- According to the World Health Organization, 88% of all countries are estimated to use traditional medicine; more than 40% of pharmaceutical formulations are based on natural products, and many landmark drugs originated from traditional medicine.
- According to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, there are 722 species of medicinal plants in Bangladesh.
- Locals who once cut down trees are now actively planting and cultivating medicinal trees. Large pharmaceuticals, Ayurvedic, and Unani medicine manufacturers collect raw materials from this market.
Back in the mid-1990s, before the era of internet, mobile phones and satellite televisions, the government-run terrestrial broadcaster Bangladesh Television (BTV) was the only source of visual entertainment for the people of this country.
In those days, the government ran social awareness videos on issues such as the importance of not cutting down trees, oral saline for the treatment of diarrhea, preserving baby hilsa fish and so on. Some of these advertisements were not only hugely popular but also had a lasting impression in the memories of people who grew up in that decade.
Among those advertisements, there was one that poignantly portrayed the importance of trees in our lives in general and as a source of herbal medicine in particular. Legendary actor Abul Khair, who died in 2001 at the age of 71, played the character of a kabiraj in that advertisement.
A kabiraj is an herbal medicine practitioner found in Bangladeshi villages who makes his own medicine using Indigenous knowledge of herbal plants, human anatomy and diseases. In that video, pointing to the rampant cutting of trees everywhere, he regretted that the plants he had used to make medicine were not there anymore.
Interestingly, even in this era of rampant development in medical science, technology and economy, when traditional ways of life give way to newer ways, these local village doctors can still be found in plenty. Thanks to a renewed zeal and understanding of herbal medicine among some of the country’s biggest names in the medical industry, herbal plant culture is once again on the rise.
From being threatened and neglected, medicinal plants, in the space of two or three generations, are now thriving again. The descendants of locals who once cut down trees that bore healing leaves are now actively planting and cultivating medicinal trees. For them, it’s a new moneymaking profession; and for the plants, it’s another small attempt at survival.
Take the example of the Lakshmipur Kholabaria Union (local government’s lowest administrative tier) in the northern Bangladeshi district of Natore, where many community villagers are cultivating medicinal plants commercially for a living.
The credit goes to local kabiraj Afaz Uddin Pagla, who is similar to that character in the ‘90s TV commercial. The union comprises 15 villages where all farmers have been cultivating medicinal plants for years. The union is now popularly known as the Oushudi Gram (the Village of Herbal Medicines).
It all started in 1995 when Afaz Uddin Pagla began treating people with herbal medicines in his village, Kholabaria. As a kabiraj, he earned a lot of fame, and the queue of patients in front of his homestead gradually grew longer.
He then started planting medicinal plants in his own farmland and homestead to save himself the trouble of going to hard-to-reach places to collect leaves, barks and roots. At some point, he started having some surplus, which he sold to other village doctors in the area.
“That was a game-changing initiative. Cultivating medicinal plants is easy and it’s more profitable than traditional vegetable farming,” Hasan Ali Bhuiyan, a farmer of the village, told Mongabay.
Bhuiyan also said that although people cared little at the beginning, gradually, the practice expanded to the adjacent villages, and now the entire union is known for this. “Now you will find medicinal plants of all kinds growing on roadsides, in the yards of houses, and along the banks of ponds in the adjacent villages,” he added, naming a list of locations in the area.
According to the Natore office of the government’s Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), about 140 species of medicinal plants are cultivated in the area on about 140 hectares (346 acres) of land. DAE officials said there has been a rise in interest among not only farmers but also people from other professions in other villages too.
“Following a government instruction to bring every inch of unused land under some kind of cultivation, people are growing medicinal plants in their backyards and on unused lands. This is amazing and people are now aware of the commercial value of the medicinal plants,” said Md. Abdul Wadud, deputy director of DAE Natore.
He said more than 1,300 farmers have been cultivating medicinal plants in those villages for the last two decades. The popular varieties include aloe vera, shimul (red silk-cotton), ashwagandha (Indian ginseng), kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata), tulsi (holy basil), shotomul (asparagus) and basok (Malabar nut).
The DAE is hopeful that the total production of herbs will be around 14,500 tons in the current fiscal year at the rate of 103.75 kilograms (229 pounds) per hectare.
Not only are local farmers cultivating these plants, they have also set up a number of nurseries for growing saplings for commercial selling.
The Halima Bheshoj Nursery, set up in 2001, grows saplings of around 600 species of medicinal plants, and every day, people from different parts of the country come to this nursery to purchase medicinal plants.
“There is now a growing interest in people about traditional or alternative medicine. That’s why people are now planting medicinal plants in pots at their houses even in the urban areas. For example, if anyone has a cough, they might want to treat it with tulsi leaves. If they have constipation, they might want triphala,” he explains.
He also said setting up a nursery doesn’t require a huge amount of land, but it needs passion, dedication and hard work to take care of the young plants. “One must know the names and be able to distinguish the characteristics to be able to identify the useful parts of the plants,” he said.
“If you don’t know them, the plants are just like a bush. If you know them, they are worth gold,” he said, adding that his nursery may be on just 1 acre of land, but it brings him around 80,000 taka (roughly $737) per month.
Centering the cultivation of medicinal plants and the formation of the nurseries in the area, the Kholabaria village market has now become a major national hub of raw materials for herbal medicine. Farmers and traders say medicinal plants worth 250-300 million taka (about $2,300 to $2,800) are sold from these 15 villages every year.
There are around 17 vendors selling medicinal herbs in Amirganj and Lakshmipur markets. From these shops, the medicinal plants are sent to different parts of the country through courier services. However, such is the demand for raw aloe vera in the country (which could well be the most well-known herbal plant in the world) that the supplies have to be loaded in trucks.
Big pharmaceutical companies and Ayurvedic and Unani medicine manufacturers such as Square Pharmaceuticals, ACME, Taiwan Food Processing Industries Ltd. and Hamdard collect their raw materials from this market. Square mostly buys ashwagandha while Taiwan Food buys aloe vera.
Delwar Hossain, president of the Kholabaria Medicinal Village Development Cooperative Society Ltd., said small traders also buy medicinal herbs from this market and sell those in different parts of the country.
According to a study, Indo-Aryans noted the use of medicinal plants in the Rig Veda at around 4,500-1,600 BCE. It said that Bangladesh being a country of this Indian subcontinent also possesses a great diversity in plants.
According to the study, “Around two thousands medicinal plants in this sub-continent and 449 medicinal plants are enlisted in Bangladesh. Though the exact number of used plants is unknown there are some common medicinal plants which are in use by kavirajes, traditional medicines for a long time.”
According to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, there are 722 species of medicinal plants in Bangladesh compared with 4,000 in India. Of them, 700 species are used for medicinal purposes, with 255 being used in Ayurvedic and Unani.
According to the World Health Organization, 88% of all countries are estimated to use traditional medicine. It said that traditional medicine has been an integral health resource for centuries in communities around the world, and it is still a mainstay for some with inequities in access to conventional medicine.
It said that traditional medicine is also part of the growing trillion-dollar global health, wellness, beauty and pharmaceutical industries. “Over 40% of pharmaceutical formulations are based on natural products and landmark drugs, including aspirin and artemisinin, originated from traditional medicine.”
Banner image: A red silk-cotton plantation. Image by Bulbul Ahmed.
Bardhan, S., Ashrafi, S., & Saha, T. (2018). Commonly Used Medicinal Plants in Bangladesh to treat Different Infections. Journal of Immunology and Microbiology. Retrieved from https://www.imedpub.com/articles/commonly-used-medicinal-plants-in-bangladesh-to-treat-different-infections.php?aid=22458