Somewhere, hidden deep within the heart of the Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh, lies Patalkot, a verdant valley that seems to exist within its own time and space. About 3000 tribal people live here in small villages that are scattered throughout the valley. Until recently few outsiders ever knew this place existed. But now the modern age is encroaching even on this hidden corner, and with it comes the threat of deforestation, which ultimately will undermine the basis of human existence in this fragile ecosystem. So far people have managed to live in harmony with the earth, but with commercial logging moving in that balance can no longer be maintained. Yet, there are few opportunities. The government in Delhi is far away and has no time or concern for the pleas of a handful of tribals. The future of Patalkot hangs in a precarious balance and the scales can be tipped either way.
For the past 12 years, Dr Deepak Acharya who is known as ‘the Ambassador of Tribal Knowledge’, has devoted his life to documenting the knowledge of these people and has tried to raise awareness, not only about their environmental predicament, but also about the cultural treasure these people are guarding. Most people have heard of the traditional Indian healing system known as ‘Ayurveda’, which teaches the philosophy of ‘right livelihood’ as the foundation of good health. But few people are aware of the fact that the many tribal people of India also have their own traditional healing systems and age-old knowledge regarding the uses of medicinal herbs.
Dr. Acharya is determined to help these tribal people. As part of his effort to do so he started up a company in 2007, Abhumka Herbal Private Limited, which carries out research to verify the tribal knowledge and create therapeutic formulae intended not only for the benefit of human health, but also for animals. Strong and healthy animals are still a vital part of the agricultural system still operated by small farmers in rural India. Effective, non-toxic, inexpensive remedies and supplements would be of great benefit to them.
Dr. Acharya regularly visits Patalkot to learn more from the traditional healers and in turn to teach about environmental issues and how they may impact the tribal communities and way of life. He has expressed an interest to share his expertise and knowledge within the Sacred Earth Forum and I am delighted to welcome him on board. Dr. Acharya will be contributing regular articles on tribal uses of plants and will also moderate the IK (indigenous knowledge) forum. To introduce you to Dr. Acharya and his work, I have prepared a little interview with him:
Dr. Acharya, I am delighted to welcome you to Sacred Earth and am looking forward to your contributions and expertise. You have been deeply involved with researching traditional tribal knowledge in various places in India. What first inspired you to become involved with Tribals and to research and document their traditional plant knowledge?
As a child I suffered a critical health disorder and the doctors wanted to operate on me. Someone suggested that my father should visit and meet with a certain herbal healer, who had the reputation of being an expert in curing this particular disorder. My father met him and asked him to treat me. He gave me an herbal treatment to for 30 days and amazingly I was all well at the end of the 30th day. It was like a miracle and even the doctors, who had wanted to operate, could not believe it. Two decades later, after I completed my master’s degree in Plant Sciences and started my PhD in medicinal herbs, I wished to meet that herbal healer. But, when I reached the village where he had lived, I was told that he had passed away 10 years earlier. I was deeply upset over his demise. Nobody ever documented his knowledge, nor did his children tried to learn it. It was a great loss. That day I knew that my mission was to scout out and document the traditional herbal knowledge of the tribal people.
Your company, Abhumka, sets out to create phytopharmaceuticals based on Tribal knowledge. Do you have a benefit sharing agreement with the tribal healers you work with?
Yes, we pledge to share any profits with them. Tribal healers are the reservoir of traditional knowledge. Unfortunately, the younger generation does not want to learn this age old traditional knowledge. Young tribesmen migrate to other places in search of better paying work and consider this knowledge useless. The healers themselves think that this knowledge should be given to the right candidate who not will not only do it justice, but will also use it for good cause. I have been involved with researching and documenting this knowledge for more than 12 years now. Their herbal practices and detailed medicinal plant profiles have been compiled in the form of a digital library. Currently we have included those practices for validation that seem particularly effective. The criteria for selecting the practices are based on feedback we receive from the patients. After validation, when this herbal formula is launched on the market, a part of the income generated by it will be shared with these healers, who are the actual knowledge holders. Throughout the entire process, we take primary consent in writing from the respective knowledge holder(s).
What is your vision and mission for this company and for the Tribal people with whom you work? What would be your definition of success?
We have formulas available for various disorders such as kidney ailment, wound healing, skin diseases, anaemia, obesity, immunity improvement, haemorrhoids etc. Right now our mission is to make herbal solutions available for such disorders by means of effective herbal products that will be available at an affordable price. It is said that success comes from good decisions, good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions. I shall be able to define success once I attain it, right now, I have miles to go.
How do the Tribal people regard your work? What are their hopes or fears with regards to their traditional plant knowledge, and your mission to find larger scale applications for it?
Tribals are innocent people; they have full faith in us and their hopes are high. They know that we are the custodians of their knowledge and that it is in safe hands. I think of myself as an ambassador of the tribal traditional herbal knowledge; I shall take it to new heights
How do these Tribals benefit from the commercialization of their knowledge? Are you aiming to popularize these tribal knowledge products within India or are you addressing a global market?
They shall share our profits, no doubt about it. The whole world should benefit from their knowledge, but that is not easy to achieve due to the different rules and regulations pertaining to traditional herbal medicines. We are facing a biased attitude from the authorities, but we are hopeful that one day the whole world will become aware of the power of traditional herbal knowledge.
How is the knowledge of the older healers preserved/ passed on to the younger generation?
Traditional knowledge is passed on to the younger generation by the word of mouth only. Though in many parts of India, young tribesmen are hardly interested in learning this practice. We have our own limitations right now; still, we have documented 20000 practices for human, animal and agricultural purposes.
Globally, herbs and trees are under an immense pressure these days – global warming, urban sprawl, deforestation, non-sustainable gathering practices, especially by poor laborers who do not understand the fragility of ecosystems all threaten their survival. If certain products indeed become very popular, how will this impact the natural stands of the source plants? Will this not degrade and reduce natural stands of such herbs further? Can the supply be safeguarded and guaranteed long into the future?
To bring a product to the market, you need to have tremendous back-up supply particularly when, as you said, a product is very popular. We motivate herbal healers and other tribesmen of the village to cultivate herbs that we need. This not only gives them an opportunity to earn some money, but we also successfully implement in situ conservation of herbs. This is called “reverse integration”. When these tribesmen themselves will be cultivating these plants then there won’t be any question of deforestation or forest stripping. Until now, no such efforts were made; no one cared for these tribesmen or their plants.
Many scientists have conducted research for their papers in Patalkot valley and have published information about the medicinal plants of this valley. This made for impressive bio data in their papers, but no one ever returned to see whether those plants are still there, or not. No one dared to stop the mediators, but I have gathered strength to do so and I believe the world will definitely salute the knowledge of these tribesmen one day.
India has many ancient healing traditions that are based on natural medicines and rely heavily on herbs. Where do you see India with regards to the global phytomedicine market?
We respect them, but don’t adopt at them as a first recourse. We are lagging behind in terms of investigating them scientifically, but this is the biggest challenge at the moment.
Traditional knowledge is often not taken very seriously by the scientific community. It is regarded as ‘old wives tales’. How do you respond to that?
Traditional knowledge is too big to be measured within the parameters of a biased scientific community. They have the attitude that what they don’t see doesn’t exist.
What message would you like to send out to the world?
I would like people to understand the immense potential of herbs and their role in everyday cures for chronic and minor human health disorders. In recent times, we have been too pre-occupied with synthetic drugs and we forget that there are herbs that play an important role in correcting various disorders. It is high time to act fast and to try and understand the role of herbs in our lives, and to safeguard them, to document the knowledge of folk and traditional healers so that one day, herbs and knowledge pertaining to them will become a boon for all of us and future generations.