Contributed by Rajeev Goyal

When the foothill region, known as the “Chure Bawar” or “Little Himalayas,” was first settled, Amrit Bahadur Rai founded the Sawitri Primary School in Yangshila village in 1969, and served as its first headmaster and teacher. Today, Amrit Baaje (“Grandfather Amrit”), as he is known, is also the most knowledgeable medicinal plant expert of Yangshila. He can be found living in a two-story home constructed of planks from local sal trees, shrouded in medicinal plants on the eastern edge of the village (see Figure 2). The fact that the very first teacher of Yangshila is also its leading medicinal plants conservationist is suggestive of the numerous possibilities that exist to integrate education and conservation to bolster health sovereignty in the Chure Bawar region of Nepal.

Figure 2. Amrit Bahadur Rai, Yangshila’s first teacher and Conservator of Botanical Knowledge

Figure 2. Amrit Bahadur Rai, Yangshila’s first teacher and Conservator of Botanical Knowledge

Nepal possesses over 10,000 species of vascular plants, including many that are endemic, contributing to its designation as one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots. In eastern Nepal, this diversity is the result of ecological heterogeneity between the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve (67 meters above sea level), the largest aquatic bird sanctuary in South Asia, and Mt. Kanchenjunga (8,586 masl), the third tallest peak in the world.  This altitudinal gradient spans 11 climatic zones that contain diverse plants, including many such as chiraito (Swertia chirayita) and laudsalla (Taxus wallichiana) that are commonly used as medicine by indigenous communities.

Deforestation threatens this diversity of medicinal plants. Between 1990 and 2005, Nepal lost 1 million hectares of forest—more than 25% of its total forest cover.  This period was also marked by a drastic increase in species added to Nepal’s Red List. The national education system, not typically considered a potential force for biodiversity conservation, can play a critical role in stewarding thousands of hectares of existing forest, improving landscape connectivity, and promoting health sovereignty through the teaching of medicinal plants. Under the Nepal Education Act of 1971, schools can acquire land but cannot sell it. This provision forms the basis for creating a Biodiversity Education Land Trust (BELT) to conserve landscapes with high medicinal plant diversity. Teachers, conservationists, farmers and researchers at Cornell University have been working together to create this BELT.

Our research began with an inventory of medicinal plants within a 5-kilometer radius of Yangshila.  Together with Kumar Bishwakarma, a local teacher, and Yuvraj Poudyal, a medicinal plant specialist, we collected 347 plants from 72 plant families. We documented medicinal uses of these plants with 20 key informants. Results suggest that taxonomic diversity is actively conserved along landscape edges (pathways, roads and administrative boundaries). Other forms of “edge” such as seasonal changes, altitudinal gradients, community boundaries and land use differences, also showed heightened biodiversity.

The two main building blocks for teaching medicinal plant biodiversity already exist in Yangshila: first, the presence of plant diversity for a “living classroom” and second, knowledgeable teachers interested in conservation. Three schools in Yangshila already own between 1.5 and 7 hectares of land that is rich in diverse medicinal plants. Furthermore, local teachers demonstrate strong knowledge of medicinal plants.  More field research is being carried out to study how the BELT can help activate this latent potential to bolster the future health sovereignty in the Chure Bawar region of Nepal.