Watching the Wildcrafters

Overharvesting Threatens the Booming Herbal Industry

Officers confiscated plants with a market value of $250 to $500 per pound from two homes in New York. In Indiana, a two-year investigation led to the issuing of search warrants, misdemeanor charges and the bust of six traffickers. Ordinary drug dealers? Not quite. In both cases the plants seized were not marijuana but illegally harvested wild ginseng.

Welcome to the commercial traffic in medicinal plants, a booming industry that boasts millions of dollars in sales per year in the U.S. alone. As the popularity of herbal products has grown, several plant species used for medicinal and aromatic purposes have become victims of overharvesting, and many are already threatened by habitat loss. The problem will only get worse, as recent studies point to the use of such plants as black cohosh to treat cancer and menopause discomfort. United Plant Savers, a nonprofit educational organization, has put many popular species such as American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), echinacea (Echinacea ssp) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) on its list of critically threatened medicinal plants.

Echinacea is just one of the popular medicinal plants that is threatened by over-enthusiastic wild harvesting. Other increasingly endangered botanicals include black cohosh and goldenseal.©Photo to Go

The medicinal and aromatic plant industry is aware of the threats and has created a unique assembly called the Medicinal Plant Working Group (MPWG). Formed in 1999 to respond to increasing industrial demand, MPWG works closely with the Plant Conservation Alliance. Members include representatives from industry, government, academia and environmental groups. The goal is to balance the often-fractured relationship between plants, harvesters, native people and consumers and to self-regulate the industry.

"Plants teach us to be respectful of nature. The issue of sustainability is a central concern and we’re studying the use of plants such as goldenseal and black cohosh," says Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association and Chairman of the Industry Committee of the MPWG. Trish Flaster is chairwoman of MPWG’s Conservation and Ethnobotany Committees, which are scientifically monitoring native medicinal plants. "We have a program composed almost entirely of volunteers who collect data," she says. "We record the size and width, note companion plants, dig and weigh roots, and record locations so we can learn about regeneration. We need to get an idea of what’s sustainable, and we need to preserve plants of cultural significance."

Questions about corporate responsibility, sustainable harvesting and indigenous partnerships were the focus of the second annual Industrial Leadership for the Preservation of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants symposium, held in Philadelphia last October.

Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council reminded the delegates that "plants have been used for hundreds of thousands of years. We must be concerned about the destruction of the cultures that brought these plants to us." Indeed, according to Dominique Conseil, president of herbal products company Aveda, the symposium evolved from a focus on biodiversity and habitat destruction to embrace the human elements. "Sustainability begins with individuals, and individuals need to work together to create a transformation," he said. "We need to think holistically, listen to indigenous voices and not forget the biological connection between people and plants. Nature provides the best model for business and the solution to sustainability concerns."

MPWG’s "Elders" Circle," composed of indigenous people who represent the native perspective, was well represented at the conference. "We humans plan for us," said Leon Secataro, a man of Canoncito Navaho heritage, "and we never really consider the animals and the plants, although they are essential for our survival. We need to bring indigenous knowledge and modern science together." Secataro believes we must look 500 years and beyond regarding sustainability and our environment. "Humans are the last comers to the Earth and we have been given intelligence that is supposed to enrich our path," he says.

Secataro is not the only member of the Elders" Circle who issued reprimands to the medicinal and aromatic plant industry. "There are a lot of greedy people not talking from their heart," said Susan Burdick, a woman of Yurok/Karuk heritage. "The world we live in is a circle, and when you overharvest, you are breaking the circle."

Tis Mal Crow, a man of Cherokee and Hitchiti descent, said the industry does not have sufficient respect for the plants used in the commercial process. "Black cohosh is not grown commercially, it takes five years to mature, and last year 350 tons of it was harvested every week. That is not sustainable. Medicine must be treated with respect. When native people harvest plants, we sing songs and say prayers." Crow is also concerned with the human side of the industry. "There is a difference between buying and partnering. Partnerships are the key to good business relationships between native people and companies. We have to get over the past and move on together."

Josef Brinkman of Traditional Medicinals indicts every person in the supply chain as being responsible for overharvesting. "Social sustainability is a prerequisite for environmental sustainability," he says. "There has been a rise in ethical consumerism. Organic and fair-trade certifications allow consumers to recognize products made in ethically and ecologically conscious manners."

There are obstacles in this idealistic approach. According to Bhishma Subedi, executive director of the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources, "With certification come higher expenses for the producer. Many small producers cannot afford the costs to obtain certifications, even though their products deserve the distinction."

If overlooked, this problem could force small wildcrafters into a cycle of poverty. As buyers demand certifications for an ecologically and socially conscious public, small producers will have trouble selling their goods without them. Nevertheless Subedi remains optimistic. "Long-term, stable relationships will be the basis for sustainable and fair trade," he says. "There is still a lot to be done," concedes Conseil, "but there are no true obstacles."