish.


  • In an effort to cope and find survival in this economic system, tribal and other communities familiar with forests may now be mass extracting these medicinal herbs and plants pushing them to extinction. An indiscriminate exploitation, deforestation and forest degradation leading to the depletion of NTFPs is a major issue of concern as this risks the long term availability of these NTFPs for populations historically dependant on them for survival and livelihood. 


  • Psychologically, I felt generally unsure and unsafe to consume the various medicines I have been offered at these little stalls. There is also an element of superstitions and unfounded beliefs, while this holds me back, this also leads to unnecessary extraction of and culling of important species in the ecosystem particularly beliefs relating to animal products. However, I know that there is merit to and I believe in traditional and natural medicine. Therefore, there is a gap which can be filled to encourage the use of these forest products to cure disease and increase wellbeing but at the same time back it with scientific and proven research.

This leaves me at an interesting conundrum, while I would like to support and use of this kind of medicine and treatments, preserve traditional knowledge and remedies, it could be contributing to loosing access to natural time immemorial medicine due to over extraction from natural forests. 


Perhaps, there is a way, where we convert degraded lands into huge medicinal forests growing herbs, plants and trees, based on proven research. And have our tribal populations, the custodians of forests and lands for centuries manage these areas with an aim to equitably and sustainably distribute the benefits of the forest amongst all species including us humans; as, we are all but only one of thousands of species that inhabit this planet. 



"Food after all is life… Every time you eat, you can make a massive change. You can throw your weight behind ecosystems, behind diversity, behind farmers. Or you can throw your weight behind greed, behind super profits, behind ill health that is killing both this planet and its people. Make your choice. It’s easy"  - Vandana Shiva

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