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Transboundary LandscapesHI-LIFE

Study documents dependence of Burmese communities on edible plants, suggests sustainable harvesting measures

The Far Eastern Himalayan Landscape is rich in diverse wild and non-cultivated edible plants (WNEPs). Our study records the various plant species used by local communities in Putao, Myanmar – as part of their diet, medicine, and livelihoods. We explore the contributions of these WNEPs towards human well-being: food, nutrition, social, income, and health security, among other things.

We partnered with the Forest Department and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Myanmar to conduct an ethno-botanical survey of 95 households from the Rawang and Lisu ethnic communities – dispersed across nine villages on the outskirts of Hponkanrazi Wildlife Sanctuary in Kachin State. Our aim was to understand the diversity of plant species used by the local communities, the associated knowledge and management practices, and the various socioeconomic factors directly and indirectly influencing the use of WNEPs.

Plant species documented

We have documented 103 wild and non-cultivated plant species from the nine villages. Sachi (Paris polyphylla), Ling-zhi mould (Ganoderma spp.), and shee pa di (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) are some of the species that local communities mainly depend on for cash income. Respondents from eight out of the nine villages confirmed that sachi is the major non-timber forest product (NTFP) which is collected and traded for cash.

About 75% of the respondents reported that they are involved in managing important WNEP species, and 12% are involved in the domestication of some of these plant species.

Growing pressure on WNEPs

We found that agriculture is the primary occupation for most respondents (92%), while NTFP collection is the secondary occupation for 48%.

However, agricultural produce sustains only 61% of the households throughout the year. During the food-deficit months, the rest have to depend on WNEPs and other income-generating options such as collecting NTFPs, selling walnuts and local handicrafts, engaging in tourism-related services, and fishing and hunting. Interestingly, none of the surveyed households need to purchase vegetables.

Focus group discussions and household surveys suggest that the availability of WNEPs in the area has declined during the last two decades. We studied the use of both vegetable and medicinal plant species and found that there is a growing pressure on these species due to unsustainable current harvesting trends of some high-value species.

Challenges

The conservation and management of plant species in Putao faces some key challenges such as the illegal harvesting of sachi and other important medicinal plants, and the excess harvesting of these plants due to their high market demand.

The availability of WNEPs has been on the decline over the last two decades. More than 70% of respondents stated that this was largely due to the depletion of natural vegetation by uncontrolled harvesting as well as the heavy dependence of the local communities on these resources.

Recommended solutions

For the sustainable management of WNEPs, in-situ conservation needs to be prioritized and supported by domestication and coordinated efforts from all the relevant sectors. Furthermore, alternative livelihood options, such as tourism, need to be explored so that people can diversify their income.

The Government of Myanmar has been developing national policies to provide greater scope for community participation in the management of protected areas. We suggest that the government should facilitate participatory natural resources management programmes for the better management of NTFPs and WNEPs.

Around 36% of the surveyed households suggested placing restrictions on the extraction and use of WNEPs and 17% respondents called for raising awareness among plant collectors regarding sustainable harvesting.

We put forward the following suggestions:

  1. Raise public awareness and encourage effective community-based management, including sustainable harvesting protocols, in-situ conservation and domestication
  2. Define strategies for sustainable WNEP use
  3. Assess the nutritional and medicinal value of wild vegetables and medicinal plants to promote them as health foods
  4. Strengthen the livelihoods of both communities and stakeholders along the value chain
  5. Develop alternative livelihood opportunities such as ecotourism to reduce pressure on WNEPs
  6. Strengthen regional cooperation to encourage equitable sharing of benefits, curb illegal cross-border trade, and check the unregulated harvest of WNEPs
  7. The Government of Myanmar must closely work with communities to develop appropriate legislation for the conservation and sustainable use of WNEPs