The unsustainable harvesting of plants crucial for the manufacturing of traditional medicines is putting the primary health care resource of millions of Cambodians at risk, a new report has found.
The report released earlier this month by international wildlife and endangered plants trade monitoring network Traffic Southeast Asia found that as much as 50 percent of the estimated 1,000 plant species used in Cambodia in traditional medicine might be in serious danger of being wiped out if firm action is not taken.
The majority of the plants studied in the report were native to Cambodia, and among its recommendations were that Plou Kgouk, in high demand for its supposed anti-aging properties; yellow vine, which is used in the treatment of dysentery; and Aquilera crassna, a tree from which a valuable oil is harvested, were particularly at risk in the short term.
As wild fauna and flora resources in other countries diminish, it is likely that plants here are being used to satisfy demands of the international market, the report said.
“If Cambodia is losing its plants…then the vast majority of Cambodian people [are] in danger of losing their only source of health care,” it said, adding that the trade in many of the rare plants was secretive and highly organized, while regulatory implements that do exist are poorly enforced.
Director of the Ministry of Health’s National Center of Traditional Medicine Hieng Punley said about 50 percent of people in rural areas tended to use traditional medicines, compared with a much lower number in towns and cities.
He said unsustainable harvesting was being reduced by raising public awareness of the issue. Provincial health departments have also been ordered to provide special gardens where such plants could be grown.
According to Hieng Punley, Kampot’s Bokor area and Pursat province had seen the most widespread illegal harvesting, and he agreed that tighter regulations needed to be put in place for dealing with those who continued to harvest plants illegally.
Karine Chevrot, who works with NGO Nomad RSI on improving access to traditional medical care, said the conclusions of the report were not surprising.
There is already evidence in Mondolkiri province, according to Chevrot, of deforestation affecting the availability of certain plants.
“It is important to preserve this type of medicine. This knowledge is part of the traditional culture and heritage of Cambodia,” she said Thursday.
She said it was too early to say how effectively such plants could be cultivated in controlled garden environments.
World Health Organization Director Michael O’Leary said the traditional medicine sector was a well-accepted and long-standing part of the health care system here.
“Traditional medicine can often be complimentary to modern medical treatments, although there can be a problem when lack of regulation leads to a bad standard of such medicines,” he said.
O’Leary cited recent advances in the treatment of malaria, including a breakthrough drug derived from what had been a traditional medicine treatment.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said. “Every [plant] extinction could be a loss to the world.