Social Science Baha

Trading Health: Medicine, Biodiversity, Natures, and the Poor in Nepal

Mary M Cameron

The presentation explores the multiple natures co-existing in Nepal in the context of widely expanding biodiversity conservation projects aimed at sustainably cultivating and marketing medicinal plant species. As a framing concept of nature, the sustainable use of Nepal’s rich floral biodiversity (1463 of 7000 higher flowering plants are used medically) is reified in development and government circles. In Nepal, the differing visions of scientists, farmers, and Ayurvedic doctors, all deeply committed to natural forms, in the end compels one to ask whose methods best serve the future of human-nature relationships, the poor, and the diversity of plant species. The paper assesses this issue for Nepal through the lens of Ayurvedic medicine, a widely popular practice with global interest and socially recognized efficacy. Ayurveda’s materia medica are traded in CAD projects, but its health knowledge is overlooked; the plants go out and their use is lost. Explaining the implications of this paradox for health care, cultural diversity, human-nature relationships, and sustainable conservation requires understanding multiple ‘natures’. These range from the powerful realm of life-giving deified power, actualized in ingenious farming, forest dependency, and ethnic place identity, to the rational biophysical theory of Ayurvedic medicine, to the biodiversity of botanists and conservationists, and finally to the nature of plant and animal species with unique evolutionary and ecological histories. Medicinal plants begin as jadibuti valued within families and communities as life-giving “healing entities from roots” bestowed by god. Ayurvedic doctors select for patients those plants containing ‘qualities’ (guna) able to adjust imbalanced humors (dosa) in illness. When medicinal plants enter the commerce stream, their value changes with the help of agro-technicians and value chain specialists, to be converted into commodified rescuers of the poor in poverty alleviation programs, fortifiers of degraded forestland, and revivers of a languishing Ayurvedic educational system.

Keywords: Ayurvedic medicine, nature, conservation-as-development, medicinal plants, Himalayas