Biolaya is a small organization focused on organically cultivating and/or sustainably harvesting endangered Himalayan medicinal plants in the Indian Himalayas. Ben Heron, founder of Biolaya, has generously allowed SHP to share content while their website is down. Here we have included his overview of the wild harvesting management plant Biolaya developed to ensure their wild collected plants were sustainably and fairly harvested.
At the heart of any sustainable wild collection project there should be some form of management plan to ensure that all activities adhere to a specified set of standards or guidelines.
Our own management plan was loosely based on the guidelines of the FairWild standard. FairWild, as the name suggests, combines the principles of fair trade and sustainable wild collection. It can be used as a basis for FairWild certification or – as in our case – can be used to guide the development of an internal standard.
The plan for Biolaya was to develop a basic management plan so that we could easily add other species and/or make the transition to full certification if and when we felt we were ready. This page is intended to give a flavor of what is involved and how we applied the guidelines to our oregano project.
The first step in developing a management plan is to gather all known information on the plant species and assess related ecological, social and economic factors that may affect the sustainability and quality of harvested herbs.
For example; which parts of the plant are harvested? How do those plant parts regenerate? Are there similar-looking species that it could be confused with? Is it already traded and what is the current market value? Does the species have any cultural or religious significance? What are all the potential risks that may affect the project? And so on. The answers to these questions start to build a picture of the feasibility and logistics of a wild harvest project.
Himalayan oregano is a good example of a ‘low risk’ species; it grows in abundance and is rarely (or never) collected by the villagers; only the aerial parts are used and it regenerates after being harvested. The lack of demand means it is unlikely that other wild collection projects will start competing for the same resource. In short, it is an ideal candidate for wild collection and requires relatively little expertise, time and cost to manage and monitor sustainability.
As with any natural resource, there is a limit to how much of any plant species can be sustainably harvested from a given area. So the starting point is to do a resource inventory – in other words, to document where the target species grows and (approximately) how much is available for collection. This serves as a basis for calculating the sustainable collection limit so that it can closely monitored as part of the long-term resource assessment*.
The methods and level of detail required for a resource inventory vary from species to species and depend on the level of risk involved; some may require counting, tagging and measuring the size of individual plants (or trees); others, such as oregano, may involve documenting the distribution and density of plant populations within a specified collection area. Other species may require more of a landscape approach through which an approximation is extrapolated from random samples within specific habitat types. [this is then monitored alongside collection data]
The distribution of oregano in the Kullu Valley turned out to be relatively predictable; the best plants usually grow in dense patches in south facing meadows towards the top of the tree line (normally between 2900 and 3200 metres). Many of these meadows could be seen from far away on the valley floor; they were even easier to spot in Google Earth, which we spent months exploring from our office, dropping pins wherever we were likely to find large populations of oregano.
This formed the basis of an extensive plant hunting operation. We trained a team of people and sent them into the hills to visit each site; when they found a significant population they would sketch the area on a map with notes on plant density and quality. We would then feed this information into Google Earth to build up a database of collection sites, and verify the information with regular follow-up visits.
Sustainable collection methods can vary enormously depending on the type of plant, the part of the plant that is harvested and the way that it regenerates. For some species the method(s) may already be well-established from traditional practices; for others it can require years of research to understand the rate and nature of regeneration before being able to develop verified protocols.
Anyone who has grown oregano in their garden will know that you can harvest it and it will grow back, and that cutting back old leggy stems actually encourages new growth. We never had any doubt that we would be able to harvest the oregano sustainably, but we still needed to do regeneration studies to understand how much we could sustainably harvest from each collection site.
We did this by counting the number of individual stems in a series of quadrants, using different methods to harvest all the plants in each plot, then coming back a year later to recount the plants/stems. We repeated this exercise at different times during the collection season to see how the stage of growth affected the results.
Based on our observations we developed two different collection methods: 1) if the plants were still flowering we would only harvest a maximum of approx. 70% of the foliage of each plant (allowing the remaining flowers to produce seeds); 2) if the plants had produced seeds, we would harvest 100% of the plants and scatter the seeds in the surrounding area. According to our regeneration studies, these methods actually increased the number of plants (or stems per plant) every year.
Most countries or regions have some system of collection rights – in other words, rules on who is legally (or traditionally) allowed to collect wild plants in a particular area. Himachal Pradesh is no exception; every village has access to specific areas where the villagers can collect herbs and other forest products. I never saw any clear boundaries drawn on a map, but they were well known to all the villagers (even if they were frequently ignored).
In the Kullu Valley most of the serious herb collectors live in remote villages high above the valley floor, where there are few other sources of income. So, although there were often five or six villages that had collection rights for a specific oregano meadow, there were normally only one or two in which we were likely to find people who were genuinely dependent on collecting medicinal herbs for their livelihoods.
Identifying suitable people was a crucial part of the project; only by reducing people’s need to uproot threatened species could we actually make a genuine conservation impact.
To do this, we developed a set of selection criteria based on their existing sources of income, how often they collected herbs, how much land they own, and so on. Our field officers would interview people in the villages and would narrow down a short-list of potential collectors, which we would review and make a decision on back at Biolaya HQ.
Providing training in correct collection methods is probably the most important part of a sustainable collection project. In fact, if a management plan was to be stripped back to its bare minimum, this would be the one activity that could not be removed.
Correct collection methods form only one part of the training; the collectors also need to be trained in identification, record-keeping, and transportation (and drying and storage if required). In short, they need to be trained in anything that may affect the final quality, traceability and sustainability of the end product (see page on GACP).
Once our collectors had attended a basic training we would issue them a registered collector’s package, which included an identification card, a plant monograph and a copy of our collection rules. We would also give them all the collection equipment they needed, including clean sacks to minimize chances of contamination from using second-hand sacks.
A wild collection project can only be sustainable if it is financially sustainable for the collectors; so paying a fair price is an essential part of a management plan.
One of the aims of our project was to pay a price that was more or less the same amount as they would earn from collecting threatened species. The price we paid was in fact significantly higher than the average daily wage, and well above the living wage that is required by the FairWild standard. But this was necessary if we were to provide a meaningful alternative to harvesting threatened species.
Due to our limited capacity for drying, storage and distillation compared with the amount of oregano available, we needed to carefully coordinate collection to ensure that we were not over-supplied. This meant that we rarely had all our collection groups working at the same time. If they did collect more than we could handle we would ask them to dry and store the herbs themselves until we had space.
Occasionally we would take a mobile distillation unit into the field and train someone in the village to maintain records and distil the essential oil from fresh oregano every day. This increased our capacity and enabled us to employ more collectors at the same time; it also reduced transportation costs, making it more feasible to pay a premium price to the collectors.
The purpose of doing a resource inventory at the start of the project is to have a benchmark against which the sustainability of collection can be monitored. If there are signs that the rate of collection is exceeding the plants’ capacity to regenerate, adjustments need to be made to reduce (or set a limit on) harvest volumes or change the harvest methods, or both.
Monitoring sustainability can be one of the more challenging parts of a wild collection project, especially if the plants are collected in remote areas and distributed randomly over a large area. This is one of the reasons why it would be so difficult to monitor sustainable collection of the more elusive threatened species.
Good record-keeping is essential. To be able to monitor collection you need to know how much has been collected from each collection site. In this respect, wild oregano is an ideal species as it usually grows in clearly defined areas, which meant that we could decide with the collectors where they would harvest prior to each collection, and the sites were relatively easy to visit to monitor their collection methods.
To maintain our collection records we developed a bespoke online record-keeping system, which Ashok would update every time a new batch was delivered to the processing facility. This allowed us to monitor records regardless of where we were, and by consolidating all the data in one place made it easier to observe trends and identify issues.
For example, on one occasion we could see that a group of four collectors were managing to increase their collection volumes everyday; it soon became obvious that they had their own little enterprise going on, employing others to collect it for half the price. On other occasions we had groups who brought in much less, which either indicated that the collection sites were less abundant than we thought, or they spent a lot of time sitting around drinking chai…
By regularly cross-checking collection volumes with our resource inventory data, we were gradually able to refine our understanding of how much could be sustainably harvested from each collection site. This also improved our ability to make more accurate yield estimates during resource inventories of new collection areas.
A ‘non-compliance’ refers to any breach of the project rules (such as employing unregistered collectors as in the example above). For the whole system to work properly there needs to be appropriate consequences (known rather grandly as ‘sanctions’).
In most projects, it is impossible to anticipate every non-compliance before they happen, so it tends to be a process that evolves over time. For us, common non-compliances included collectors not removing weeds when they were harvesting the oregano, or leaving the oregano in sacks overnight, causing some of the leaves to go black. These all had cost implications for us so we needed to have controls in place to discourage people from doing it.
For minor non-compliances, such as not separating weeds we would normally give the group a couple of warnings. If it happened again we would reduce the price by a few rupees for a period of time. For more serious incidents, such as employing unregistered collectors, we would suspend the group for a period for a week or two while we investigated it.
As important as it is to have controls in place, a wild harvest management plan should not be about control, it should be about building a partnership based on mutual trust. It should also be about educating and empowering the collectors to manage the resource themselves.
In most cases we found that the collectors really appreciated the effort we put in to ensure that the resource was sustainably managed and that they were paid well for their work. In return for their appreciation we usually found that they respected our wishes for things to be done in a certain way, and over time we built a good understanding with the groups.
In this way, some of the controls in the management plan can gradually be relaxed; if a group has sustainably managed their collection sites for several years, there is no need to continue monitoring it so closely. And hopefully – although this is hard to quantify – it will also have a positive impact on their general understanding and awareness of sustainable collection, and that their involvement in the project will have much wider ripple effects into the way they go about their usual work of collecting threatened species of medicinal herbs.
*According to FairWild guidelines, a ‘resource inventory’ is one of five steps that make up a resource assessment: