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From April to May early this year, I was in Myanmar supporting our partners as they conducted an ethnobotancial survey of plant resources used by the people of Putao. Some study has been done on the subject and part of the motivation for the trip was to raise awareness on the current status of local plant resources and interventions to support communities in the sustainable management of these plant resources.
In the morning of 24 April, Aung Thu Moe, my colleague from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Phae Phyo Hein from the Southeast Asia Biodiversity Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences (SEABRI-CAS) and I went out for a walk. We saw people on the streets carrying vegetables. We walked on until we came upon a local vegetable market.
We were astounded by the sheer diversity of plant resources on sale. Between us, we documented 112 plant varieties: 33 leafy vegetables of the wild and uncultivated kind; 18 cultivated vegetables including brinjal and chili; 14 fruits; nine varieties of beans, 11 of spices, 10 of root crops (corms/bulbs), and 10 of staples such as rice, maize, and buckwheat.
As an agriculturist with an avid interest in agrobiodiversity, I had undertaken a similar stocktaking exercise—what we call ‘rapid assessment’—at a vegetable market in the Miao Circle of Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh in October 2017. I had found that most of the plant resources on sale in the market had been sourced from shifting cultivation (jhum) fields in and around Miao. I had documented 83 different varieties of plants: 16 leafy vegetables (wild and uncultivated); 15 cultivated vegetables; 12 fruits; eight varieties of beans, nine of spices, 11 of root crops, and 12 of staples such as rice, maize, and buckwheat.
In both the markets, the sellers (mostly small scale farmers) sold directly to consumers. Local traders bought larger quantities to sell elsewhere for a handsome profit. We found that the buyers in Putao and Miao mostly bought leafy vegetables. Dryopteris cochleata, Dioscorea spp., Xanthoxylum spp., and Fagopyrum esculentum, were ubiquitous in both places. Banana inflorescence were also commonly found.
I also observed a few differences between the two markets: most sellers in the Miao market were dependent on shifting cultivation and could only supply to the market in certain months of the year. I also learnt that there was fierce competition among the farmers to collect wild and uncultivated leafy vegetables and other plant resources from forests and others areas. The farmers in the Putao market do not face such issues at present.
At the Putao vegetable market, we continued our stocktaking. We approached 15 random buyers of different produce to learn about what they were mostly interested in buying. About 70% of the respondents said they had come to the market for vegetables, 12% said fresh fruits, and 8% said spices. We followed up with what they looked for in their purchases: 75% said that the produce must be “healthy”, 18% said “tasty and palatable”, and 7% said “fresh and good looking”.
I am confident that just a quick look around the vegetable market in Miao and Putao is enough to convince anyone that “local vegetable markets are a good indicator of local plant diversity”, underscoring the need to protect and manage such plant resources for posterity. Both Miao and Putao lie in the Eastern Himalayan Landscape where the Landscape Initiative for the Far Eastern Himalaya (HI-LIFE), an initiative of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is ongoing.
The contribution of wild and non-cultivated edible plants—sourced from forests in and around Putao—to biodiversity conservation and local livelihood support, including food security, is substantial. However, these plants cannot be taken for granted and hence should be sustainably managed. For this, data and information on their status, distribution, and uses are required.
Just imagine what a tragedy it would be if one of the key components of their food supply—say, wild and non-cultivated leafy vegetables—was to disappear forever.
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