About the Sustainable Herbs Project

collecting medicinal plants

Work table at collector’s home by Ann Armbrecht

by Ann Armbrecht

Anthropology and Nepal

I went to Nepal in the late 1980s as a graduate student in anthropology to look at the impact of a conservation area on a local community. It was a smart project based on a lot of research by some of the brightest Nepali researchers in the country at the time. I was interested in conservation, and I was interested in doing research that made a difference. This study seemed to be an ideal dissertation project.

The seeds for the sustainable herbs project were planted during my doctoral research in northeastern Nepal.

Rice fields of Hedangna, NE Nepal by Matthäus Rest

I spent a summer doing research for the conservation project and then returned two years later to spend 18 months doing my doctoral research on villagers’ conception of the conservation area. I quickly found out the answer to that: not much. I spent the rest of my stay researching land disputes, interviewing shamans, working with them in the fields, and documenting the political history of the village.

I loved living in rural Nepal, loved the intensity of being on my own in a village a week’s walk from a road. I discovered that I did not love international development or conservation, and I came home disillusioned, not only with this conservation project, but by development in general and by its ability to make a difference. I’d always imagined going into development as a career, thought that would be a concrete way to use my anthropology degree to make a difference in the world. So, in addition to the typical culture shock of returning home, I also felt unmoored, uncertain why I’d gone into anthropology in the first place and what I would do next.

I first did as I was expected and completed my dissertation, a close analysis of kipat, a system of communal tenure in the village that ended with a critique of the conservation project for its short-sightedness and for not understanding the political history of the village. It was a good enough analysis, perhaps, but beyond getting me a PhD from Harvard, not very useful. I still wanted to do work that made a difference and didn’t see that a career in anthropology would really let me do that.

Herbal Medicine

Around that time, I attended the Women’s Herbal Conference in New England. I had become friends with Deb Soule, an herbalist and gardener in Maine who started Avena Botanicals at a retreat to carry on the work of Helen and Scott Nearing. I had been curious about using plants for medicine and she suggested I go to the conference to learn more. I was hooked. Looking back, maybe what first drew me to the herb world was the fact that it was the complete opposite of my experience at Harvard: It was joyful. It was fun. It was practical. It was outside. Everyone was warm and friendly and kind. Wanting more of all those things in my life, I enrolled in Rosemary Gladstar’s Apprentice Program, traveling monthly to camp in the woods at Sage Mountain and learn about making tinctures, identifying common weeds, and steeping a tea to be medicinal. I was a new mother at the time and I loved learning how to care for my daughter with simple remedies prepared from plants grown in my garden. Mostly though at Sage Mountain I found some of the wisdom I had found in rural Nepal: a sense of the sacredness of the earth, a quality of respect and restraint in interactions with the environment, a focus on relationship rather than ownership, and an understanding of the spiritual and cultural dimensions of healing.

I took more and more classes, attended conferences, and eventually co-produced a documentary with Terry Youk celebrating this wisdom that to me is the heart of herbal medicine. Yet, as I learned more, my anthropology mind kicked back in and I began, also, to see discrepancies and contradictions.

In books and classes, herbalists would talk about the spirit of plants, about the importance of intention when harvesting those plants and preparing remedies, and how that spirit and intention are part of the healing power of the plant. Yet, they would then recommend their clients and students use plants and remedies created from plants bought on the international market.

They talked about how to tell if herbs were good quality from the color and smell and taste of the herb, but they didn’t talk about what it took to source enough plants so that all of the buyers of their books and attendees of their classes, especially online, could use them. They had us learn about plants as living entities, but then recommended remedies that were no different from any other commodity on the shelves of stores across the country.

They weren’t doing this on purpose and it wasn’t because they were hiding something. Like any industry, unless you are part of it, it it is very difficult to find out much about it, especially when finding good sources of the raw material is so important.

Following the medicinal plant supply chain.

Delivering organically cultivated fresh Echinacea to be dried.

Following Plants through the Supply Chain

For years I’ve wanted to do just that. I’ve written book proposals and grant proposals. I’ve approached companies, seeking funding to do this work. None of those efforts paid off, so finally this past fall I just went. I was following FairWild certified medicinal plants through the supply chain, beginning in rural Hungary and Poland, from collecting sites to processing centers and then to the UK where I visited the Organic Herb Trading Company and then the finished-product manufacturer, Pukka Herbs. FairWild is a fairly recent standard that couples fair trade principles with sustainable resource management. Certification is an expensive and complicated process and FairWild’s success depends in part on greater awareness among consumers willing to pay extra to create more demand for certification. Which is why having a visitor wasn’t such a bad idea.

What I saw was eye-opening and fascinating and just scratched the surface of a very big, very complex industry with a lot of moving parts. Not surprisingly, I discovered a lot that is not great about this industry: spiderwebs and dust and cigarette butts in herbs. And yet there is also a lot that is good, especially a growing number of people and companies working hard to do things right all the way down the supply chain.

More than anything else, seeing the supply chain through the eyes of these individuals helped me to understand what is involved in producing herbal medicine on an industrial scale. It has helped me see how and where I can use my purchasing power to support the companies doing the work I believe in.

Since then, I’ve been working to bring these stories to others, to educate them about the industry, to help them understand what the issues are, and what they can do.

I’m not doing this to tell people what products to buy or not to buy. I’m not doing this to point fingers at the herb industry. I’m doing this because I think knowledge has power and having it is the first step to bringing about change.

Where do herbs come from?

Processing: cutting and sifting herbs in eastern Europe

But it is tricky to talk about in a way that feels constructive, and I am discovering that it is a lot more challenging than I anticipated. The main thing I learned on my visit to processing facilities is that what seems clear from a distance isn’t always so clear on the ground. This is obvious to most of us. Yet as consumers, and I include myself here as well, we tend to operate in black and white: Are spiderwebs good or bad? Are the plants free of all pesticides or are there traces of DDT? These seem like simple questions with simple answers but in fact they aren’t.

And so for good reasons, companies are less transparent than perhaps consumers would like. In fact, this hesitancy makes good business sense until consumers have a better understanding of what is involved in industrial-scale production.

Yet it is hard to write about ambiguity in a way that generates support for a new project. After I returned from my trip last fall I began to think nostalgically of anthropology, a discipline that deeply appreciates the complexity of social life and the necessity of ambiguity. I began reading the growing body of scholarly literature on the complexities of fair trade and saw that even such a short trip has allowed me to gather plenty of material that would allow me to join these conversations. I could go back to anthropology and use this research to join these conversations.

But ultimately, that doesn’t seem very helpful to me. I don’t see how it helps me address the questions that first took me to Nepal: How can we find ways of living more sustainably on the earth? How can we care for each other and the land with more kindness and respect? And the one that cuts the deepest: What can we do now so we can look our grandchildren in the eyes and tell them that we did everything we could to make the world a better place, while there was still time?

When we interviewed Drake Sadler, Co-founder of Traditional Medicinals for the documentary, Numen, he told us,

“The change in the world that elder herbalists envisioned decades ago only becomes possible when we as socially responsible consumers align our purchasing decisions around this idea of buying only goods and only medicines which have been harvested and produced in socially responsible ways, or in a sustainable manner.”

wild collection

Checking wild-collected medicinal plants at a collection site at Runo. Traditional Medicinals sources FairWild certified plants from Runo and has been instrumental in developing and implementing this standard.

The alternative medicine world, herbal medicine included, is very focused on what products can do for us, on how they help our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. But I believe herbal medicine is more than that: that it isn’t only about what plants can do for us, but also what we, in using these plants to heal ourselves, can do for them and the ecosystems on which they depend. This premise is rooted in the recognition that plants are more than objects growing in the ground, that they are living entities with which we enter into a relationship not resources for our consumption.

From this belief flows an entirely different relationship with the natural world, one that respects limits, one that sees the world as more than a playground for our destruction. But it only has meaning if plants are treated that way all the way through the supply chain, if the values of herbal medicine extend into the business of herbal medicine.

I’m not saying that plants need to be prayed over. I’m saying that they need to be seen, that the people along the supply chain also need to be seen, not as we would have them to be but as they are themselves to be, that we understand their experience through their eyes and words, and not just our own. And that we take those experiences into account in choosing which supply chains to support: ones that treat these concerns seriously and address them with fair wages and sustainable sourcing or ones that do not.

The Laral Value of a Thing

There is a line from Rilke I have always loved about the laral value of a thing. The laral value of a thing is all that goes into making that thing what it is, what makes it more than an object for us to exploit. I don’t have the words yet to express exactly what I mean, expect that I believe that these stories from the supply chain are a first step to instilling this laral value into the plant medicines that are produced – and to reinserting the wholeness and promise of traditional herbal medicine into herbalism as a whole and not just the finished products. In this way, herbalists can help us all shift from seeing plants as resources taken from the earth to heal our ailments to seeing how through our use of these plants as medicine, we can better care for the earth.

 

Please help make this project a reality!