intro: the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 4 billion people - 80% of the world population - use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Herbal medicine is a major component in all indigenous peoples' traditional medicine and is a common element in Ayurvedic, homeopathic, naturopathic, traditional oriental, and Native American Indian medicine.
Herbal medicines are the staple of medical treatment in many developing countries. Individual herbal medicines in developing regions vary considerably; healers in each region have learned over centuries which local herbs have medicinal worth.
loss of knowledge: ethnic minorities are often the losers in underdeveloped nations drives for economic development. Along with their cultural identity they are frequently losing the environmental basis for traditional forms of livelihood. With their environment degraded and with the continuing loss of fertile soils, of biodiversity, and of balanced water supply, their cultural identity is vanishing, the more as new generations of young people desire access to globally marketed goods, jobs in cities, and a life different from their parents' rural living. Protecting indigenous knowledge is part of protecting cultural bio-diversity.
the beginning: from 1986 to 1988, the Chiang Mai Centre (Thailand) studied the traditional Akha knowledge of herbal medicine. Following this study, students were requested to look for medicinal plants in their villages and bring them to the Akha Association in Chiang Rai. A nursery was set up in Chiang Rai, but several of the plants could not survive the difference in altitude between the mountains and the city. As a result, smaller nurseries were established at a few mountain stations.
Even in Chiang Rai ailing students and villagers were encouraged to seek traditional medical treatment before seeing a ‘modern’ doctor. In some villages, traditional healers received training in modern health care. In 1989, a collection of Akha herbal medicine was established and classified, and the Akha uses were translated. Following this, the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai groups worked together to set up a system of primary health care for the villages that combined traditional and modern medical techniques. The team consisted of a Thai doctor and a few young Akha from the Chiang Rai Akha Association who had received paramedic training and were working in the mountains.
follow-up: the Cherng-doi Elderly Group in Chiang Mai succeeded in utilising the local wisdom of herbal medicine to produce remedies for common illnesses. Wild herbs and products grown in local herb gardens were processed into balms and medicines. With a 100-Baht (about 2.6 US$) contribution from each member, the Cherng-doi Elderly Group started production of herbal remedies for household use and general distribution. Local herbal gardens were upgraded and expanded to include a variety of herbs needed to make a comprehensive range of herbal remedies.
results: this project helped to improve the morale of elderly people once they realised they were helping to preserve folk knowledge. It also helped to strengthen bonds within communities, improve mental and physical health, and reduce the use of drugs. Local inhabitants, including young people, now use herbal remedies to relieve common aches and illnesses.
recognition: today, the Cherng-doi Elderly Group initiative has become a prototype for health promotion projects in thirteen other villages in Chiang Mai. This project received the 2002 Citizen Base Initiative Award from Ashoka, a not-for-profit organisation promoting social entrepreneurship.