The towering peaks of the Khumbu formed an inspiring backdrop to an international conference on Tibetan medicine here recently in which traditional healers from across the Himalayan region participated.
Amchis, as the healers are known, had journeyed here from Ladakh, Mustang and Dolpo with one common concern: how to protect their unique medical heritage and the rare high-altitude herbs on which their profession depends.
The Everest Conference of Amchis was held in Namche earlier this month by Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Royal Sagarmatha National Park, Tengboche Monastery and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature Nepal. The national park spread out below the world's highest mountain was chosen for its conservation success story, and to attach a higher profile to the world of the Amchis.
The Himalayan arc is 3,500 km long, stretching from Afghanistan to Burma and nurtures an incredible bio-diversity. This variety is also evident in an estimated 10,000 species of medicinal and aromatic plants found here, many of these rare and found nowhere else in the world. These precious plants are regarded as holy in remote regions of the Tibetan plateau and along the high rimlands in neighbouring countries. Through millennia, the inhabitants of the Himalayas discovered the medicinal value of these plants and passed the knowledge from one generation of Amchis to the next, right down to the present day.
Like the herbs, the Amchi tradition of 'sowa rigpa' has also become endangered. But a renewed worldwide interest in traditional medicine spurred by the realisation of the limitations of western medicine has breathed new life into the world of the Amchi. For centuries, these plants were only picked by the gentle, knowing hands of Amchis, medical professionals trained in traditional and spiritual healing.
The potent qualities of high-altitude medicinal and aromatic plants have since then been scientifically recognised. This has turned the plants into cash crops, often picked and collected in an unsustainable manner. "Very often, only the tip of the plant may be needed but the plant is still yanked out by its root," says Helen Cawley, project co-coordinator of Sacred Land Healing Centre, a small local initiative set up to help conserve the medical tradition and plant resources of the Chomolungma region.
As demand for Tibetan remedies increases, the plants are under pressure. As long as the demand was local, regeneration compensated for harvesting. Species that are facing new threats include those that have proved popular in modern pharmaceutical compounds, Ayurvedic cosmetics and fashionable 'natural' products in the Indian market. More than 100 tons of herbs are transported from lofty Himalayan valleys in Nepal to the Indian border every year. Suppliers can even afford to charter cargo planes to take the plants down because of the prices they fetch.
High altitude plants grow slowly but have more potent medical qualities. Plants growing up to and beyond 5,000m are in huge demand and as a result, the rate of extraction is slowly exceeding that of re-growth. They are also susceptible to climatic changes and overgrazing.
Some of the more popular medicinal plants include jatamasi, known by its Latin name, Nardostachys grandiflora and kutki, Picrorhiza kurrooa which are traded in huge amounts between the Tibetan plateau and the lower valleys on the Nepal side from where they find their way to the international market.
High demands on the herbs resulted in prices going up, and Amchis can't afford to buy them anymore. Having provided free medical services to patients in their communities for many generations, the traditional healers now are forced to respond to the laws of supply and demand. "Keeping my patients healthy is what keeps me alive," says Rinpoche Tsewang Dorje Tulku of the Dolpa district.
The Namche conference succeeded in bringing about keen discussions on regional variations in medical plants, how they are best utilised, whether or not they are endangered and how the process of their extraction could be made sustainable. However, one question remained unanswered: gaining political recognition and support.
"The Amchi tradition is not yet recognised by the Nepali government even though the training and traditional practice is well-established," says Cawley. One reason could be sheer ignorance on the government's part, she says, "It's not that they are directly denying the Amchis anything. They just do not know enough about them. It is time they did."
The prospect of losing species of medicinal plants forever is devastating for the Amchis and locals whose lives revolve around their constant availability. Even where modern health care has reached in the Himalayan region, traditional Tibetan medicine is the fall-back option for many. It would be a shame to see plants going into anti-wrinkle creams in the cities instead of saving lives in the remote regions of the Himalaya.
Saving sacred plants
When Helen Cawley started the Sacred Land Initiatives ten years ago, she knew it was only the beginning. Together with her husband, Michael Schmitz (see pic, right), she moved to the Khumbu and little by little the impact of their work on environment and heritage conservation is becoming apparent in the region.
"I didn't come seeking a spiritual path. I just happened to meet some extraordinary meditation teachers that introduced me to a whole new dimension," recalls the 41-year-old Scot, looking very content with the turn her life took at that point. She met her husband-to-be at Boudha, accompanying him when he was asked to head the project to help Tengboche Monastery manage its tourism sustainably to benefit the monks, people and trekkers.
Cawley says she is simply helping implement the Tengboche Rinpoche's ideas, as it is under his direction that the monastery has not only been restored after a devastating fire 25 years ago, but also expanded and improved. Much of the help has come from individuals and organisations like the Himalayan Trust founded by Sir Edmund Hillary.
The Rinpoche of Tengboche has always been involved in conservation (see interview with the abbot, #217) and has been worried that the Himalayan medical tradition and the medical plants on which it relies are being lost. He encouraged Helen and Michael to establish medical gardens in the Khumbu region and invited a traditional doctor, Amchi Sherab Barma to work at their clinic in Namche.
Amchi Sherab has made traditional treatments available again and offers free care to those who can't afford it. Together with Tengboche Rinpoche, Sonam Gyalsten of the Royal Sagarmatha National Park buffer zone project and local Sherpas, the couple established Sacred Land Initiatives for the production and marketing of tea and incense to support the clinic and gardens.
"Our biggest problem is registering the clinic as an Amchi Institution as it is not yet recognised by the government," says Helen. "If we were to register it as an ayurvedic centre, there would be no problem." Helen has reason to believe in Tibetan medicine after the tiny black pills given to her by an Amchi cured a painful abscess on her tooth in a day, a miraculous substitute for an extraction.
"I've gone back to him twice already," she adds smilingly, hoping these selfless practitioners will receive the acknowledgement they deserve.
Michael and Helen, with the help of WWF Nepal, are working on an exhibition in April 2005 at the Sacred Land Healing Centre in Namche. It will include information on conservation issues, photos of medicinal plants and striking images in 16th century thangkas depicting medicinal treatments and plants used by Amchis.
If the centre has come so far just on the commitment and passion of a few people, imagine how much more successful it would be in reviving the endangered knowledge system of traditional Himalayan medicine if it received official recognition and political backing.