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Plants have always been the main basis of life on earth, and a steady source of primary health care and livelihood for the majority of the population. The use of plants for medicine and other purposes is one of a number of practices developed by ancient people and used by all civilisations and cultures. Hence, plants have played a key role in health care systems around the world.

Most of the medicinal and aromatic plant species used locally or entered into trade and used in herbal industries are harvested wildly. Aside from natural factors such as landslides, floods, fire, amongst others, the most serious threats to plant resources in general, and medicinal and aromatic plants in particular, are habitat loss and degradation and unsustainable harvesting. Population pressure and the proportionately increasing demand for forest products are rapidly depleting habitats in almost every part of the world. In recent years, the increasing demand for herbal medicines in industrialised countries has been fueled by growing consumer interest in natural products.  As international trade in medicinal and aromatic plants has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry local harvesting patterns have shifted from subsistence collection to commercial mining.

Medicinal and aromatic plants are important components of the local flora, and valuable parts of the ecosystem.  However, these ecosystems and communities are being degraded and destroyed and species driven to extinction, thus threatening the resource base for medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs). Considerable loss of biodiversity is occurring at all levels. The resource base is shrinking in many places from human activities, and rare species are threatened with extinction.

Considering the importance of biological diversity  of which medicinal and aromatic plant resources are important components conservationists emphasise conservation of entire habitats and the ecosystem to safeguard the biological resources and their inevitable interactions. Protected areas, represented by national parks, conservation areas, wildlife sanctuaries, sacred groves, amongst others, are prominent examples.  To cope with immense threats to biological diversity, the majority of the worlds nations have agreed to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992, popularly known as the Rio Convention, which currently hosts 187 parties and is endorsed by 168 countries. The CBD emphasised the need for an ecosystem-based approach to conservation and the importance of benefit sharing with respect to  use of genetic resources. Agenda 21 of the Rio Convention states, The first beneficiaries of the conservation and sustainable use of wild plant and animal species should be the rural communities and indigenous people whose traditional knowledge and respect for those resources has preserved them for centuries.

The Sustainable Use of Biodiversity Programme Initiatives (SUB PI) and the International Medicinal Plants Network (IMPN)

The Sustainable Use of Biodiversity Programme Initiatives (SUB PI), created by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in 1994, initiated the medicinal plants programme in IDRC. The Programme supported research and development activities in South Asia through its International Medicinal Plants Network, the predecessor of the present Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Programme in Asia (MAPPA).

SUB PI activities took place during 1994-1998 and included the search for flagship projects and champion partners. The Programme initiated the entry of action research by non-government organisations (NGOs) in IDRC Programming. This gave birth to the International Medicinal Plants Network (IMPN). Major activities  included expansion of stakeholders in the Network, supported to a large extent by IMPN Partner Consultation in May 1995 in Calicut, Kerala, India; co-opting of new and powerful partners during the Medicinal Plant Industry meeting in New Delhi, India in 1997; highlighting IMPN through the Stakeholders meeting during the Bangalore Conference in 1998 in Bangalore, India; organisation of Expert Consultation on Medicinal Plants Species Prioritisation for South Asia in 1997 in New Delhi, India, among other events.

Priority Species of Medicinal Plants in South Asia

IDRC-IMPN, in collaboration with WWF-India, organised an Experts Consultation on Medicinal Plants Species Prioritisation for South Asia in September 1997 in New Delhi. The objective was to examine key issues facing the medicinal plant sector focusing on the rationale and need for  a general criteria for prioritising medicinal and aromatic plant species in support of livelihoods and primary health care. Participants included researchers and experts from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

These experts each provided a list of priority species in their respective countries: to wit, Bangladesh (28), Central India (40), Nepal (18), Pakistan (18), and Sri Lanka (26).  A multi-disciplinary approach was adopted and a regionally acceptable consensus reached with regard to five commonly applicable criteria such as: high commercial demand and local uses, potentials for integration in farming systems, local level value addition and processing potential, wide distribution and availability of genetic materials, and importance in terms of genetic resources and biodiversity conservation. A list of thirty priority species for South Asia was identified.

Based on research, development and management efforts carried out in different countries of the region, and knowledge and experiences accumulated in the medicinal and aromatic plant (MAP) sector through Conservation Assessment and Management Planning (CAMP) workshops, trade and markets, and traditional herbal healing practices, a revised list is being developed including prioritised species for each  country.

List of priority medicinal plant species for South Asia (IDRC/IMPN, 1997)

1. Aconitum ferox     (Ranunculaceae)
2. Aconitum heterophyllum      (Ranunculaceae)
3. Aconitum spicatum    (Ranunculaceae)
4. Alpinia galanga      (Zingiberaceae)
5. Andrographis paniculata    (Acanthaceae)
6. Asparagus racemosus     (Liliaceae)
7. Azadirachta indica   (Meliaceae)
8. Bacopa monnieri      (Scrophulariaceae)
9. Berberis aristata      (Berberidaceae)
10. Bunium persicum    (Umbelliferae)
11. Centella asiatica     (Umbelliferae)
12. Commiphora wightii    (Burseraceae)
13. Coscinium fenestratum    (Menispermaceae)
14. Ephemerantha macraei    (Orchidaceae)
15. Evolvulus alsinoides    (Convolvulaceae)
16. Gmelina arborea     (Verbenaceae)
17. Gymnema sylvestre    (Asclepiadaceae)
18. Nardostachys grandiflora   (Valerianaceae)
19. Neopicrorhiza scrophulariifolia   (Scrophulariaceae)
20. Oroxylum indicum    (Bignoniaceae)
21. Panax pseudo-ginseng    (Araliaceae)
22. Phyllanthus amarus    (Euphorbiaceae)
23. Podophyllum hexandrum   (Berberidaceae)
24. Rheum australe     (Ploygonaceae)
25. Saraca asoca     (Caesalpiniaceae)
26. Saussurea costus     (Asteraceae)
27. Swertia chirayita     (Gentianaceae)
28. Terminalia arjuna    (Combretaceae)
29. Tinospora sinensis    (Menispermaceae)
30. Valeriana jatamansii    (Valerianaceae)

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