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Medicinal and aromatic plants trade programme

Promoting best practice in the botanicals sector to support conservation, healthcare and livelihoods

Human well-being in both rural and urban areas depends on a diverse array of wild plant products from an even more diverse array of wild plant species. This includes species used for their medicinal and aromatic properties. An estimated 50,000–70,000 medicinal and aromatic species are harvested from the wild, with the annual global export value of pharmaceutical plants alone being over USD2.2 billion in 2011.

Use and trade of these plant-based pharmaceuticals and “botanicals”, as medicinal and aromatic plants are sometimes called, underpin both traditional and “modern” healthcare systems. These plants also flavour our food and drinks, perfume and give colour to beauty products and provide incense used by many religious traditions.

The trade also provides a source of income to millions of households involved in collection, with women often playing the major role, and supplies industrial production of a wide array of medicinal and household products. Although accurate data are lacking, available information indicates that trade is increasing.

Figure 1: Total export values of medicinal plants, showing the top exporters in 1999 and 2009. Source: UNComtrade

Figure 2: Total import quantities of medicinal plants, showing the top importers in 1999 and 2009. Source: UNComtrade

The challenge
The great majority of medicinal and aromatic plants in use and trade are wild-collected. Wild harvest provides raw materials for pharmaceutical and herbal products, ranging from Taxus spp. used to treat cancer, to raspberry leaf and lime flower used in herbal teas. Unfortunately, wild plant populations are declining the world over. One in five of the world’s plant species is estimated to be threatened with extinction in the wild, and unsustainable harvest is a major factor.  The results of monitoring selected species at high risk demonstrate few signs of recovery.

Unlike the trade in wild animals, which can stir strong negative emotions in some cultures, and the trade in timber, often portrayed in terms of lost forests and threatened indigenous peoples, the “hidden harvest” of medicinal and aromatic plants and other non-timber forest products receives relatively little attention from the public, governments or conservation NGOs. Although development agencies often pay more attention, their main focus is on strengthening rural livelihood opportunities, not on conservation or sustainable use of the wild plant populations, even when these are contributing to many rural livelihood strategies. Where efforts to promote sustainable management, transparency or increased benefit-sharing do exist, they have to contend with widely distributed harvest communities and highly complex trade chains.

The opportunities
A growing number of companies are realizing that investing in sustainable management of wild harvests and associated supply chains makes good business sense. As well as avoiding the need to discontinue or reformulate products, investment in sustainable sourcing, particularly when coupled with “fair trade”, can enhance a company’s corporate image. This is reinforced by growing consumer awareness of and demand for “ethical” products. Governments are also increasingly recognizing the economic importance of wild-product trade, and so keen to address sustainability issues and ensure product quality through more transparent supply chains. Groups promoting “alternative livelihoods” based on commercialization of non-timber forest products have also come to realize that success relies on stable supplies, as well as stable or growing markets.

TRAFFIC’s engagement to date
Although numerous conservation organizations cite the importance of medicinal plants as a reason to conserve biodiversity more generally, it has been TRAFFIC, IUCN and WWF who have led efforts to address sustainability and equity issues associated with commercial trade. We have successfully informed and engaged a wide variety of stakeholders in the development of tools to reduce over-exploitation, including the WHO/IUCN/WWF/TRAFFIC Guidelines on the Conservation of Medicinal Plants (in prep), the CBD Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and the FairWild Standard.


FairWild Standard development was led by TRAFFIC, WWF, IUCN, the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) and others, and involved extensive consultation with representatives from government, private sector, academia, NGOs, and certification agencies (history of FairWild Standard development). Initially known as the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP), it was merged with an existing initiative in 2008, and the FairWild Standard (Version 2.0) now provides a reference and best-practice framework for sustainable wild collection and trade.  The ISSC-MAP Standard was tested for applicability to community resource management in pilot projects in six countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Cambodia, India, Nepal, and Lesotho. Lessons learned were published in a report Wild for a Cure, launched in September 2010. FairWild sustainable use projects continue in various regions around the world—see TRAFFIC’s Medicinal and Aromatic plants news updates and FairWild activities section for details and updates.

Watch Healing Power from Nature, a short video about the importance of medicinal plants and the FairWild Standard


The FairWild Standard is maintained by the FairWild Foundation, a Swiss-based charity in which TRAFFIC is a partner.  Specifically designed to be relevant to the private sector, civil society organizations and governments alike, the Standard and associated guidance tools  (see e.g. FairWild Standard in Practice (PDF, 200 KB)) are being used by industry to inform their product-sourcing guidelines, by governments and inter-governmental organizations in designing harvest and trade controls, and by communities in their management systems.

The Standard forms the basis of a third-party audited certification system, complementing organic and fair trade certification processes, which typically lack mechanisms for certifying that wild harvest levels are sustainable. The FairWild Standard’s principles and approach are being used by a growing number of herbal product, food and other companies dependent on wild-sourced botanicals, and by governments keen to bring or maintain wild plant harvests and trade within sustainable levels.

TRAFFIC programme priorities and results

Our work focuses on promoting uptake of the FairWild Standard by the private sector, governments and inter-governmental institutions. A particular focus is placed on trade to markets in Europe, North America and Asia, and on reaching companies that can leverage wider buy in to the Standard from the private sector. A specific effort is being made to achieve more sustainable trade flows from the South-west China temperate forests, the Eastern Himalayas, Greater Black Sea Basin, the Mediterranean, the Congo Basin, Upper Yangtze and Mekong regions. The focus of our work is on wild-harvested products and we do not work on domestication or associated cultivation activities. Work with local communities is done through partnership with other institutions experienced in community-based natural resource management. Similarly, we encourage other institutions, including companies, to design and deliver messaging to end-consumers regarding the importance of sustainable and ethical sourcing of wild harvested plant products.

In the period 2012–2016, we will work with partners to achieve the following results:
•    CBD, CITES, and one international organization/institution use the FairWild Standard as the basis for their policies, guidance and/or practices on wild-sourcing of plants and to promote equitable benefit-sharing;
•    State and/or national governments in at least three countries adopt and/or use the FairWild Standard principles as the basis for their regulations on wild plant harvest and trade and/or in their CITES-NDF procedures;
•    At least two key product manufacturers each in the USA, Europe, Africa, and Asia, and two key wholesalers, use FairWild principles as the basis for their wild plant product-sourcing; and
•    Key retailers in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia are aware of the positive effects of sustainable harvesting on plants and livelihoods and promote sales of products from sustainable wild sources.

In 2013, TRAFFIC, together with the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies (WFCMS), WWF China and Zhejiang Wecome Pharmaceutical Ltd instigated the Engaging China’s private sector in sustainable management of medicinal plants (EGP-MAPs) project in Hunan and Zhejiang Provinces.

Catalogue listing all TRAFFIC's publications on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (PDF, 3.2 MB)

Here's what the staff of TRAFFIC and FairWild Foundation say about their fascination with wild medicinal and aromatic plants!

“Being able to contribute through our work on sustainability gives me a strong feeling of pride to be associated with local communities and being able to contribute to their economic welfare,” MKS Pasha, Associate Director-Programmes, TRAFFIC, India Office.

“The world would just be a less interesting place without all the different plants in it - and they have so many uses too!” Bryony Morgan, Executive Officer of FairWild Foundation and Medicinal Plants Officer, TRAFFIC.

“The reason I am especially fascinated by use of plants is because it is such a large part of the dependence of people on nature – and trying to understand and influence the relationship between people and their environment is the motivation for my involvement in conservation overall”, Steven Broad, Executive Director of TRAFFIC, Trustee of the FairWild Foundation.

“Plants have myriad value and underpin all life on earth – trees are the lungs of the earth; plants provide innumerable uses from construction to culinary delights; they represent an incredible storehouse of undiscovered medicine; they inspire design, artistry and poetry; and they are intrinsically beautiful and, simply, make me feel good,” Thomas Osborn, Regional Programme Coordinator, TRAFFIC, Europe Office.

“I am always fascinated to work on plants, because they are quiet, but beautiful and useful,” Kahoru Kanari, Senior Programme Officer, TRAFFIC, Japan Office.

“Ensuring access and benefit sharing and recognition of traditional knowledge has always been very important to me and the work in TRAFFIC on medicinal and aromatic plants focuses on these issues as well as the conservation of the plant species”,  Naomi Doak, ex-Coordinator, TRAFFIC's Greater Mekong Programme.

 “It is rewarding and fascinating, knowing we together to contribute to the survival of species so important for so many purposes, and so beautiful too!” Anastasiya Timoshyna, Global Medicinal Plant Programme Lead, TRAFFIC.

“The conservation and sustainable use of plants is of utmost importance for humanity—thus my fascination in work on conservation and sustainable use is based on my nature to be a plant person on the one hand and on my understanding of current worrying developments on earth on the other hand,” Heiko Schindler, Institute of Marketecology (IMO), Technical Committee of the FairWild Foundation.

 “Working with useful plants brings together, for me, the most compelling arguments for conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity – the social, economic, and ecological benefits, the natural wonder, and the jaw-dropping beauty of plants,” Dr Danna Leaman, Chair of Medicinal Plants Specialist Group, SSC IUCN and Trustee of the FairWild Foundation.