Wasteful collection methods
blamed for depleting species
Parts of plants prized for their medicinal properties are displayed at a stall at O’Russey Market in Phnom Penh.
An earthy smell emanates from the sacks of bark, roots, herbs and berries lined up on the pavement in front of Khan Vanny's medicine stall on Phnom Penh's Street 166. Plastic bags hang from the doorways of the shop, stuffed with the powders, dried leaves and funguses that Cambodians have used for centuries to treat ailments large and small.
But Vanny's cornucopia of medicinal plants - and the lucrative trade in such goods which flourishes across the Kingdom - might not exist for too much longer.
A system of unsustainable collection coupled with the destruction of forest habitats across the country has experts warning that Cambodia's rare plant species are now just as endangered as its animals.
"There is no sustainability," said David Ashwell, a botanist and consultant working with the international anti-wildlife-smuggling group TRAFFIC.
"Increasing numbers of species [are] becoming generally rare, so much so that even the traders [in Phnom Penh] are saying that they are becoming hard to get," he added.
According to Ashwell, Cambodia's disorganized system of local collectors, forest processing stations, middlemen, wholesalers and retailers in medicinal plants is depleting whole districts of certain rare plants and trees.
"Sometimes they have to re-export products back to certain provinces because the local populations of these species have already been depleted," he explained.
Many contemporary harvesting methods are grossly wasteful, geared more towards quick profits than long-term sustainability, said Khou Eang Hourt, project coordinator of the Saving Plants that Save Lives and Livelihoods Project at TRAFFIC.
"If [collectors] want the seed-pods of a tree, they cut down the tree if the tree is too tall. In the traditional practice, people would climb up," he said.
Such practices have contributed to galloping inflation at medicine stalls in the capital, where prices have more than doubled for some products within a year.
At Khan Vanny's stall, the price of herbs from Kampong Speu and Kampong Chhnang provinces has trebled over the past year and they're increasingly hard to find.
"I'm concerned about the future loss of forests. We might have no herbs to sell," she said.
TRAFFIC has identified 824 species of fauna that are used in traditional Khmer medicine, 80 of which are under serious threat from unsustainable trade.
"In the future, maybe we will have no medicinal plants and trees to sell because they only grow slowly, while we cut them continuously," said the owner of the Protheal Pinchean traditional medicine store on Street 139, who declined to be named.
She said formerly ubiquitous forest products now need to be harvested in increasingly remote areas and often by illegal means, which drives up their price.
Formal commercial cultivation, one solution to increasing scarcity, is likely to prove costly and difficult.
"Not all species can be successfully domesticated," said TRAFFIC's Hourt. "So it's worth encouraging a more sustainable harvest."
Yet the demand for medicinal forest products is unlikely to wane anytime soon. "I wouldn't be surprised if half the city uses traditional medicine," said Ashwell. "Medicinal plants are still an important part of the health system here."
In 2004 TRAFFIC helped establish the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP), a set of guidelines that it is has been testing in Cambodia since early this year.
The ISSC-MAP standards are designed less to crack down on illegal trade than to promote the responsible harvest of medicinal plants through education about the possible economic and biological effects of over-harvesting.
"It's really a pilot exercise, involving awareness-raising activities," said Ashwell. The TRAFFIC project has involved a thorough documentation of the various products used in Cambodian traditional medicine and the supply chains of various threatened species, and is being tested in targeted locations, with the hope that ISSC-MAP standards could eventually be expanded more widely throughout Cambodia.