An estimated 50,000–70,000 wild medicinal and aromatic plant (MAP) species are used globally. Wild harvest and trade provides a critical source of income, particularly for the rural poor in developing countries, and underpins production of numerous traditional medicines, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food, beverage and other products. Annual international trade in pharmaceutical plants alone averages half a million tonnes, and was valued at USD1.7 billion in 2009 with nearly half exported from Asia and making a significant contribution to Asian economies. MAPs are the main ingredients in widely used Asian traditional medicine systems and also provide compounds that underpin many modern healthcare practices, e.g. artemisinin used to treat malaria and taxanes to treat cancer. As many as one-fifth of all plant species are threatened with extinction, with many of them being MAPs. This is of particular concern in Asia, where reliance on MAPs is high, human populations and environmental pressures are increasing, and enforcement of environmental controls is low.

In response to this challenge TRAFFIC, WWF, IUCN, the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) and others developed the FairWild Standard, which includes social, ecological and fair trade sustainability principles of wild-harvesting. The Standard is accompanied by detailed Performance Indicators allowing resource users to assess their performance and identify ways to improve. Implementation of the FairWild Standard is based on actions in areas common to sustainable use projects, underpinned by a set of novel tools and methodologies. The FairWild Foundation, a Swiss-based charity, maintains the FairWild Standard and promotes application of its principles and criteria.

Most plant and animal species utilised for traditional medicine in Viet Nam are sourced from the wild. Increasing demand for traditional medicine is having important implications for the conservation of the many species of flora and fauna upon which traditional remedies are largely based. There is growing evidence to suggest that many of these have become more difficult to obtain from the wild, and a number of them are listed as species of conservation significance. Additionally, increasing use of traditional medicines in China has seen vast quantities of plants sourced from Viet Nam transported to the Chinese market, putting further strain on these plant populations.

Despite their importance to health and livelihoods, relatively little investment has been made in assessing the conservation status of most medicinal plant species or in developing more sustainable harvest and trade practices. Through the use of the FairWild Standard, TRAFFIC has begun to address the loss of MAP species in Viet Nam.

In coordination with the Bac Kan Province Forest Protection Department (FPD), in partnership with People Resources and Conservation Foundation (PRCF), and through the support of CEPF fund, TRAFFIC is implementing its first project in Viet Nam for sustainable use of MAPs that rural communities rely upon for traditional medicine, in the South Xuan Lac Species and Habitat Conservation Area (SXL SHCA) in Bac Kan Province, northern Viet Nam. The project, which began in 2011, focusses on MAP species known to be threatened by unsustainable harvesting driven by commercial demand as well as habitat destruction. This project is based on the FairWild Standard and involves training local collectors in wild plant resource management, harvest monitoring, sustainable collection and value adding processing techniques. It further aims to strengthen market linkages of target communities with the objective of increasing the income of collecting communities. The project initially aims at supporting local communities to engage in national trade, and will further explore the feasibility of FairWild certification and links to international buyers. More broadly, by demonstrating the economic value of sustainable natural resource use, TRAFFIC hopes to reduce the current ecological degradation of the SXL SHCA due to forest land conversion to agricultural plots and illegal timber harvesting.

The SXL SHCA was chosen for its unique floral composition, local communities’ use of MAPs and evidence of uncontrolled harvesting. According to several reports provided by local government officials, the harvesting of MAP species from the area appears to be beyond the replacement capacity for the local ecosystem. In addition, local collectors rely on unsustainable harvesting techniques. From its initial stages, the project took a grassroot-based approach for plant selection and project implementation, engaging various ethnic minority groups and partners to solve issues of economic and health security in their own communities. Such a consultative approach is one of the key requirements for implementing the FairWild Standard’s principles.

Due to the elevated costs and extensive infrastructure required for the cultivation of MAP species, wild collection (from managed forests) remains the most viable option for communities within the project site to earn revenue from MAPs. Villages within the buffer zones of the SXL SHCA have been allocated forest land by the province for 50 years beginning in 1994. During this time, villagers have free access to use the land as they feel necessary. However, special requirements are needed to harvest MAP species. Regulatory authorities tend to focus on ensuring high-value timber harvesting activities within the region are carried out within the law, largely ignoring the harvesting of MAPs, which is therefore essentially unregulated.

TRAFFIC collaborated with the provincial Traditional Medicinal Association to help 51 local plant collectors from 7 villages obtain the necessary legal licences for their activities. This included targeted training delivered to collectors in sustainable harvesting and identification skills, improved plant product processing techniques, and education on medicinal resources within the SXL SHCA. TRAFFIC has also signed a five year Memorandum of Understanding with the Bac Kan province to facilitate local government engagement and support to this project.

A resource assessment was carried out on four medicinal plant species all from the ginger family Zingiberaceae. Amomum villosum Lour and Amomum xanthioides var. xanthioides are native to Indo-China and South China, and used in over 60 different traditional medicine remedies in Viet Nam as an antipyretic and diuretic. Alpinia malaccensis and Alpinia latilabris are native throughout Eastern India to South China and used to treat stomach problems. The current market chain of these species is complex, and TRAFFIC seeks to eliminate their illegal trade and promote sustainable and legal trade. The resource assessment produced a distribution map which will allow collectors to take a lead in managing these plant resources. TRAFFIC is currently in discussion with local harvesters to establish a supervision group to conduct regular assessments of the selected plant species in the project site during the harvesting season to ensure that the plants are being sustainably managed.

A major component of this project is a community fund, into which participants contribute 10% of their revenue from the sale of the selected MAP species. Half of this will be used to cover the maintenance of herb dryers and supervision costs of harvester groups, while the other half of the funds will be used to improve the income of non-harvesters. The intent of this mechanism is to facilitate benefit-sharing and highlight economic benefits of wild species.

Finally, a market study has produced initial information on opportunities to increase community incomes through trade in target MAP species. Further evaluation will be undertaken of potential demand for third-party certification of wild-harvested MAPs (e.g. through FairWild), which could further increase the income of producers through the establishment of fairtrade relations with buyers. Collectors in the communities are in discussion now about the usefulness of creating a cooperative, to gain communities better bargaining power, and which TRAFFIC will facilitate if such decision is taken.

It is the ultimate goal of this project that the villagers within the project site will be able independently and sustainably to manage MAP species and improve their livelihoods, in addition to protecting the larger ecosystem from the threats it current faces.

Brett Tolman, Communications Officer, TRAFFIC-Greater Mekong Programme
Mai Nguyen Forest Trade Officer, TRAFFIC South East Asia
Anastasiya Timoshyna TRAFFIC Medicinal Plant Program Lead