For nearly two years, TRAFFIC has been implementing a unique medicinal plant project in Vietnam — the conservation organization’s first-ever initiative in this Southeast Asian country.1 The project, which began in June 2011 and will conclude this May, seeks to implement sustainable harvesting of threatened medicinal plant species in the South Xuan Lac Species and Habitat Conservation Area, as well as to better the livelihoods of the local villagers who collect and sell these herbs. Partners in management and execution of the project include the Bac Kan Forest Protection Department and People Resources and Conservation Foundation (PRCF), with additional support and funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.
According to a 2006 Hanoi University of Pharmacy paper, Vietnam has “highly diverse climatic and geographical zones,” giving the country “a very rich and diverse biodiversity, including a large number of medicinal plants, of which about 3,948 species are registered.”2 In addition to this natural botanical abundance, the Vietnamese people, especially those who live in mountainous regions like the location of TRAFFIC’s project, also have a deep history of traditional medicine.
“Medicinal and aromatic plants play an important role in the day-to-day lives of many Vietnam communities, especially those in rural areas and villages,” said Djaja Doel Soejarto, PhD, a professor of pharmacognosy and biology at the University of Illinois - Chicago (email, November 11, 2012). Dr. Soejarto has conducted ethnobotanical surveys in Vietnam with the aim of discovering bioactive compounds for pharmaceutical development. He noted that some groups use up to 400 different plant species in 200 traditional prescriptions — available in local markets and through village healers — and dozens of plant species also are used in some hospitals and healthcare institutions.
This widespread medicinal plant usage and growing commercial trade demand, particularly from China, has led to decreases in some Vietnamese plant populations due to unsustainable harvesting.1 TRAFFIC and its partners chose to implement its project in the South Xuan Lac Species and Habitat Conservation Area in northern Vietnam because it has experienced such biodiversity loss. According to PRCF, “Limited law enforcement activities, coupled with the protected area being considered by local communities as an open access resource, have resulted in highly unsustainable and deleterious forest usage practices.”3
The project’s first goal was to introduce a successful sustainable harvesting program based on the FairWild Standard, a set of principles and criteria that address ecological, social, and economic requirements for sustainable wild collection from the FairWild Foundation. (TRAFFIC has implemented similar FairWild medicinal plant projects with success in several countries, including Cambodia and Nepal.)
“The connection with FairWild is a promising one,” said Uwe Schippmann, head of the Department for Plant Conservation at Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (email, December 10, 2012). “FairWild-certified products are now finding their way to the shelves of the shops, e.g. through Pukka Herbs in Britain and Traditional Medicinals in North America. The use of medicinal plants in Vietnam is not only important for local communities with respect to their income and healthcare situation, [Vietnam] is also a significant exporter of medicinal plants.”
After holding community meetings with villagers and local authorities, TRAFFIC and its partners selected four medicinal plant species from the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) —Amomum villosum and A. xanthioides, which are used as antipyretics and diuretics, and Alpiniamalaccensis and A. latilabris, which are used for stomach conditions — to assess for growth-rate and regeneration capacity, as well as market-trade chains and increased market access opportunities for local harvesters.
“A resources assessment was produced which has provided critical information for local harvesters as to where they can sustainably harvest these species as well as local measures they will need to enact in order to protect the ecological areas buffering these population centers,” said Nguyen Thi Mai, forest trade officer of TRAFFIC’s Southeast Asia-Greater Mekong Programme (email, November 8-December 17, 2012).
Then, in order to train the villagers on sustainable harvesting techniques, TRAFFIC held several workshops discussing medicinal and aromatic plant (MAP) biodiversity, including an introduction to endangered MAP species in the project area, threats to these resources, how to identify the target species, and value-addition processing practices for target species. Through these training sessions, 51 collectors were able to obtain certification from the local government in order to legally wild-harvest the medicinal plants.4
“Before these trainings,” said Nguyen, “many of the local collectors were unaware that they were harvesting MAP species illegally and the impact they were doing to the environment in the process. Additionally, with legal licenses, the project remains eligible for FairWild certification, which if attained, will allow harvesters to sell their product to a much wider global market.”
TRAFFIC also provided the communities with five dryers for drying fresh herbs in order to improve product quality. It and partner groups also are working to establish a cooperative of harvesters from seven local villages, which will help to perpetuate the coordination of harvesting activities and ensure that harvesters from one village are not selling their products at prices substantially lower than other villages. Nguyen said this initiative has been particularly challenging.
“As local harvesters in this area have been accustomed to working independently and sometimes in competition with others,” she said, “it has taken a while for the participating villages to understand the usefulness of working together and collective bargaining. Though there have been substantial improvements in coordination and cooperation, there still remains work to be done to create a lasting and productive local MAP cooperative.”
These efforts by TRAFFIC, its partners, and the local communities already have had an impact on the villages and their members. According to Nguyen, TRAFFIC believes that if local collectors continue to use sustainable harvesting techniques, populations of these at-risk medicinal plants in the South Xuan Lac Species and Habitat Conservation Area will be able to recover and increase. Also, she noted, the four medicinal plants species have been yielding higher quantities and thus higher profits than in previous harvesting seasons.
“Before being trained, local collectors used to harvest unripe Alpinia and Amomum species’ fruits, which led them to get unqualified product and low product quantity,” said Nguyen. “After attending the training provided by TRAFFIC, they know the techniques to harvest sustainably. Collectors shared that they were able to harvest a greater volume of raw product, i.e. seed from fruit, if they were able to harvest later in the season when fruit were mature rather than at an earlier seasonal stage. This comparison provides a compelling argument for collectors to harvest at the end of the season when fruit is mature and seed is larger.”
During the project’s next several months, TRAFFIC will continue working with local collectors and authorities to better manage the conservation area, establish the inter-village cooperative, create business connections among local harvesters and international traditional medicine companies, and eventually attain FairWild certification for the project’s products. And, Nguyen noted, TRAFFIC is applying for additional funding to extend the project for another three years and to expand it into other areas of Vietnam.
“As the conservation of MAP species is not given a huge priority by many national governments,” said Nguyen, “it is important that greater spotlight is given to the importance of these plants for rural people’s economic and health security.”
—Lindsay Stafford Mader
1. TRAFFIC launches sustainable wild harvested medicinal plant project in Viet Nam [press release]. Ha Noi, Vietnam; TRAFFIC. April 9, 2012. Available at: www.traffic.org/home/2012/4/9/traffic-launches-sustainable-wild-harvested-medicinal-plant.html. Accessed November 30, 2012.
2. Khanh TC. Medicinal plants of Vietnam: past, present and future. Centre for Research and Development of Ethno-medicinal Plants. August 8, 2006. Available at: www.researchsea.com/html/article.php/aid/945/cid/6?PHPSESSID=sa3k6gl9poqh73e6lvc6cqeq87. Accessed December 3, 2012.
3. South Xuan Lac Species and Conservation Area. Peoples Resources and Conservation Foundation website. Available at: www.prcfoundation.org/vietnam-south-xuan-lac-program/. Accessed December 3, 2012.
4. Tolman B, Nguyen M, Timoshyna A. TRAFFIC pilots sustainable medicinal and aromatic plant harvesting project in Viet Nam. August 2012. International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Available at: www.iucn.org/about/union/commissions/sustainable_use_and_livelihoods_specialist_group/sulinews/issue_2/sn2_vietnam/. Accessed November 30, 2012.