Ensuring sustained availability of biological resources — mainly plant species — is crucial to perpetuate traditional medicine systems and healing methods

With the world population swelling at a fast rate and public healthcare facilities becoming a core topic of discussion, there is a renewed interest to strengthen the potential of traditional medicine to improve the healthcare access for people. Intertwined with this subject is the need to conserve the biological resources that form the source for traditional medicine.

The point was raised in a paper presented at a panel discussion on ‘Role of AYUSH and Local Health Traditions for a Healthier India’ organised by the South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, in collaboration with the Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, and Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions, Bangalore.

“As the medical armamentarium primarily consists of biological resources, it is important to also ensure their sustainable use,” the paper on ‘Biodiversity, Traditional Knowledge and Community Health: Strengthening the Linkages’ said.

According to the paper, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Medicinal Plant Specialist group estimates that between 50,000 to 70,000 plant species are in active medical use, of which around 25 per cent are threatened. The paper cited a range of activities that were being undertaken across the world to protect these medicinal plants, including several in India but added that these practices were still restricted to pockets of the projects’ activities, and it was time that their relevance in global health and related policies be highlighted and understood. While replication of these models may not be feasible across various socio-cultural contexts, their principles can be easily modified to suit local realities.

“Clearly, the focus needs to be on ensuring sustained availability of biological resources and sufficient access to good quality health care for all members of society. In rural communities, especially in developing countries, both objectives tend to go together given that to a considerable extent, healthcare is delivered by the native healers or community health workers within the communities — using various biological interventions for the purpose. Given the low reach of modern doctors and healthcare facilities and the knowledge and experience possessed by the local healers, it becomes imperative to involve the latter more actively in healthcare delivery systems,” the paper said, adding that there was also increasing interest among urban populations seeking alternative healthcare, and hence, there was relevance in providing a diversity of choices.

It was suggested that there was a need for developing assessment methods to inventory resources and knowledge used in healthcare and knowledge validation, generation and use. To achieve this, there is a need to develop and promote appropriate integrative methodologies for assuring quality, safety and efficacy of traditional practices based on standards within and across medical system. Capacity building for different stakeholders and development of mechanisms for protection of traditional resources and knowledge and promoting enterprise development based on medicinal and nutritional resources and services, and expansion of partnerships with different stakeholders are some of the issues that need to be given more attention.

Traditional medicine is practised both non-formally as local healing traditional healers/shamans, and formally through recognised medical systems distinct from the western system of medicine like ayurveda, Chinese medical system, siddha, and unani to name a few. Despite the differences in approaches in these diverse medical systems, it can be pointed out that they share a common philosophy to health and healing, defined by their focus on “non-material’’ or “non-physical’’ dimensions, and a comprehensive approach to dimensions to health keeping in mind physical, mental, social and ecological factors of well-being. Health in this approach largely pertains to not just physical healing but also involves a mosaic of practices and resources that relate to mind-body-nature balance, nutrition, lifestyle practices and livelihood.