Title of paper: Access to MEDICINAL PLANT RESOURCES in Vietnam – A FAIR AND equitable SHARING OF BENEFITS
Author: Tran Cong Khanh
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In Vietnam, there are 3830 registered medicinal plant species, apart from numerous ethno-medicinal plants, which have not been sufficiently inventoried and documented. Traditional knowledge in using animals and plants for treatment and health care in Vietnam is very rich and valuable. But these precious natural resources are becoming depleted. Many precious plant species are critically endangered while indigenous knowledge of its use is being lost. One of the causes is the over exploitation of the plants for medicine and profit, which is leading to an imbalance between supply and demand. These plant materials have created many benefits, but these are not being shared in a fair and equitable manner.
Another problem is how to create a system of indigenous knowledge registration for the ethnic minority people living in the mountainous areas? For thousands of years, during the long period of struggling for survival, every group of people (including the old Viet group) have been known to accumulate experiences of using plants as medicines for disease treatment and health care. The knowledge is handed down from generation to generation, orally and in secret. Generally, only one or very few people in a family who can identify the medicinal plants and know their correct use. These are normally women. The resources of local ethno-medicinal plants and traditional medical knowledge have very high significant practical and scientific values. Thanks to this treasury, scientists will be able to find new medicines.
In many countries, especially in developed countries, modern occidental medicine prevails against and seems to replace traditional medicine. The knowledge of hereditary medicine, which is not yet recorded in any books, is at the most serious risk of loss.
THE INTRODUCTION SECTION OF THE PAPER IS COPIED BELOW
The term “Medicinal Plant Resources” is usually understood as genetic medicinal plant resources. This understanding is correct but not comprehensive. In fact, this term should include two parts, namely (i) genetic resources (genes of medicinal plant or a material part), and (ii) resources of knowledge on medicinal use (an immaterial part). In Vietnam, these two parts of Medicinal Plant Resources are both rich and diverse [1, 3].
1.1. Genetic resources
According to information of institute of Materia medica (2003), in Vietnam there are 3830 recorded medicinal plant species , representing approximately 11% of medicinal plants in the world (approx. 35,000 species). In comparison with land surface area, the percentage of medicinal plants in Vietnam is rather high. However, there are still a great number of medicinal plants that were discovered and used only by ethnic minority groups or communities, and these have not been recorded in any medicinal plants books. These are known as Ethno-medicinal Plants, and no one knows the true number of such plant species.
Beside cultivated medicinal plants, almost all wild medicinal plants have scattered distribution and occur in low harvestable quantities. Due to high demand for such plants for medicine production or for extraction, hundreds of thousand of tonnes of raw medicinal materials are exploited from wild plants. With the thought that medicinal plants are common resources belonging to everybody, or a “gift from God”, human beings fight each other in order to collect wastefully such resources, indiscriminately collecting both young and old plants. This leads to a rapid exhaustion of medicinal plant resources and many species face the risk of becoming extinct. For example, in order to collect Dendrobium nobile, an orchid epiphytic on big trees in the forest, a number of branches or a whole tree is cut down. Or, to collect seeds of Scaphium lychnophorum, a woody tree of 15 to 20 meter height, some people are ready to cut a whole tree down with the single reason that the tree is too high and difficult to climb. Coscinium fenestratum, a big woody liana with diameter of stem as large as human biceps, climbs typically up on big trees. Since such liana climbs very high, the collectors cannot take all, so they cut off the lower parts and leave all the remaining higher parts and branches in the forest to rot. Many other plants used to be very common but are currently becoming rare, such as Coscinium fenestratum, Coptis chinensis, Caesalpinia sappan, Stephania sp., Fallopia multiflora, Ardisia sylvestris and so on. Especially, Aquilaria crassna has been rashly exploited and cut down in order to take aloe wood. People wrongly fell many trees without aloe wood or trees with no valuable aloe wood so much. So, that Aquilaria crassna has been recorded in Red Data Book of Vietnam (which listed all plant and animal species under higher extinction risk, so as to focus attention on conservation measures designed to protect them) , and in the list of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
All exploiters of such medicinal plants have the same purpose, which is to seek profits for themselves. Since they do not understand environmental protection laws and regulations nor the reproductive cycle of the living being, theses people exploit rashly and illegally. With the only aim being to take as much profits as possible, the medicinal plant exploiters have intentionally or unintentionally taken away the regenerative capacity of plants. Their profits are significant but they do not pay the tax of exploitation nor share benefits in order to regenerate lost or damaged genetic resources. In Vietnam, there is a saying “Forest is gold”. It is true but this treasury is being illegally looted.
1.2. Ethno-medicinal plants and resources of traditional medical knowledge
It would be a shortcoming to talk about medicinal plant resources without mentioning ethno-medicinal plants. In Vietnam, apart from the Kinh who represents about 86% of the population, there are 53 ethnic minority groups who are living and surviving mainly in mountainous areas from the North to the South of the country. Many ethnic minority communities are living in very far and remote areas, isolated from other groups of people.
For thousands of years, during the long period of struggling for survival, every group of people (including the old Viet group) have been known to accumulate experiences of using plants as medicines for disease treatment and health care. These plants are Ethno-medicinal plants and experiences to cure the diseases are hereditary medical knowledge that is handed down from generation to generation. This heirloom knowledge belongs to and is owned by a family, it is handed down orally and kept in secret. Furthermore, there are only one or very few people in a family who can identify the medicinal plants and know their correct use for family members and community. These people are normally women. The resources of local ethno-medicinal plants and traditional medical knowledge have very high significant practical and scientific values. They are really precious property in the folk medicine treasury of Vietnam. Thanks to this treasury, scientists will be able to find new medicines.
To date, we have not had a comprehensive understanding of these natural resources. We do not know how many species of ethno-medicinal plants occur in Vietnam (apart from 3830 recorded species), their distribution and valuable potentiality as well as how to use them. We also do not know how many plant species have been endangered or are at risk of being extinguished. The above stated issues should be clearly identified in order to arrive at solutions to provide for sustainable management, research, inheritance, conservation, use and development of such precious resources with the aim to serve people’s health care, as well as to contribute to the economic development of the country.
In the last several decades, modern science and technology have rapidly developed and promoted the progress of various scientific areas. Therefore modern occidental medicine has developed enormously and dominated most the medical world. In many countries, especially in developed countries, modern occidental medicine prevails against and seems to replace traditional medicine. Furthermore, hereditary medicine of ethnic minority groups faces risk of loss. The knowledge of hereditary medicine, which is not yet recorded in any books, is at the most serious risk of loss. It means that ethno-medicinal plant resources exist only when there still are people who know how to use these resources. Once these people (who are for the most part local healers) are deceased and their knowledge has not been transferred to new generations, or has not been recorded and documented, the existing medicinal plants simply become wild species, because nobody knows their use.
In addition, there are some plants that one group of people considers precious but others consider as wild and worthless, because they do not have any knowledge about the plant. Or the same plant is used differently by different groups of people though they live near each other, even in the same village. That is a characteristic of ethno-medicinal plants.