LADAKH PROJECT: Protection, Development & Education of Traditional Tibetan Medicine Plants
(Wendy Juliette Groben, Holland)

I got to know of this project when visiting Ladakh in 2012.  The project was dreadful, ill-conceived, poorly thought through, by 'innocent' Europeans without ANY relevant knowledge or expertise about Ladakh, Traditional Medicine, Horticulture or Medicinal Plants!  It ended in COMPLETE failure, as it was always destined to, when the land where a small number of selected medicinal species (probably only 2) were being cultivated, was swept away in the CLOUD BURST/DELUGE around Leh in August 2010.  You may think this was just UNFORTUNATE but as local land-owners/farmers are reluctant to set aside productive land for trials of crops they are unfamiliar with and know of no obvious market for, it is hardly surprising that the only land made available for this project was both of poor quality and in the most precarious of locations!  So it really was only a matter of time before it was lost....  And the method the project recommended for cultivating the 'Himalayan May-Apple' was downright criminal....  I really do have a duty to expose this and DISCOURAGE anyone else proposing such nonsense......

HERPETOSPERMUM PEDUNCULOSUM - this climbing member of the CUCUMBER family, does not grow in Ladakh and is completely unsuitable for cultivation there, other than in a small number of particularly sheltered and well-watered gardens!  Not only does it not occur in Ladakh (or any other part of the borderlands of Tibet) but grows ABUNDANTLY in the Himalayan foothills....  So how did this qualify as 'Rare'!!!

I really do feel very strongly that naïve Westerners should NOT raise false hopes amongst Ladakhis (or other peoples) by starting such projects which have NO chance of success. The 3 'medicinal' species selected by the project were almost COMICAL(though not FUNNY)!  One of them is not a native of Ladakh (a climber on shrubs on shady banks in the moist districts of the Himalaya); one (a species of forests and open slopes in the moister districts of the Himalaya) is only found in a limited part of Ladakh - such as the moister valleys like Suru, protected amongst boulders; and the final one they selected is a cosmopolitan WEED of arable land and waste places. Those running the project did not seem to have a clue!  What they did was grossly irresponsible.

In the introduction to the project there was a blanket statement claiming that many species are already rare and threatened with becoming extinct!  On what evidence I ask?  A senior Ladakhi doctor of traditional medicine told me in 2012 that although habitat destruction (primarily through road construction and house building) was an issue in a few places in Ladakh, as few young men wish to either train as doctors of traditional medicine or subsequently practise in the villages in remoter places, the pressure on species utilised in traditional Tibetan medicine is actually DECREASING overall!  But the world seems OBSSESSED with things being 'Rare and Endangered' they imagine are about to become extinct...  And if those deciding which plants qualify as 'Rare' are ignorant amateurs or incompetent 'professionals' one arrives at one BIG mess - which is the present-day situation.  The internet is a wonderful place for absolute RUBBISH to be 'published' and publicised......

The grand aims of this project involved using land owned by local people in Ladakh, for the purpose of cultivating 'rare' species used in Tibetan Medicine.  Yet the 3 plant species selected for initial trials are NOT rare, let alone endangered!  One of them grows abundantly in Ladakh already.  One grows abundantly in the Himalayan foothills (including in and around Manali - though not even in Kashmir, which has too dry a climate for it) but not in Ladakh at all.  The other, which some literature CLAIMS to the rare, is no such thing; nor is it endangered.  So NOT a clever choice of plants to begin the project!  You may say but those setting up "meant well".  IF through your actions you DAMAGE THINGS for those that follow, the 'best' of intentions are not so admirable... Right from my first university expedition (which left a great deal to be desired in the way it was set-up) I was mindful not to "queer the pitch" (i.e. spoil the chances of those that followed) by my conduct during the expedition, especially in how I treated people at institutions in India and locals.  To "queer the pitch" is old-fashioned expression, primarily taken to mean that the chances of a person that followed were spoiled secretly or maliciously.  In defence of the Europeans who instigated the project, you (and no doubt they) would claim they did not INTEND for the project to fail or result in any harm to others but it is patronising to act, as the 'great white knight' coming to 'save' something they have no knowledge of.  For too long, we in the West have marched out to far flung corners of the world intent on 'saving' this or that, when in fact, we often had as much TO LEARN from such communities and places.....

Another aim of the project was the 'protection' of rare species by cultivation and 'securing' the future of traditional Tibetan medicine (what a gloriously simplistic, indeed RIDICULOUS objective).  Since the species selected were not rare and two of which would be IMPOSSIBLE to be grow easily (i.e. in open fields like a normal agricultural crop) in Ladakh, even if they had been 'Rare', this would have failed.  One species chosen, could be cultivated in open fields - after all it is already a weed of such fields!  So NO protection could possibly have resulted from growing these plants and of course NO 'securing the future of traditional medicine'.  The selection of species shows how little they knew.  Yet they had the audacity to seek donations to support the project...

Local people were going to be involved in the project by offering them employment.  Precious little employment could be involved unless there was a market for the sale of the plants grown.  Just supposing it had been possible for these plants to be grown, I know of no ready market for them. There is none....  In Ladakh traditional medicine has been practised by individual amchis, largely isolated in their own valley.  They would gather the raw materials for their formulations from plants growing in that valley (perhaps obtaining a limited number of special ones from elsewhere, from time-to-time).  There is no 'National Institute of Traditional Medicine' in Ladakh (as had been set-up in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, when I was a consultant to the Royal Government there).  So if no central place exists to store and make available plant material for use in formulations, just who was going to benefit from cultivating a couple of species, had they been successful?  Who would have known of their availability?

Then there is the CRUCIAL matter of whether the amchis in Ladakh (doctors of traditional medicine) would have been willing to use plant material that had been CULTIVATED rather than gathered in the wild, in their medicinal formulations at all?  Unless the plants had been harvested, dried and stored in the correct way, they defintely would not!  I cannot imagine those running the project had considered (or even been aware of) this really important issue.  Those who set-up the European Union-funded 'Cultivation of Medicinal Plants for Traditional Medicine Project' I was involved with in Bhutan in the 1990s, had NOT fully understood this.  Yes, as far as I know, the Director of the Institute in Bhhutan had provisionally agreed to 'cultivated' plants being used in their formulations but as he spoke no English and had no understanding of what 'cultivating' these plants meant, this was a major flaw.  I CONCLUDED that he thought that 'magically' everything would be grown in exactly the same places and under the same conditions as where they were harvested in the wild.  Since the original medieval texts followed DICTATE, when, where and how each plant is harvested and then dried/stored etc., any divergence from this could easily have meant the cultivated material was useless (even if it had been successfully grown).  It is right and proper that the original texts were followed rigorously by the doctors of traditional medicine because any changes could alter the 'potency' or even 'presence' of the 'active principles' inside the plants...

Yes, for this project, a junior amchi in Ladakh who wished to supplement his income, agreed to be paid for use of unproductive fields on sites dangerously close to rivers which periodically flooded their 'banks' but that was the limit of resultant 'employment'. 

Finally, 'Education' of young amchis.  Just how would any of this farcical project have been 'educational' beyond teaching locals NOT to waste their time on such projects in the future?  Unless it was viewed as 'educational' being 'smart' enough to trick ignorant Westerners into using unproductive land in unsuitable locations? 

I was very disappointed in 2012 to find that many young people in and around Leh, the capital of Ladakh,  had become influenced by the worst of Indian and Western culture.  They seemed just as lazy and disinterested as large numbers of youth in Western countries, including the UK (and increasingly, big cities in India).  Imagine how discouraged any young doctor of traditional medicine who actually was ENTHUSIASTIC and COMMITTED would have felt if they had been involved in this project...

I am a great believer in the need for NGOs and private individuals having an important role to play in conservation but bad examples such as those involved in this project, who mess things up for others, need to take a long hard look at themselves.

Instruction Manual

Let me go through the manual produced by the project to illustrate the fundamental failings.  The vast majority of this was copied (often badly and presumably without permission) out of an assortment of reference books.  Clearly, the authors did not understand much of what was reproduced; which included repeating some awful translations from Tibetan into English - the accounts were littered with mistakes.  I do not know who it is who were meant to read these manuals but they did not qualify as  being written in 'CLEAR ENGLISH', providing precious little meaningful/practical cultivation advice. And what about a translation into Ladakhi?

There was no information as to where and how propagation material (seeds, roots, cuttings or whatever) of the 3 species selected could be obtained. Since one species the project had experimented with, does not even grow in Ladakh, this seems a major obstacle. 



I was STAGGERED to discover what the project recommended for this species.  Firstly, they claimed that the species was VERY DIFFICULT to grow from seed, which is INCORRECT and that seed is difficult to get which is also INCORRECT. Unless they mean WITHIN LADAKH ONLY, which may be true since it is restricted to moister parts of Ladakh, bordering Kashmir.  So they say, "Better is to take the young plant in spring from the forest (of course there are no forests in Ladakh to 'take' them from).  With the plant take at least 1 cubic metre of soil surrounding the roots.  In the soil are all the necessary nutrients that the plant needs" (but for how long, as the rich soil is in that condition because of being in light forest).

Extraordinary to recommend DIGGING up what they claim to be a RARE AND ENDANGERED species, along with a LARGE quantity of soil from a place where it is growing, transport it to Ladakh (from  another state, obviously WITHOUT PERMISSION) where it WILL STRUGGLE to grow, indeed almost certainly have DIED (sooner or later) in the open fields available.  And there is the little matter of PODOPHYLLUM HEXANDRUM being listed under CITES (albeit incorrectly); the FACT that this species should not be listed under CITIES is another matter and unknown to them.

Their proposal is staggeringly STUPID as well as ILLEGAL!!!!!  How many truck loads of soil were they planning to steal from the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh (the nearest source, assuming they knew that) and transport to Ladakh in the state of Jammu & Kashmir? 



This plant is not a native of Ladakh, so why on earth select it as 1 of only 3 species to experiment with in this project? Its natural habitat of shrubby, light to heavily shaded banks at the edge of forests at moderate elevations in heavier rainfall regions of the Himalaya, does not occur in Ladakh.  It could not possibly survive in open fields in Ladakh, indeed other than in particularly sheltered, shaded, well-watered private gardens with organic-rich soils, it would struggle to survive.  It may well not be hardy enough to survive the winters in much of Ladakh.  So this is a REALLY dumb plant to attempt to grow - or one should try 2-300 other species used in Tibetan Medicine FIRST....

Then there is the matter of where would they obtain seed or other propagating material?  If the authors searched in the Kashmir Valley, they would still be looking, as it is not found there.  A plant that cannot even grow wild in Kashmir, is going to struggle in Ladakh!

According to their manual, this plant can grow in light shade or no shade.  The latter is not true!  They talk about growing seedlings in a greenhouse or cold frame yet few people in Ladakh will know what a 'green' house (as opposed to a glasshouse or plastic tunnel) or 'cold frame' is!  In light of the extremely low winter temperatures in many parts of Ladakh, the comment that growers should "consider giving the young plants of HERPETOSPERMUM some winter protection for at least the first winter outdoors" is something of an under-statement, followed by, "a pot over the plant when it freezes is usually sufficient" is likely to prove woefully inadequate in Ladakh.  As for the 'greenhouses' and 'coldframes' to grow the young plants in?  There would have been none of these available on the land
where trials took place.  Pretty daft to select 1 of only 3 species chosen that required 'protection' from cold in a place like Ladakh.  Kargil, Ladakh's second largest settlement, is claimed by the Indian authorities to be the "Second Coldest Place on Earth" after Siberia.  This might be a slight exaggeration but you can see my point!

Finally, there is:

'Field Penny-Cress' (THLASPI  ARVENSE)

Perhaps this is the most extraordinary choice of all.  This is a COSMOPOLITAN WEED of arable land and waste places.  It is doubtfully native in the UK.  Understood to be found throughout most of Europe, N.Africa, W.Asia, Siberia and Japan.  Introduced in N.America.  Stewart recorded it as a common field weed from the plains of India to 4200m in Zangskar.  Why on earth select a field-weed?  It certainly 'grows' in Ladakh.  But how can a weed be rare, let alone 'Endangered'?

And NO information is given on how to grow this annual, other than it requires moist soil.  But as it occurs naturally as a weed in cultivated fields in Ladakh anyhow, one does not need to 'grow' it in the first place!!!!!   Mind boggling ridiculous......