A Few Thoughts on Wildcrafting in the World Today
By Michael Pilarski
Friends of the Trees Botanicals and Global Earth Repair Foundation
I am a visionary. I can imagine a world where everyone knows the wild plants and their uses. Everyone wildcrafts and everyone is respectful and sustainable in a world full of rich, healthy, biodiverse ecosystems. There is more wildness then today. Old-growth forests are common. Wild corridors start in urban centers and spread in all directions. Healthy people in healthy landscapes. Humans as symbiotic members of the ecosystems. Humans in harmony with Nature.
Here & now, in 2023, I want to be proud of my profession. My guild. The wildcrafters. But I am conflicted. A large percentage of the world’s medicinal herb wildcrafters are doing it unsustainably and depleting the resource. Here are three types of wildcrafters.
1) Traditional people who did wild harvesting sustainably. Indigenous people. Traditional agriculture communities. Taboos and sustainable management were understood by everyone. Some of these systems are still alive, but there are less and less people being trained in these traditions with every generation. Let me quote from Ann Armbrecht’s recent Nepal article (referenced elsewhere in this article). “There used to be a network of wild collectors in villages across the country who collected what Tibetan and Ayurvedic doctors needed. These collectors knew how to collect in the right way at the right time. But those people have all left.” At the same time as traditional knowledge is waning across the world, there is also a revival of traditional knowledge among First Nations people in the Pacific Northwest and North America in general. Traditional foods and how to harvest them sustainably, the old way. I am honored to have tribal friends on this path and we teach each other things.
2) People in rural areas (often remote) with few options for earning money and not trained in traditional sustainability. Saleable medicinal herbs are harvested unsustainably. “Wild collection is just about making money and making sure their family has enough to eat.” There are so many sad stories of ongoing overharvesting and depletion of wild medicinal herbs in many parts of the planet. The solution is tied up with equity. When people are given control over land decisions they wildcraft much more sustainably then when they are disenfranchised/marginalized. This has been proven over and over again, world over. The solution is to give people equitable access to land, communal management. Education and training. Cooperative marketing that pays fair wages. Education on conservation, propagation, stewardship. Widespread ecosystem restoration using medicinal plants. The unsustainable wildcrafters of today, don’t have to stay that way. They are not the enemy. They are the victims of a larger exploitative system that will implode sooner or later. Let’s build alliances.
3) New, ethical wildcrafters from Western cultures, such as myself. I have chosen this profession as right livelihood. I gather high-quality botanicals at the right stage in a sustainable manner as a service to humanity, at least the small part of it my harvests will reach. I am confident that the companies and herbalists I sell to have high ethical standards and my herbs will reach good people in a larger community context. I enjoy my work and put care and prayer into it. Sounds romantic, but that is how I roll and I know that I am not alone. There are hundreds and thousands of new wildcrafters out there that feel like I do. We are creating new traditions. We are exploring the art and science of sustainability. Some of us write things down.
People like myself in Group 3 like to learn things from people in Group 1. We also are supportive of Group 2 evolving into sustainable wildcrafters. Group 2 needs fairer prices and education from Groups 1 and 3.
Of course this is very simplistic. Many of the unsustainable wildcrafters I blithely put into Group 2 are indigenous people and are from some of the most traditional farming village cultures remaining on the planet. There are a lot of gray areas. There are many other categories of wildcrafters out there depending on the culture. This article is just a short blip in a very long, inter-generational discussion. A bit of introduction to my point of view and some useful resources for those of you who are students of these things.
Generally the more developed a country is, the less its people wildcraft. For modern people, everything, or almost everything, is purchased. Especially urban people and the world is now over 50% urban.
An Africa-wide overview of medicinal plant harvesting, conservation and health care. S-A. He and N. Sheng. In Pages 116-130. In Medicinal plants for forest conservation and health care. [see references]
A sobering account of the wildcrafting situation in Africa. Urban areas are growing rapidly because of rural to urban migration. Many of the traditional medical practitioners (TMPs) have moved to urban areas because of the thriving market for the most effective herbal remedies (physiologically and/or psychosomatically). The large demand for the most popular species has led to unsustainable harvesting and decimation of many species in many parts of Africa.
Conservation through cultivation as an alternative: At that time, little was being done to bring these species into cultivation with the exception of a handful of the highest-priced species. The 2 main reasons cited for the lack of cultivation efforts were: “(i) lack of institutional support for production and dissemination of key species for cultivation, and (ii) the low prices paid for traditional medicinal plants by herbal medicine traders and urban herbalists.”
The authors note that “Commercial gatherers of medicinal plant material, whether for national or international, trade are poor people whose main aim is earning money, and not resource management”. There is a race to get the last bushel of bulbs, barks and herbs.
The authors believe was this would not change until dire scarcities raised the prices enough to make cultivation worthwhile. I imagine that by now there is a growing interest in propagating and cultivating the wild medicines as well as more protection/conservation.
I recently talked with a friend in Portugal and asked her how many people wildcrafted in Portugal. She said hardly anyone does anymore. I have a friend in Spain who said essentially the same thing for Spain. I am sure there is grassroots, local foraging for food and medicines, but it appears that much of the traditions in Europe have been lost in the last several generations. Worldwide, traditions and skills are being lost at a fast rate. But the pendulum is swinging, interest is growing and more and more people are taking up the crafts.
Many people in Russia and Eastern Europe still wildcraft.
Here in the USA, wildcrafting has seen a long decline over the last 150 years. I have Leonard Wiley;s book Wild Harvest in my library wherein he reports on wildcrafting in rural Northwest in the middle of the 1900s. Appalachia is still a center of wildcrafting medicinal herbs. The commons have been shrinking and regulations increasing.
Tibetan medicinal plants: Two references which complement each other.
Cultivation and Conservation of Endangered Medicinal Plants. Dr. Tsultrim Kalsung, Foreword by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. 2016. Published by Men-Tsee-Khang. Dharamsala, India. 353 pages. An excellent book which should be emulated in all parts of the world. This book focuses on endangered medicinal plants used in Tibetan medicine. Most plants are from Tibet but includes the Himalayan region in general plus some herbs from southern India. The 325 color photos deepen the connection with the plants discussed. The book covers:
* Tibetan plant identification and classification with Tibetan and vernacular names.
* Information on the range of habitats and altitudes of plants.
* Parts used in TM, their tastes, natures and uses.
* Cultivation protocols for each medicinal plant, including propagation management and protected growth strategies
Reflections from Nepal. By Ann Armbrecht. Sustainable Herbs Program director. A trip report about following the jatamansi (spikenard, Nardostachys) supply network in Nepal. Published in ABC's HerbalEGram, Issue 2, February 2023. Thank you Ann for visiting Nepal and writing this report. It gives an idea of the importance of the herb trade in Nepal for the national economy and livelihoods of many people. Here are a few quotes:
“The annual export of medicinal plant products from Nepal is between 7,000 and 27,000 metric tons, worth $11 million to $48 million in 2020 values. Medicinal plants are the largest source of exports in Nepal.”
“… hundreds of thousands of households throughout the country are involved in this trade”
“Families in the village do not have enough land to provide food for the year and so harvesting and selling medicinal plants provides them with the money to buy additional food.”
“We heard this message everywhere. Samir Newa, the founder and managing director of The Organic Valley Pvt. Ltd., told us that there used to be a network of wild collectors in villages across the country who collected what Tibetan and Ayurvedic doctors needed. These collectors knew how to collect in the right way at the right time. But those people have all left, he said. Now the only people in villages are ones with no other options. For them, wild collection is just about making money and making sure their family has enough to eat.”
“The most important part of this FairWild project is that it links the biological part and the human side with the supply chain and offers a vehicle to manage the forest and address rural livelihoods.”
Judging from the sounds of the FAO Africa report a very similar thing is happening around Africa and we could extrapolate, around the globe. There is a growing loss of traditional knowledge about how to sustainably wildcraft in all (or most) cultures.
I sponsor the idea of medicinal forests, ethnobotany gardens and sacred forests throughout the world including in indigenous communities. Sacred forests are found in many cultures, I don’t know how universal sacred forests are but I know Ethiopia, Nepal, India, Bali and Japan. Sacred forests, I would be willing to wager, always contain many medicinal species. Perhaps the world needs some exponential growth in the creation of new sacred forests, medicinal forests and ethnobotany gardens. Such as the United Plant Savers ‘Botanical Sanctuary Network’.
Ethnobotany gardens in every locality – Worldwide
One example is Ix Chel, an ethnobotany garden in Belize started by Dr. Rosita Arvigo. There is a self-guided trail with placques and a handout. There is a shop to buy herbs and herbal products prepared from onsite resources. There are educational workshops. There are hundreds of examples like Ix Chel but there need to be thousands more. A million ethnobotany gardens would be getting somewhere
Much of rural Africa and Asia still wildcraft for food and medicine at the family level. Some people wildcraft for a living but mostly it is a job for the poorest of the poor. They get paid a pittance. The international herb market could really use a lot more fair trade equitability. One of the arguments for keeping the international herb trade going is that it supports a lot of marginalized people. Perhaps not very well, but it is needed income and Fair Trade would help even more.
Climate changes have also negatively impacted many ecosystems and species, as well as habitat loss in general. Ecosystem restoration with medicinal and useful plants is the key to expanding the resource. .
The world needs large-scale ecosystem restoration. Society needs to take a cue from indigenous ethnoecology and increase the amount of useful plants in the landscape. We can create a wildcrafter’s paradise by deliberately planting a lot of food, medicines and useful plants in eco-restoration plantings.
The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry
Ann Armbrecht, 2021. One of the best overviews of the current world trade network for medicinal plants. Many examples from India. Ann is Director of the Sustainable Herb Project.
Medicinal plants for forest conservation and health care. 1997. FAO Non-Wood Forest Products Series No. 11 Edited by Dr. Gerard Bodeker, Dr. K.K.S. Bhat, Prof. Jeffrey Burley, Paul Vantomme.158 pages. Excellent overview of the situation at the time and largely relevant today. This book is the source of the Africa report in this article.
Medicinal Plant information databases
Pages 116-130. K.K.S Bhat introduces the main databases in regard to medicinal plants in existence at the time. Many of them are still operating. Could someone recommend a more current current database compilation?
Forest Products, Livelihoods and Conservation: Case Studies of Non-timber Forest Product Systems. Volume 2 - Africa. Terry Sunderland and Ousseynou Ndoye editors. 2004, CIFOR. Volume 1 is 21 Case Studies and Volume 3 is Latin America. Covers medicinals, fruits and oils, woodcarving and wood products, fibres and weaving materials .
Tapping the Green Market: Certification & Management of Non-Timber Forest Products. Patricia Shanley, et al. 2002, Earthscan. Many case studies from tropical Asia and Latin America. Mostly medicinals.