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Seabuckthorn

A wonder plant with immense ecological and economical potential, Seabuckthorn is regarded as one of the most exciting plants in the botanical kingdom. With its properties ranging from anti cancer, anti ageing to anti-radiation, Seabuckthorn has a unique composition of minerals, vitamins, fatty acids, etc that makes it a rare specimen in nature.

Seabuckthorn in Spiti – A brief History

Seabuckthorn grows wild in the Spiti valley and is found in abundance along the river beds. Traditionally, Seabuckthorn was used for the treatment of a variety of diseases, by the Amchis (local doctors). As per information from the Amchis it is used in the treatment of as many as 300 different diseases. However, the people of Spiti didn’t find much utility in the plant except for its use as a fence and fuelwood. This particular usage has led to the large scale depletion of the resource base in the valley. It is said that from 1970 onwards till 2000, almost 50% of the resource base was lost for various reasons, the prominent ones being the above mentioned. Moreover due to lack of awareness the local communities never realised its economic or ecological potential.

The government and scientific institutes initiated various programs to promote Seabuckthorn in the region in the early 90’s but failed in making much headway the most prominent reason for the same being lack of involvement of the local communities. Research teams were formed and sent to various countries to learn from their examples. Unfortunately, not much came out
of these visits as some of the findings of the teams were not encouraging and it was concluded that Seabuckthorn could not be developed in this region in the same manner as it had been in other countries. As a result of this the Seabuckthorn initiative took a nose dive before it even got the opportunity to surface!

In the year 2000 a group of individuals (who later formed Muse and subsequently Ecosphere) while visiting Spiti for a workshop on Traditional Medicine, realised the potential of Seabuckthorn and the issues plaguing its growth. A meeting with Nono Sonam Angdui (The King of Spiti) and a few concerned youth resulted in a plan to initiate work on this wonder plant. More research revealed that FRL (DRDO)had also been working on
developing products from Seabuckthorn and in the year 2001 commercialisation of Seabuckthorn began in Ladakh as well. However unlike Spiti, where a community enterprise based model was being initiated, Ladakh was going in a more conventional manner where a private industrialist was called in to set up an industry. On a visit to Leh to explore possibilities of partnering with FRL and the industrialist, it was discovered that the extraction of the plant was being done in a very haphazard and unsustainable manner by the industrialist which could pose a serious threat to the plant and hence the sustainability of the resource base. Also the benefits of the same were not really percolating to the local community. Some urgent measures were required to combat the situation and prevent its replication in a similar manner to the neighbouring areas of Himachal Pradesh. Since Seabuckthorn’s commercial value had already been demonstrated, it was decided that a community livelihood initiative would be ideal to address issues pertaining to the regions development as well as conservation of the resource.

In 2001 research was initiated to develop a plan for the same.

In 2002 a project was initiated with support from GTZ for the conservation, commercialisation and propagation of Seabuckthorn with the local women of Spiti as the major stakeholders and beneficiaries of the project.

The activities undertaken over the years have encompassed:-

  • Awareness generation and mobilisation of the local community
  • Organization & empowerment of women and villagers into producer groups
  • Devising sustainable harvesting techniques in consultation with the women groups
  • Capacity building and training of the local community on appropriate technology for processing of Seabuckthorn
  • Set-up of 4 decentralized units for processing of Seabuckthorn
  • Research & Development on Seabuckthorn products
  • Development of various products from Seabuckthorn and their linkage with the market
  • Building of a Brand identity - Tsering
  • Institutionalization of the groups into a local body – Spiti Seabuckthorn Society
  • Policy advocacy with the State Government, especially the Forest and Tribal Development Departments

Spiti Seabuckthorn Society (an organisation that has evolved from the work initiated by MUSE & Ecosphere on Seabuckthorn) is one of the first community ventures towards the conservation and commercialisation of Seabuckthorn in an organised manner.

The focus areas and successes have been:

Conservation of Seabuckthorn & Women’s Empowerment – In the first year of the initiative 5 resource rich villages were selected and women producer groups formed in these villages. 33 groups from 27 villages were made a part of the initiative with approximately 500 members. Production levels increased from 2.5 Metric Tons in the first year to 17 Metric
Tons per annum in a few years. The initial success of the pilot initiative and
the subsequent economic benefits accrued from Seabuckthorn (a plant which previously held no economic value to the local community) had an immense effect on the populace of Spiti. One of the most significant consequences of this initiative was the emergence of the local community as the custodians
of their natural resource base. The women, who were initially identified as the target beneficiaries, were the torch bearers of this change in mind set. Upon realizing the varied properties of the plant, women not only started protecting the existing Seabuckthorn resources by not allowing its extraction, but also initiated its propagation along the river beds (an area most susceptible to erosion). Moreover, the concept of ‘live fencing’ of Seabuckthorn hedges (being an extremely thorny bush) gradually picked up as an alternative to fencing.

Equitable Benefit Sharing – Producer groups comprise of 1 member (primarily women) from each family in the village. Each member in the group harvests exactly the same predetermined quantity as decided by the group. This not only ensures equitable benefits flowing to each and every family in the village, but also makes the distribution of earnings within the groups simpler.

Formation of a Community Based Organisation – 50% of the villages in Spiti were involved with the Spiti Seabuckthorn Society (a community organisation) that was working towards the conservation, commercialization and propagation of Seabuckthorn. 33 Production Groups were formed for managing the harvesting and processing of Seabuckthorn. These groups were thereafter organized on a cluster level for the purpose of processing, which was conducted in 4 decentralised production units. These production units are located in close vicinity and not further than a few kilometers from the collection areas. Although, as mentioned earlier, it was largely the women in the initial phase who came forward to support the initiative, later almost all sections of the society became involved in some or the other aspect of its functioning. Men who showed no interest in the first 2 years, came forward along with the youth both in the harvesting and processing of seabuckthorn.

Market Linkages & Product Development – As is the case with most community based initiatives, marketing presents the biggest challenge towards ensuring sustainability. Marketing arrangements with organizations working on the commercialization of Seabuckthorn in Ladakh (Ladakh Foods Limited), ensured the sale of the pulp in the initial years, and provided the necessary launch pad for demonstration of its economic feasibility to the local community in the initial stages. However as this arrangement lacks sustainability in the long run, end products such as Seabuckthorn Tea, Juice, Jam and Squash have been developed for sale in the open markets. Research is being undertaken on various other products as well.

Promotion of Indigenous Knowledge and Usage – Local
usage of Seabuckthorn and similar other resources were also promoted either as health supplements or for the treatment of common ailments through the local doctors (amchis). The Amchis were also mobilized to generate awareness amongst the community with regards to their age old system as well as the vital role played by the various natural resources in the sustenance of this system.

Towards People Centered Policies – Sensitising the government towards the formulation of people centered policies has been one of the major achievements of this initiative. Policy advocacy with the State Government has initiated a shift in their policies from only promoting foreign species to supporting the propagation and commercialization of the local species.
The government has also supported the set up of necessary infrastructure for processing of Seabuckthorn. Since Seabuckthorn grows on Forest Land, it has received a de-facto status of a Forest Produce. However the forest department recognises the rights of the local people for the extraction of Seabuckthorn and are now working in close unison with the locals in ensuring the sustainable harvesting and maintenance of the resource base.

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