- Ram Prasad Chaudhary is an ethnobotanist who for decades has studied how various communities throughout Nepal use medicinal plants and pass on this knowledge.
- One pattern he’s noticed is that communities living at higher altitudes tend to make more use of herbal remedies than those living on the plains, with the latter having easier access to Western medicine — a situation he calls ironic.
- With younger generations of Nepalis increasingly viewing ethnobotanical traditions as superstition, Chaudhary says it’s imperative to instill in them the belief that the practice is based on centuries of knowledge generation.
- He also points to the case of China, where the practice of both Western and traditional medicine is complementary rather than competing, saying this is “the best way to go about it.”
KATHMANDU — Sandwiched between China and India, Nepal is known for its geographical as well as botanical diversity. The country is not only home to the tallest mountains in the world, but also to fertile floodplains on the banks of the Ganges, and rolling hills and valleys in between. Here, too, grow flowers such as the brightly colored rhododendron (Rhododendron arboreum), the national flower of Nepal, and swertia (Swertia chirayita), used to treat fevers, constipation, intestinal worms, skin diseases and liver inflammation.
Local communities have for centuries lived alongside nature and made use of the plants around them for various purposes. That’s made Nepal a rich source of ethnobotanical knowledge, used to harness the medical, culinary and even ecological benefits of different plants.
However, younger generations of Nepalis are shunning these age-old practices, often regarding them as superstitions, says ethnobotanist Ram Prasad Chaudhary, professor emeritus at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.
Chaudhary, who began his journey into the field of ethnobotany in 1975 as a graduate student, recently spoke to Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi at his office about his experiences and how ethnobotanical knowledge can be saved for future generations. This interview was conducted in Nepali, and has been translated into English and edited for clarity.
Mongabay: First, let’s talk about the history of ethnobotany in Nepal. According to your research, what led botanists to the field?
Ram Prasad Chaudhary: In the case of Nepal, we don’t have a lot of scholarly work by members of the local community. The first documentation of ethnobotanical practices can be traced back to the early 1900s when Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, a representative of the East India Company, came to Kathmandu to be stationed here. In his book, An Account on the Kingdom of Nepal, he documented the use of various plants such as chiraito [S. chirayita], lokta [Daphne papyracea] and tej patta [bay laurel, Laurus nobilis] in and around Kathmandu, as he was not permitted to leave the capital. Later, other botanists, such as J.D. Hooker, who came to Nepal from India, documented some ethnobotanical practices in the Lepcha, Gurung and Sherpa communities in his work, the Himalayan Journals. He documented how the local communities prepare beverages such as alcohol using their traditional knowledge.
Later, interest in the field was reignited by an Indian researcher, M.L. Banerji, who came to eastern Nepal in the mid-20th century for his doctoral research. Nepali researchers like me then took the baton to move things forward.
Back in 2007, fewer than 700 plants found in Nepal (around 11% of the species documented so far) were listed as having some form of medicinal properties. However, as of 2022, the proportion has grown to 40%, thanks mostly to the relentless work of ethnobotanists.
It is worth mentioning here that although the plains are rich in these kinds of plants, their uses go up as we move to higher altitudes. We have observed that people in the mountains make the most use of herbal remedies. This might be the case as people living in remote mountains don’t have the option to not believe in traditional knowledge about herbal remedies, while those in the plains have the luxury of making use of allopathic [Western] medicine. I find this a bit ironic.
Mongabay: How easy or difficult is it to document how local communities use different plants based on their traditional knowledge?
Ram Prasad Chaudhary: It’s not always obvious. We need to spend time with the community, and talk to them about the plants they use. Sometimes they are hidden in plain sight. For example, back in the ’90s, we were staying at a village in the Makalu-Barun region in Nepal, when I noticed that our host was throwing away some plant leaves behind her house. “Why don’t you feed the leaves to the cattle?” I asked her. She told me that the cattle don’t eat the leaves. Someone else eats them. When I asked her who that ‘someone’ was, she replied that it was outsiders like us.
She told me that the leaves were used to make the tea that we had been served for more than a week. The drink smelled like tea, but it was somehow different from tea. So we collected some samples of the leaves and sent them abroad to see if it contained caffeine. We were surprised that it didn’t. We identified the species as Cleyera japonica, a broadleaf evergreen shrub or small tree native to Asia which hadn’t been used to make tea elsewhere to our knowledge. We even published a study about it in one of the journals published in the U.S.
But due to the Maoist insurgency, we couldn’t visit the place again, and even after the end of the conflict we haven’t been able to return to the village to conduct a thorough study. I would say it could provide a good subject for any researcher interested in ethnobotany.
Mongabay: Does the younger generation consider traditional ethnobotanical knowledge as superstitious and favor allopathy, Western medicine, over herbal remedies?
Ram Prasad Chaudhary: Yes. There’s an incident I would like to share to illustrate my point. A few years ago, when a few of my students and I were traveling at high altitudes, two of my students complained of headaches. As this place was far from any hospital or clinic, I told them to visit the local traditional healer. But they were quite skeptical about it when the healer prescribed two different medicines for the same ailment. As one student weighed more than the other and their body types were also different, I imagined that the healer resorted to two different traditional herbal medicines. The next morning, both of them were back to normal and ready to continue the journey.
The other challenge is that we (the government, NGOs, communities and academics) have been unable to institutionalize the achievements made so far for lack of suitable government policies and incentives.
Mongabay: How do you think can we preserve ethnobotanical knowledge for future generations in light of these challenges?
Ram Prasad Chaudhary: As I said earlier, the younger generation doesn’t believe in herbal remedies and ethnobotanical knowledge. The first thing we need to do is instill belief in young people that ethnobotanical knowledge is not based on superstition, but it is based on centuries of knowledge generation and passing down from one generation to the other.
This issue should be addressed by mobilizing different ethnic organizations that work with local communities. Every ethnic group, including the Sherpas and the Tharus, have such traditional organizations responsible for continuing various rituals such as different types of prayers and dances.
For example, in Dolpa, western Nepal, local communities have set up a health facility where people trained in traditional herbal medicine provide basic health services to the community. The community collectively looks after the practitioners and provides them the resources they need to run the service.
Similarly, we need to promote an integrated approach, especially toward the medical use of ethnobotanical knowledge. When I visited China a few years ago, I saw that at one of the hospitals there, a team of doctors specializing in modern allopathy and other traditional modes of treatment, such as herbal therapy, jointly looked at patients and decided which mode of treatment would yield the best possible results for patients. I think that’s the best way to go about it.
The government should also provide funding for more research into ethnobotany so that we can expand and document our traditional knowledge before it is lost forever.
Mongabay: Can you provide examples where local ethnobotanical knowledge has helped communities preserve plant diversity?
Ram Prasad Chaudhary: Yes. In the case of invasive alien species such as Mikania micrantha, which has spread across different protected areas in Nepal, particularly in the south, several communities have come up with ways to contain its spread. Although these practices are yet to be verified, they have told us that growing turmeric plants [Curcuma longa] help stem the spread of the invasive species. Also, some communities cook grass from the invasive species with broken rice and feed it to their cattle.
Again, research and documentation are what we need to check whether these practices are effective or not.
Mongabay: Most of the plants used by local communities for medicinal or culinary purposes are found in the wild. However, national parks conservation areas, as well as community forests in the country, don’t allow knowledgeable members of the community to harvest valuable plants.
Ram Prasad Chaudhary: Yes, I agree with the statement. In the case of community forests, members are attracted toward harvesting forest products such as firewood and timber that can be sold for quick cash. Therefore, they are not aware of the valuable plant resources that the forests may be growing.
In the case of national parks, we can see that the government office concerned is named the “Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.” It shows that the emphasis is on iconic animal species, and not valuable plants.
The national parks don’t allow local communities to take anything out from the forests. This is not the case in neighboring India, where traditional healers such as hakims and baidyas are allowed to make use of plant resources in protected areas to continue their traditional and bona fide uses.
Also, when a protected area is set up, people are evicted from their houses. The evicted people lose all their traditional knowledge about local plants as well as animals. It becomes hard for the knowledge to be transferred to the newer generation when the setting is totally changed.
Banner image: A rhododendron tree with the Machapuchare mountain in the background. Image by Aditya Pal via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Chaudhary, R. P., Gupta, V. P., & Taylor, R. L. (2004). Cleyera japonica Thunb. var. wallichiana (DC.) Sealy (Theaceae): A tea-beverage plant of the Himalayas. Economic Botany, 58(1), 114-117. doi:10.1663/0013-0001(2004)058[0114:NOEP]2.0.CO;2
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