For centuries, rural people in isolated areas
all over the world supported themselves by harvesting plants and
other natural products from the forests and grasslands. By
harvesting only for personal use or small local markets, these
people maintained a delicate interdependence with the plant
resources on which they relied for food, shelter, medicine, and
In an ideal world, this scenario may have continued
indefinitely. In reality, however, growing population pressure,
habitat loss, and escalating commercial demand for wild botanicals
have created a critical need for a new vision of sustainable plant
“There’s an ongoing revolution in health care that’s gradually
replacing conventional notions of health and wellness,” says
Maureen DeCoursey, HRF’s new director of sustainable development.
“We need to take that idea further so that we are not only taking
care of ourselves properly by utilizing more natural therapies but
also taking care of the plants and the planet that sustain us.”
A conservation and development expert specializing in non-timber
forest products, DeCoursey recently teamed up with HRF President
Rob McCaleb and the rest of the HRF staff to expand the
foundation’s Division of Sustainable Development. DeCoursey has
more than seventeen years of experience in biodiversity
conservation and economic development, and her work has taken her
to more than fifteen countries in Asia, eastern Europe, Africa, and
Central and South America. Under McCaleb’s direction, HRF has been
involved in sustainable development projects in Africa, Asia,
Europe, and the United States, and will next undertake a project in
the former Soviet Union.
By combining DeCoursey’s expertise in international economic
development with HRF’s experience in the natural-product
marketplace, the Division of Sustainable Development aims to bridge
the gaps between biodiversity conservation, preservation of
traditional rural lifestyles, and the need to ensure a continued
supply of herbs and other plant products for the worldwide market.
The practical goal is to link reputable buyers in the Western world
with sustainable harvesters and growers in developing nations.
Rich forests, poor people, and the global demand for
The issue is not merely guaranteeing a supply of herbs, explains
DeCoursey, but making sure that the herbs are produced in a
socially, environmentally, and economically responsible manner.
“Are we harvesting the plants in a way that ensures that future
generations will have access to them, in a way that does not
interfere with the healthy function of natural ecosystems? Are we
contributing to the lives of impoverished people around the planet,
or leading them further away from self-reliance, with a degraded
environment on top of it all?”
These are big, complex questions with a vast array of variables.
Each sustainable- development project demands a customized approach
that takes into consideration the unique social issues, economic
realities, and environmental factors that affect a particular
nation and its plants. HRF is at the forefront of experimenting
with practical, flexible development models that address the needs
of the communities, ecosystems, and market forces involved in each
region. Often, one of the primary goals in a sustainable
development project is to engage the community in protecting its
own plant resources in exchange for more secure access to the
Sustainable development in eastern Europe: The next
Right now, there is a pressing need for sustainable herb
development in Europe, a major traditional source of wild-harvested
aromatic and medicinal plants for use in foods, beverages,
supplements, and household products. Approximately 2,000 species of
medicinal and aromatic plants are traded in Europe, including 1,200
to 1,300 that are native to the continent. An estimated 150 species
currently are threatened in at least one European country due to
overcollection from the wild, according to a report by TRAFFIC, the
trade-monitoring organization of the World Wildlife Fund and the
World Conservation Union.
Many regions in eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former
Soviet states are making a transition from communist rule to a
free-market economy, have little knowledge of the market, and lack
experience running specialized botanical businesses. Careless
wildharvesting techniques, such as the practice of ripping plants
out by the roots, have severely degraded plant resources in these
countries. In Albania, where DeCoursey recently completed a
forest-based enterprise development project, almost 100 percent of
aromatic and medicinal plants are harvested from the wild.
Albania is one of the world’s foremost suppliers of culinary
herbs, including sage, thyme, and oregano. In especially isolated
areas of the country, income earned harvesting these plants often
exceeds that earned through agriculture, livestock, or wage labor.
This is especially true for women, who may have no other sources of
income. Sustainable development will help these people preserve
their traditional lifestyle by protecting the plant resources upon
which they depend for income.
How you can help
Ultimately, consumers of herbal products will determine whether
the world’s wild medicinal and spice plants are protected and
preserved for future generations, predicts DeCoursey. “The market
is driven by consumers,” she says. “It’s up to consumers to put
pressure on manufacturers to use herbs from sustainable sources.
Call or write the companies you buy from to ask for documentation
that the herbs they use are certified sustainable.”