It's a big burden off our heads," says a smiling Kamla Krishna Gangda. She lives in Sasupada, a small Warli hamlet 52 km away from Mumbai, and part of the lush Yewoor range of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The reason for Gangda's smile is that now she does not have to earn a living as a headload carrier, travelling to far away places, selling firewood.
In 1999, the forests near Sasupada were designated as a Medicinal Plants Conservation Area (MPCA), a project in which the forest department of Maharashtra has come forward to work with local communities to document, protect and manage a network of 13 MPCAs in the forest areas of Maharashtra.
Forest areas with rich concentrations of medicinal plants were identified with the help of the communities, the forest department and others and designated as such. For the local community, this meant a stricter vigil on these areas, and no more commercial sale of firewood. However, the plan is to help the community find other ways of earning an income and among them is training in the use and identification of medicinal plants.
Gangda is one of the Warli women who has been trained in preparing medicinal plants; she has recently made a bottle of nirgundi (Indian privet or vitex negundo) oil - from the leaves of a single tree which grows in the village. "I did not know much about this tree or its use. I got an order to make it for someone. I learned that it's highly effective for joint pains. I must have saved Rs 100 (1US$=Rs47) by applying this oil, instead going to the nearest doctor."
The women here used to sell firewood or forest produce like mangoes or tamarind, which forms the basis of the local economy. But now, selling firewood has completely stopped in the village, says Dr Vaishali Gavandi, of Rural Communes (an NGO), which is implementing the project in all 13 MPCAs in Maharashtra.
In 1997, the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (DTT) funded an initial project in three areas of Maharashtra. Two NGOs - the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), Bangalore, and Rural Communes, Mumbai, implemented this project. The NGOs found that the local people were interested in conserving medicinal plants and keen to learn about their use. The NGOs also developed nurseries of medicinal plants, which added to the people's interest and involvement. And later, 10 more areas were added. Between 2000 and 2003, the project was funded by UNDP; and today, while UNDP makes small funds available, all 13 MPCAs in Maharashtra are supported by DTT.
In Andhra Pradesh, FRLHT covers eight MPCAs. FRLHT, which provides technical expertise to all MPCAs, has been working with the state forest departments, NGOs and research institutes - for the conservation of medicinal plants - in 36 MPCAs in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.
The 192.8-hectare MPCA near Sasupada, has large numbers of most of the medicinal plant varieties in the region. "Two generations ago, no one here went to doctors; local healers used the herbs in the forest to treat people. Now we don't know anything and we are trying to regain our lost knowledge," says Govind Lakma Pagi, another villager.
The 250 people who live here are mostly agricultural laborers or fisher folk. Water was a big problem and in summer, many families had to shell out Rs 10 for a single drum of water. Since 2001 however, the forest department has met the cost of installing a pipe from a stream 600 metres away, so that villagers are ensured water supply round the year. This has made a major difference to the quality of life in the village.
Bringing together the forest department and the villagers was not an easy task. "When I first came here with the forest department officials, no one would speak to me. I had to stay with the villagers and gain their trust. We work with villages which depend on the forest and try to focus on poverty reduction and livelihoods," explains Dr Gavandi.
Once an MPCA is declared, a local management committee (LMC) is set up to take care of the area and members visit other MPCAs as part of their learning and enabling process. Botanists survey the area and document the medicinal plants with the assistance of trained local people. Today, each village associated with an MPCA has two trained botanists who know the local names, areas, uses of various plants, and can collect and document medicinal plants.
The LMC secretary is a forest department guard or forester, and its chairperson is a local villager. The LMC is registered under the Cooperative Societies Act, and its executive committee - which may have between 7 and 11 members - must have at least three women. All members work towards conserving forest resources, and keep a check on illegal felling, fires or any irregularity.
In 2001, a self-help group was started in Sasupada with 15 women as members. Besides disbursing loans, these women are looking after the nursery of medicinal plants started by the forest department. In 2002, the group sold saplings worth Rs 22,000, at a profit of Rs 12,000.
The LMC has a revolving fund of Rs 100,000 donated by UNDP. The nursery has several commonly used plants including aloe, shatavari, pimpli, brahmi and lemongrass. "This year, the women (of the self-help group) borrowed Rs 20,000 from the LMC to raise a nursery," Gangda. "We already know how to make some herbal tea, toothpowder, oils and home remedies." Two women and two men from this village were trained in preparing home remedies and herbal items, which can be sold.
In the coming months, the women intend to sell herbal products by setting up a sale counter near Sasupada, on the highway. However, they already sell a few products to tourists who often visit the Yewoor hills. The local people seem open to the idea of eco-tourism, says Pagi, and they see this as a chance of earning some money.
A home-remedies kit with essential herbs to treat the common cold, diarrhea, and some menstrual problems has also been developed. While families can use the kit, the idea also is to encourage people to grow essential herbs in their own kitchen garden. Villagers will be intensively trained in identifying common diseases and their remedies, preparing medicines, and administering these. In nine MPCAs, the knowledge of local healers has already been documented.
Besides a more effective and less exploitative utilization of the forest areas, these MPCAs could well contribute to the revival of several significant medicinal plants and thereby, the valuable aspects of the traditional system of medicine and health care. No wonder Kamla Krishna Gangda is smiling.