Medicinal plants in Nepal: new threats hinder the exploitation of rich but unexplored potential

Gyatso Bista, a resident of Lomanthang in the Upper Mustang region of northern Nepal, works as an amchi in his village. In traditional communities in the Himalayan region of Nepal, amchis save lives as doctors are not readily available there. They collect locally available medicinal plants, mix them to prepare medicines and prescribe them to patients. A Bista teenager learned this traditional knowledge from his father and started practicing at age 18.

Now, 46 years later, Bista lives the same daily routine: visiting the nearby meadows, picking herbs to prepare medicine and prescribing it to his patients. “A lot of things have changed over the years,” the 64-year-old says on the phone from his hometown of Mustang. “Working as an amchi isn’t as easy as it used to be.”

One of the difficulties he highlights is the decreasing availability of herbs. “Grasses that used to be easy to find have become rare now. For a few species, finding a single blade of grass for an entire season is quite difficult. He says unpredictable weather patterns are responsible for the change.

Experts say that Nepal has more than 2,000 species of medicinal plants, but only a few hundred have been properly used for practical and commercial purposes. While efforts to tap into unexplored potential are few, new threats, including climate change and the spread of invasive species, have endangered the rich biodiversity of medicinal plants.

Unexplored potential

File: A member of staff works in the manufacturing plant of Herbs Production and Processing Company Limited.

A 2007 survey by Manish Raj Pandey of the Annapurna Region Conservation Project lists 93 medicinal plants used by the Amchis of the Himalayan region of Nepal. But, the number of medicinal plants available in Nepal is much more than that, according to the researchers.

Former Head of Central Botany Department at Tribhuvan University, Krishna Kumar Shrestha, said about 2,000 species of plants in Nepal are believed to have medicinal properties. However, a publication of the government Department of Plant Resources mentions only 819 medicinal plants detected in Nepal. In addition, only a hundred of these plants are actively marketed, informs the head of department Buddhi Sagar Poudel.

These shortcomings are evidence of the country’s inability to explore and harness the potential promised by medicinal plants, says senior botanist Shrestha, who also heads a research NGO called the Ethnobotanical Society of Nepal.

“This is an area where we have a comparative advantage. Also, the indigenous peoples here have traditional knowledge on the use of medicinal plants in Nepal,” says Poudel, “but we have not been able to convert that into trade and export opportunities so that they may be a vehicle for the prosperity of our nation”.

Although he leads a key government authority tasked with developing the sector, Poudel blames the lack of coordination among multiple actors and limited investment, partly due to private sector apathy, failure to exploit resources available.

“Even today, around 80% of the herbs harvested for trade and consumption are harvested from the wild,” he says, “but if we want to make it sustainable, we need to start farming.”

Climate Change Concerns

medicinal plant
Mustang residents say they don’t find the same amount of nirmasi as before. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While officials and experts worry about the country’s inability to commercialize the cultivation of medicinal plants, those directly involved in collecting them have another bigger and immediate problem to address: climate change.

“Thanks to global warming, our mountains are melting and the level of snow is dropping,” Amchi Gyatso Bista informs from his home in Mustang, “this has an impact on the vegetation of the region. The medicinal plants that grew above 4,800 meters did not grow well because today’s climate is not as cold as it should have been.

Shanta Bahadur Jethara, a resident of Lekhgaun village in Humla, agrees with the amchi. According to him, the lack of timely and regular rainfall has dealt a blow to the medicinal plants in his region.

In her village, people organize themselves into groups and go to grasslands and forests to collect medicinal plants found in different seasons. “About 10 or 15 years ago, each of the members of this group would bring a big bundle of nirmasi (Delphinium denudatum) flowers, leaves and stems – all of which can be used as medicine – every week during the monsoon. But, these days, they only find a few in that period.

Researcher Swastika Acharya, who chronicled the various impacts of climate change on medicinal plants in Nepal in February this year as part of her academic study, says the impacts can be seen in the quality, productivity and l chemical efficiency of plants.

“As the amount of resources available decreases, the resources available could also lose their effectiveness in curing patients. Their medicinal property becomes less potent,” says Acharya, “Furthermore, they will also impact other species that will co-exist in nature, whether medicinal or not.

Yet there can also be positive effects. A study conducted by Ram Asheshwar Mandal and his students in Humla district revealed that the production of Himalayan Delphinium (locally known as atis) decreased with increasing temperature, but the production of Grandiflora Nardostachy (locally known as jatamasi) was excessively high during the same period. Nonetheless, citing data from the District Forestry Office, the report indicates that overall production is on a downward trend.

“Climate change is causing unpredictable weather patterns, and that means the production of medicinal plants will also become unpredictable,” Mandal says, “therefore, this is a serious concern.”

Hidden but hateful

medicinal plant
Invasive plants such as Lantana camara have already reached the highland grasslands. Wikimedia Commons

Nepalese researchers have identified a direct link between climate change and the spread of invasive species. However, there has not been enough research on the impact of invasive species on the diversity of medicinal plants here.

“Invasive species have dominated biodiversity in many places across the country. This means that it also has an impact on medicinal plants,” says botanist Krishna Kumar Shrestha. “Nevertheless, most of these medicinal plants are available in the highlands, where invasive plants are not present in significant numbers.

Still, there are warnings that the highlands are under threat. Mandal says he has recently observed that invasive plants such as lantana camera have already reached the highland grasslands.

“Additionally, the low and mid-altitude regions are also home to a large number of medicinal plants, and they are susceptible to being affected by invasive species,” says Bharat Babu Shrestha, a botanist at Tribhuvan University.

Therefore, researcher Swastika Acharya says the impact of invasive species on medicinal plants is already evident. “They are one of the main causes of biological pollution. Based on the impact on other types of species, we can say that they also lead to a decrease in the effectiveness of medicinal plants.

“Unless proactive measures are implemented, mountains and medicinal plants [growing] there are no more invasive species,” says Bharat Babu Shrestha.

Yet all the researchers agree that no specific research has been conducted on the impact of invasive species on medicinal plants in Nepal, suggesting that this should be their next focus.

Hopes for the future

Photo: Sancho, marketed as Himalayan Essential Balsam Oil, is a popular product for the government-run Herbs Production and Processing Company Limited.
Photo: Sancho, marketed as Himalayan Essential Balsam Oil, is a popular product for the government-run Herbs Production and Processing Company Limited.

The preservation and promotion of medicinal plants available in Nepal falls under the mandate of several government agencies, including the Department of Plant Resources. The department has launched some initiatives such as the publication of standard procedures for the collection of key herbs and the creation of a seed bank of endangered plants.

However, department head Buddhi Sagar Poudel says he has failed to link these initiatives to the impact of climate change and invasive species. “We have enough policies, but we lack concrete programs and sufficient budget to implement them.”

In addition, the government has established Herbs Production and Processing Company Ltd (HPPCL) to capitalize on the medicinal plants available in Nepal. But, his work was limited to growing six plants and making 15 products. Senior botanist Krishna Kumar Shrestha says, “The company should have extended its scope to the whole country and also worked in the research and development sector. But it wasn’t as effective as it could have been.

HPPCL chief executive Sangita Yadav agrees and has lobbied government agencies to expand their work in this area. “Because we are market-oriented, we should now focus on product diversification and market expansion,” she said. Yadav, who was only recently named head of the company, says she hopes its reach and effectiveness will improve during her tenure.

Local governments strongly empowered by the 2015 constitution also have a role to play in protecting medicinal plants from climate change and other risks. Amchi Gyatso Bista of Mustang says he has lobbied local authorities to prioritize the protection of these precious resources and the rich traditional knowledge associated with them.

But, Shanta Bahadur Jethara of Humla has no hope. “We know Humla is rich, but people here are poor simply because of inefficient local governments. The officials don’t want to include us in their priority.

The fate of these priceless resources depends on the balance between Bista’s hopes and Jethara’s fears.

This story was produced as part of a reporting grant to the 4th meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework of the 2022 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, led by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Alvin J. Chase