Locally grown medicinal plants and traditional healing practices play a significant role in the general welfare of the the Indigenous communities living in the Hill Tracts, as well as representing a rich seam of local heritage.
The knowledge and wisdom which underpin the practice of Baidya, as traditional healers are called, has predominantly been passed down, spanning generations. Having been extensively and effectively used for hundreds of years, many people living here today are still almost totally dependent on these methods, for both the treatment and upkeep of their health.
Broadly speaking, Baidyas provide two categories of service. The first is plant-based, covering preventative, curative and healing treatment, known as ‘kabiraji’. The second is the practice of spiritual and sacred ceremonies and is called ‘tontra-montro’, a popular practice with the Baidyas from the Tanchangya community.
In recent years, concern has been raised that this local wisdom is under threat and eroding fast. This has been attributed to many factors, but the two main contributors are deforestation, and the rapidly shrinking land resource, which together are responsible for the drastically reduced availability of the plants and herbs required for practice.
Medicinal plants can often be found along the hedgerows and boundary lines, with the shrubby species usually cultivated as undergrowth in homestead plantations and also on fallow land. It’s typically women who play a major role in maintaining these local medicinal plantations.
Baidyas themselves also grow and maintain their own personal stock of the main plants and herbs used for their practice. Some however rely on purchases from their local bazaars, but generally this quality is poor, with limited available varieties, as the most widely used species become increasingly rare and more difficult to find.
Collecting and harvesting at the correct time is a vital factor in ensuring the quality and effectiveness of the finally produced medicine. Unfortunately this time-factor can often be ignored, due to the acute shortage and high demand for these plants.
With no formal arrangement or recognised institution to train and nurture existing local knowledge, coupled with the difficulty in obtaining raw materials, the practice of Baidya does in fact appear to be one under threat. Moving forward, conservation measures are urgently needed to be put in place, to protect remaining stocks along with this priceless inherited knowledge.
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) have been working in the Bolipara district over the last couple of years to do just that, and I was delighted to also come across evidence that this valuable work is now taking place in other areas of the Bandarban hills too.