Project D (Bhutan)


I was  appointed as a 'High Altitude Agronomist' (the project also boasted a 'Low Altitude Agronomist' as well but although I was much younger and less experienced than the person appointed to this role, whom I never met, presumably I out-ranked him on the basis of operating at 'higher' elevation....)  The terms of reference for first two missions began with an introduction stating that eighty percent of the plant species used in traditional medicines (in Bhutan) were harvested in the wild from high altitude areas (I don't know if that was correct). There was general concern regarding the possible destruction of the unique habitat from annual harvests and likelihood of some species becoming endangered.  Furthermore, little was known about the farming activities of high altitude populations and their reliance, if any, on harvesting medicinal plants. 

What was not stated was that The Royal Government of Bhutan not only wished for the Bhutanese version of traditional Tibetan Medicine to continue as the main health-care system in the Kingdom (to move towards greater reliance on Western Medicine presented enormous challenges and as the medicinal aspects were fundamental to the practise of 'Tibetan' Buddhism as a way-of-life) but be expanded - which if the population was rising, could put additional pressure on the colonies (populations) of high altitude species utilised. Since plants had been harvested from high mountain areas for centuries, presumably in a sustainable way, there was, in reality, no immediate prospect of any species becoming 'Endangered' but these projects and subsequent reports written about them by assorted consultants do seem to love to claim certain species are 'Endangered' or even better, 'Critically Endangered'!  My repeatedly-made point is that the floras of hardly any part of the Himalaya, let alone a whole country within the Himalaya, is well enough known to assign anything other than a crude estimate of 'rarity' or 'endangerment'.....  To suggest otherwise is misleading and un-scientific.  Not that this stops such often EXAGGERATED claims being made.

A fundamental flaw in the project was that whilst the Director of the National Institute of Traditional Medicine in Thimphu (NITM), whilst agreeing IN THEORY, to material of medicinal plants which had been CULTIVATED being utilised by doctors of traditional medicine (dungtshos) in their formulations (anywhere between 3 - 100+ plant species are used), he had no comprehension of what 'cultivation' actually meant!  After all, UNLESS Bhutanese doctors of traditional medicine were WILLING to use 'cultivated' material of the medicinal species, the prime strategy of the project could not succeed!   Mind you, the majority of AID projects around the world are destined to FAIL - with little to show except REPORTS.....  One could become rather cynical and not wonder if both the DONORS (i.e. those funding the projects), the CONSULTANTS (those foreign experts undertaking the projects) AND even the RECIPIENTS (the poor/developing countries where the projects are 'preformed') are PERFECTLY WELL AWARE OF THIS and so are playing an elaborate game?

Whilst my input into the bidding process was critical, I had not been consulted as to its feasibility - which was a shame, as although this was my first consultancy, my knowledge, even twenty years ago, was second-to-none, as to the study, cultivation and conservation of Himalayan flora......

Neither the Director of the NITM, nor anyone else in Bhutan had any experience of growing plants used for medicinal purposes which were normally collected in the wild (other than, I understood for Inula racemosa, which is easy-to-grow as a field/agricultural crop under favourable conditions - not that I ever found out where it was being grown).  The assumption that that 'high-altitude' species used in Bhutanese Medicine would (could) magically be grown at EXACTLY the same places where they were usually collected, was false - in most cases this would have been impractical.  Such thinking made sense to the Director, as dungtshos followed MEDIEVAL texts which dictated which species*, where and when, they were collected (also how they were dried and stored); to diverge from this was highly questionable and rightly they were unwilling to do so.  Clearly, those devising the project had not realised this!

* It should be recognised that doctors of traditional Tibetan medicine have 'Tibetan' names for each plant (which can be transliterated and then translated into English).  The Latin names which various reference books, reports or botanists assign to them have little or no meaning.  The situation is complicated by there often being more than one species (according to Western botany), sometimes more than one genus and even more than one family (using the correct botanical meaning) collected by such doctors and others under the SAME Tibetan name!

There was potential for certain plant species to be 'domesticated' and work was required to assess possible plants that could be cultivated. Yes.

As with most of these projects, the aims/objectives for each mission were overly ambitious - aspects were not achievable on the time-scale given.

I was responsible for the establishment, monitoring and coordination of the high altitude activities, including:

Designing and beginning the implementation of a base line resource survey and audit concerned with identifying the locations of raw materials Was not really sure what this meant?  How could one meaningfully survey such vast areas during a single visit?

existing methods of wild 'crafting', I was not aware that any existed or were realistic to introduce.

methods of identification Identification of what? 

the land resources available Did not understand what this meant.

and the involvement of the local community in the harvesting This could be ascertained IF I joined staff from the National Institute of Traditional Medicine on one of their annual collecting trips to Thimphu district

and possible cultivation of medicinal plants. As far I knew, there was no cultivation of medicinal species.

If possible identify the most important plants in the surveyed areas. A fundamental problem was what was meant by MOST IMPORTANT; most Bhutanese with knowledge of medicinal plants would say they are ALL important.  As ALL formulations contained a number of species, ALL of which are required, which is the MOST important?

Giving some thought concerning incentive schemes for farmers participation in medicinal plants wild crafting and cultivation.  Impossible to do at the early stages and rather a challenge in a country where payment for treatment by doctors of traditional medicine was non-existent, so rather flawed think.

Begin recommendations on improving harvesting techniques,Whilst I had no experience of harvesting plants for use in medicinal formulations, I was aware there would be a reluctance to CHANGE existing methods and IF these were in line with the instructions form the medieval texts, just because I decided it was an IMPROVEMENT, the staff from the National Institute of Traditional Medicine could disagree!

 to obtain a better sample  Unless this fitted in with existing methods, this was a non-starter.

 and wherever possible to preserve the plant in situ (non destructive harvesting). Not a lot of use if the WHOLE plant was required.....

Make recommendations for the preservation of endangered species What a silly proposal as it was not even known which were 'endangered' and just how, at such an early stage could any meaningful suggestions be made, even if it was known which species were!

and the preservation of vulnerable habitats.  Again, a far too ambitious objective.

Wherever possible plant species that, in my opinion or from local experience, can be domesticated should begin to be identified and propagation/cultivation techniques provisionally determined.  Whilst I was in a position to do this, it was premature.

The crop profiles will be revised during later missions when further information is obtained. Premature to start these.

Assist in selecting a site for the cultivation of candidate medicinal plants at high altitude and begin to establish a herb garden, it is proposed that one herb garden in each of the first three years of the project.  Premature.

In conjunction with the domestication programme make recommendations for the type of growth cabinet (phytotron) I found this component (for which a sizeable sum had been allocated) foolish.  I firstly had no idea what a phytotron was and upon discovering, could see NO possible use.  When I discovered during my first mission, that a previous project had paid for and installed a phytotron (at considerable expense), which was lying unused, I recommended, in the unlikely event a use for one could be found, this could be used, leaving the thousands of pounds available for other more practical uses, this was not favourably received.

to be procured and any horticultural structures (poly tunnels, floating mulches, windbreaks etc.) that were deemed necessary. Obtaining these (not found in Bhutan) and transported to Bhutan and then to high altitude sites would be a major undertaking and not an urgent consideration.  If we 'altered' the plants being grown by protecting them, the 'active' principles inside might be affected.....

Identify sites for permanent collection centres and design an appropriate structure for such a collection centre. I had never done anything remotely like this but the idea of permanent collection centres to replace the tents used by dungtshos, raised major issues, as this would ALTER how the plant material was dried.  During my second mission to Bhutan I met up with a DRYING SPECIALIST.  He did have knowledge and experience with grand ideas of how to IMPROVE drying techniques but we return to the FLAW - would the dungtshos be willing to use material which had been artificially dried?

If I felt it necessary, design a portable collection centre. This was COMPLETELY beyond my area of expertise but had concerns in practical terms.

It was envisaged that three permanent collection centres would be constructed, one every year for the first year of the project.   Premature and costly.

For the identification of plants I would be assisted by dungtshos (doctors of traditional Bhutanese medicine). These could only provide the Bhutanese/Tibetan names and some were not experts on identification.  I was sent a list of some of the Bhutanese plant species (their Latin names) used in Bhutanese Medicine prepared by Indian botanists and IMMEDIATELY knew some were wrong as certain had never been recorded from Bhutan.  In some cases the explanation was simple, the GENUS was probably correct but they had 'matched' the identification using 'Flowers of the Himalaya' (which does not cover all Himalauyan species) or copied from an inaccurate reference work (unreliable as to Western plant names) e.g. PICRORHIZA KURROA is a species well know in both Tibetan and Indian (Ayurvedic) Medicine but is only found from Pakistan to Uttaranachal, whereas PICRORHIZA SCROPHULARIIFLORA has a distribution from Uttaranachal to SW China, so the species collected under the same name as 'Honglen' would be the latter species in Bhutan.

I was supposed to be working closely with a Bhutanese counterpart and thought that the nominated counterpart would be an integral part of the mission.  Unfortunately, no suitable candidates were available, so for the first year of the project there was no counterpart - a fundamental shortcoming!

Throughout the mission I was meant to be undertaking ongoing training of the counterpart, extension agents, forestry guards and enumerators (I never came across any of these during the first year of the project).  It was expected that I would leave training notes with the project that would be subject to revision on future missions.  As I had no idea what notes to compile, I never attempted to prepare any.

Third Mission

During this I was expected to assess the information so far recorded in the base-line survey and continue to collect information, if required.  Of course continued information collection would be required, as it was not realistic to gather ALL that was needed on the first missions...

I had to continue to revise and improve the recommendations for optimum harvesting techniques and habitat preservations.  Since the third mission was not scheduled until the autumn (when some of the harvesting takes place), I would barely have been able to have begun considering 'optimum' harvesting techniques...

Collect vegetative material for the herb garden, if the site had been identified and established.  Which it had not.

Monitor the construction of the collection centre and when constructed, advise on its utilisation.  Impractical.

Revise the crop profile notes as more information becomes available.... 

When required, continue to train counterpart, extension agents and forest guards - still no sign of any of these!