Our Perspectives

Using ancient traditions to break new economic ground


group of farmers in BhutanThe farmers' group ‘Dangdung Menrig Tshogpa’ participates in an awareness programme on the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) framework in Bhutan. Photo: UNDP Bhutan

Here in Bhutan, the people of Namther and Dangdung communities have been collecting 47 different varieties of medicinal plants. After more than 50 years of collecting plants and making traditional medicine, the villagers have found another way to reap the benefits of biological resources to enhance their livelihoods.

With support from UNDP, the Global Environment Facility and Japan’s Nagoya Protocol, the communities have taken a giant leap from collecting traditional medicine plants for personal use to providing resources for commercial products. For communities whose livelihoods primarily depend on seasonal subsistence farming, using biological resources helps them fill in the deficit.

The Namther and Dangdung communities have partnered with Menjong Sorig Pharmaceuticals (MSP) and the Thai-based Institute of Cosmetic Science Institute at Mae Fah Luang University on a research study to develop personal care and therapeutic products from selected medicinal plants that are available in the two communities. It’s an exciting initiative that links the communities to the private-sector and works to ensure that the villagers benefit from the use of biological resources when they are used for commercial development.  Communities will move from simply collecting raw materials for traditional medicines to setting up manufacturing unites in their villages to produce cosmetic products.

How can a partnership like this keep the local resources and the people who depend on them from being exploited?

First, all involved need to understand their rights and responsibilities.

We held an awareness programme for communities and local government officials to explain the rationale, guiding principles, vision, scope and the objectives of the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) policies. Communities were also introduced to informed consent and material agreement transfer processes that ensure proper acquisition of genetic resources.

Following the outcomes of the research study, community contracts will be formalized and executed through the ABS agreements. The agreement will articulate the objectives, roles, rights, and responsibilities of all stakeholders.  

Second, community members should be on board with the initiative. Aum Lemo is the chairperson of a farmer’s group with 20 women members, formed in 2014 to ensure that medicinal herbs are collected sustainably and to supply them to MSP to produce traditional medicines for indigenous treatment.

She said that the awareness programme helped the community in realizing their potential and rights on equally sharing the benefits of biological resources in the community.

Chimi Choden, the interim chair of another farmers’ group, is also enthusiastic about the partnership, while understanding the need for protective rights. “We need to be careful while sharing our traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources, and more so taking away biological resources without our consent,” she noted.

Bio-prospecting of genetic resources is going to happen either way, and we need to ensure that it is done responsibly and sustainably. Farmers like Aum Lemo and Chimi Choden will have more opportunities to prosper from the biological resources and the trainings will prepare them for better negotiation of associated benefits from government and private companies.

 I’m very interested in seeing the benefits from bio-prospecting flowing into the local economy.    

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