Humla Fund: Wild Medicinal Plant Conservation in Nepal’s Humla Valley

by Miranda Grizio

At the northwest corner of Nepal, bordering Tibet, lies Nepal’s Humla District. This remote district is known for its Tibetan villages and Buddhist way of life in a majority Hindu country. Medicinal plants are the first line of treatment for most villagers here as a part of their tradition of Tibetan medicine. Villagers in the Humla Valley collect wild medicinal plants from the forests beneath the Himalayas for their own use, as well as for export to neighboring India and China. In this way, these plants support both the health and livelihood of the Humli people. It is here that a creative project managed by Humla Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Spencertown, NY, is underway to support the conservation of wild medicinal plants.

Of Nepal’s seventy-five districts, Humla District is the farthest north and also one of the poorest. There is not only a shortage of modern healthcare services, but also of electricity, running water, and roads. Since the Great Himalaya Trail runs through Humla District, some tourists do pass through on their way to Tibet to trek Mount Kailash. But overall, life is quiet here and has changed little over generations.

“Medicinal plants are like the jewels of the Earth. They are very precious and should be recognized and used as medicine.”
– Norbu Sangpo Lama, Humli Environmentalist

Ongoing deforestation for timber and farmland and the impact of the country’s ten-year civil war on the forests continue to threaten the habitats of Nepal’s wild medicinal plants. In western Nepal, forest collection of medicinal plants is more common than cultivation, with 49.5% sourced from community forests and 18.5% from federally-managed forests (Kunwar, Mahat, Acharya, & Bussmann, 2013). Recognizing this national treasure, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has recommended that Nepal prioritize the sustainability of its medicinal and aromatic plants, including advancing the domestication of these wild species (Food and Agriculture Organization, 1995). At last count, Nepal was home to approximately seven-hundred different medicinal plants (His Majesty’s Government of Nepal/International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 1988).

How can a poor country like Nepal turn from resource extraction to stewardship of its medicinal plants? Humla Fund has taken a novel approach, blending international education, ecotourism, and volunteer vacations in a way that encourages the conservation of Humla’s wild medicinal plants. Through an experiential travel model known as the Medical Service Trip, healthcare practitioners can travel to Humla Valley to learn about the collection and use of Humla’s wild medicinal plants in traditional Tibetan medicine, while also offering their healthcare services to the villagers through mobile clinics.

The Medical Service Trip is suitable for doctors, nurses, acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, herbalists, and other healthcare practitioners. As they travel together through Humla Valley, meeting villagers and providing medical care, they also learn about traditional Tibetan healing practices, such as shaman rituals and blessings and the shaman’s harvest festival.

Since medicinal plants, both their collection and application, are key to attracting program participants, the villagers’ conservation awareness is enhanced. Participants provide not only medical services, but also income to the villagers through employment as guides, translators, and cooks. An important component of Humla Fund’s program is the ongoing education of villagers on the sustainable collecting of medicinal plants. Tibetan doctors and environmental activists affiliated with Humla Fund actively spread this message to the villagers. Another component is the coordination of fair trade pricing, which allows families to support themselves without over-collecting.

Humla Fund currently provides healthcare to the Humla villagers for free through mobile clinics, but the next step is to build a permanent Tibetan medical clinic. The clinic’s focus will be on herbal medicine and acupuncture. These are medical practices with a long history in Humla, but perhaps as important, they do not depend on electricity and laboratory equipment (all of which are in scarce supply) the way modern medicine does.

This inspiring effort is working to spread awareness of the benefits of plant conservation. It is an integrative approach, aligned with Humli culture, to sustaining both the wild medicinal plants and the people of Humla Valley.

Miranda Grizio is an international development specialist focused on sustainable development initiatives that can improve the lives of the rural poor in developing countries. She provides technical assistance in the area of food science for Compatible Technology International and the Good Food Institute. Miranda lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and can be reached at mirandag@gfi.org.

References:
— Food and Agriculture Organization. (1995). Beyond Timber: Social, Economic and Cultural Dimensions of Non-Wood Forest Products in Asia and the Pacific. RAP Publication 1995/13. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/019/x5336e/x5336e.pdf
His Majesty’s Government of Nepal/International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. (1988). Building on Success: The National Conservation Strategy for Nepal. Kathmandu: His Majesty’s Government of Nepal and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
Kunwar, R. M., Mahat, L., Acharya, R. P., & Bussmann, R. W. (2013). Medicinal plants, traditional medicine, markets and management in far-west Nepal. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 9, 24. http://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-9-24