Many people's livelihoods in South Asia depend on plants. People may earn a living by growing crops or by gathering their harvest from the wild.
Plants used for medicines are among the most valuable in South Asia. In India, the collection and processing of medicinal plants contributes an estimated 35 million days of paid work each year. Plants in trade are valuable to people not only for their many uses, but because people earn a living selling them.
Many plants in trade have become highly sought after, and their conservation is a priority to protect them from extinction.
Plants with economic value need to be conserved so that people can continue to earn a living from them in future. Unfortunately, the demand for many plants in trade may result in too much harvesting from the wild.
Internationally, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) was established to ensure that trade in many thousands of plants and animals does not threaten their survival.
All South Asian countries also belong to the Convention on Biological Diversity. This is a treaty committing countries to conserving all living creatures, using them carefully, and to make sure that their use has equal benefits for everybody involved in producing them.
Wild or cultivated?
Today, many plants from South Asia have reached such popularity that they are grown as crops for the market. Crops are often more productive and easier to harvest than plants gathered in the wild.
All the plants we use were once harvested only from the wild. Until the early 19th century, the Cardamom Hills in the Western Ghats of India were the only source of the prized cardamom spice. Today, cardamom trees are grown in plantations around the world, including the Western Ghats, where they help to protect wildlife from encroaching agricultural land. Cardamom plantations form a patchwork with coffee and tea estates, and natural forests. The patchwork allows wildlife to move safely between the forests.
Some useful plants are difficult to grow and continue to be harvested in the wild. Sandalwood oil comes mainly from trees that grow in the wild.
Organisations like the Forest Stewardship Council encourage harvesting and trade in a way that protects both the plants and the people who earn a living from them.