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The Long Road to Khari Baoli: Environment Discourse and the Market for Medicinal Plants

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Banerjee, Madhulika
Conference: Crossing Boundaries, the Seventh Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Conf. Date: June 10-14
Date: 1998
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/879
Sector: Forestry
Region: Middle East & South Asia
Subject(s): IASC
common pool resources
land tenure and use
indigenous knowledge
Abstract: "The issue of the market for medicinal plants in India lies in the cusp of the environment discourse and common property resources. On the one hand, medicinal plants are to be found most often in fields, forests, hills and valleys, most of which are common lands. These lands are owned by the villages they circumscribe, and embody the most contentious aspects of political and communitarian life. On the other, the issue is not simply a matter of their physical existence-- for by themselves, they really mean nothing. They acquire significance to the extent that they exist in the common reservoir of knowledge and usage of any community, and communities know and understand them. This knowledge and understanding, when it reveals itself to the world outside, has usually been channeled through two constituencies-- first, those that seek to manufacture medicines from them and then environmentalists and scientists who wanted to ascertain the damage to the natural environment resulting from the activities of the former. "The manufacture of medicines directly based on plants has meant, apart from anything else, using/exploiting of natural resources that are common property, for purposes of private profit; that too, for those that live many miles away and have no historical linkage with the habitat in which the plants thrive and flourish. They now see it as a right to use it, if only they pay some quantified price for it. Directly implicated too, in this entire process are those who access the plants and sell them to the market for the manufacture of medicines. They are usually the people who have lived there a long time and have a historical and organic relationship with the resources from which they take the plants, as also the plants themselves. When the overusage and exploitation become an issue therefore, both these concerned parties are held responsible, either in direct statement or in implication. "What is never clear is the unevenness of the power structure in which these two parties function. Not only do the manufacturing companies make profits, they also manage to project an image of being in tune with the times and going back to nature. As for the collectors, their returns are meager, though more than what they are unable to get from other possible sources of livelihood. Yet, they participate in this process knowingly, and do so as a result of a combination of factors of policy and politics, well beyond their control. Their dilemma is most accute, their position most unenviable, their lack of political and bargaining power most unedifying. However, I do not see them figure in the environment discourse around medicinal plants, which by now, is quite diverse and built up. As a student of politics, they beckon urgently to me, to be recognised at least as an analytical category and, I wish to put this particular constituency at the heart of this paper. By examining closely the environment discourse in India and juxtaposing it with the market for medicinal plants as it exists today, I wish to explore the possible directions it needs to take such that common lands and people who live close to them, become as much a part of the discourse as the other forms of nature that inhabit them."

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