Kachin Herbal Medicine Initiative: Creating Opportunities for Conservation and Income Generation Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 01 September 2009 00:00

1. Kachin State and its People

Kachin State is Burma’s northernmost state, with a population about 1.2 million people. It is rich in natural resources including alpine and evergreen forests and vast reserves of jade, gold, platinum, and coal. Kachin State is part of the Indo-Burma region, recognized as one of the world’s hotspots of biodiversity1. The inhabitants are ethnic Kachin (including Jinghpaw, Rawang, Lisu, Zaiwa, Longwo, and Lachit sub-groups), Shan, Naga, Burman, Chinese, and Indian. Kachin people are traditionally dependent on forests for their livelihoods. Indigenous knowledge of sustainable forest and land use has been passed on from generation to generation. Traditional livelihoods include dry and wet rice farming, small-scale extraction of gold and jade for extra income, and production of herbal medicine. During the civil war, many Kachin people were able to survive using forest resources which provide not only food and shelter, but medicine as well.

After more than forty years of civil war, ceasefire agreements were signed between the Burmese regime (State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC) and Kachin armed opposition groups in the 1990s. The SPDC and the Kachin Independence Army/Kachin Independence Organization2 reached an agreement in 1994 and the New Democratic Army – Kachin3 signed a ceasefire with the SPDC in 1989. As a result of the ceasefire agreements, the Kachin opposition groups administer land and forest in defined ceasefire territories, while the SPDC maintains legal control of all other forests and lands that make up the majority of Kachin State. The ceasefire agreements did not address natural resource exploitation, and there are now increasing pressures on natural resources. Contract farming4, illegal and widespread logging and mining, displacement, and increasing population pressures are degrading forests at an alarming rate. Logging and mining have become a major source of income in both KIO and SPDC administered areas. In the KIO-controlled areas, the KIO’s main source of income from development includes logging, gold mining and border trade.

China is a major player in Kachin State’s natural resource economy. One of the first major border trade agreements was signed between the SPDC and the Chinese government in August 1988. After ceasefire agreements were signed with armed groups, trade intensified, with the SPDC making trade deals with China as part of regional development activities. The SPDC has intensified its exploitation of Kachin State’s natural resources since the ceasefire, exploiting vast mineral reserves, like gold and jade. Border trade agreements have resulted in Kachin State becoming a “natural resource storehouse for development in China.”5 Profits are being used to finance a strategic geopolitical development plan in China’s Yunnan Province.

Industrial resource extraction over the last 15 years has had a major impact on local livelihoods and is posing serious threats to indigenous knowledge systems and the environment. In addition, displacement of people from their land and depletion of resources also accompany rising commodity prices and inflation, making daily survival much more difficult for local people. Furthermore, local people are systematically left out of decision-making processes for development and infrastructure plans.

To address these interlinked concerns, the Pan Kachin Development Society (PKDS) focuses on working with local communities towards sustainable development through maintaining and promoting indigenous knowledge of herbal medicine. PKDS’s traditional medicine initiative facilitates not only improved healthcare and increased environmental protection, but also community empowerment and ownership, cultural revival, income generation, and poverty alleviation.


2. Knowledge of Traditional Medicine in Kachin State

“The natural forests are the knowledge classrooms of the indigenous people.”

- Male Kachin elder

Many effective and potent herbal plants can be harvested from forests in Kachin State. They grow naturally and can be found growing in the upland swidden fields (“taungya”), community forests, and less disturbed forests. Some families grow medicinal plants in their household gardens. Traditionally, forests are used and managed in a sustainable manner so that some villages are able to produce herbal medicine as their primary source of income.

The SPDC does not provide a working health care system, so in the uplands, so the majority of Kachin people living in rural areas depend on traditional herbal medicine as their main source of healthcare. Many herbs and plants have medicinal value in their leaves, stems, flowers, bark, berries, nuts, roots, and fruits. Bird nests and other animal products, even some animal droppings, are used as medicine. Traditional Kachin herbal medicine can cure diseases and heal injuries such as broken bones and potentially fatal wounds, and are often preferred by locals over modern medicine.6

Villagers know how to use the herbal medicinal plants for basic first aid treatment. Local people have developed systems of sustainable harvest and use of traditional medicine and this indigenous knowledge has been passed down through generations. According to Kachin elders, war between different forest communities on the mountain ranges governed by Duwa, a tribal mountain chief, was an important catalyst in the development of Kachin traditional medicinal knowledge. The prevalence of battle injuries prompted Kachin herbal medicine specialists to experiment and develop new first aid techniques. Herbal plants native to the dense forests in Kachin State are renowned for their usefulness in treating strained or injured joints, nerves and ligaments.7

In addition, special knowledge in herbal medicine is traditionally transferred through hereditary means. An herbalist selects one of his sons to receive the knowledge to ensure that his knowledge is maintained in the community from one generation to the next. Nowadays, herbal specialists are both men and women, with some women trained by their fathers and others trained on the job by local herbalists. The number of male herbalists is decreasing, as they are seeking larger incomes by working in the logging and mining industries.

Traditional Collection Methods

The collection of medicine is ritualized and is done in way which ensures the resource is not over-exploited. Herbal medicine is collected during the cold season (between October and December) as it is believed that this is when the essence of medicine goes to the root of the plant.8 Kachin ancestors taught that the most effective medicinal plants are collected only in the absence of dog barking or cock crowing. When a group of people enter the forest to collect plants, only the leader is allowed to extract plants from the ground. Before the plant is extracted, the herbalist must hold the plant with his or her right hand, and while spreading rice from his or her left hand they make a blessing by saying “relief to those who are suffering.” After the medicine is brewed for consumption, the patient takes the medicine and gives what is left back to the herbalist to throw back into the forest as a sign of respect.9

Herbalists are prohibited from collecting medicine if they have been drinking alcohol. If the herbalist travels to the forest to collect certain herbal plants to treat a certain injury or illness, only the sought-after plant can be extracted. Other plants cannot be collected at that time. These kind of traditional beliefs help prevent natural resources from being overexploited by local people.10

Increasing exploitation of natural resources by Burmese and Chinese companies have been making some species difficult to find. In addition, herbalists point out the effects of logging and monoculture cash-crop plantations on local people. “After the ceasefire, illegal logging is occurring in many places,” said one elder male herbalist, “so herbal plants are getting more and more difficult to find near the city.” Another male herbalist commented, “Now people take herbs from the forest for business, and year by year, plants are disappearing. Now, many companies apply for mono-crop plantation permits from the government, and companies are taking a lot of land to plant rubber and other crops. In our lifetime there will be some herbal medicine plants left, but I cannot speak for the next generation.”


3. Herbal Medicine Project by PKDS

“We need a lot of community forests and protection for watershed areas, as well as

awareness in the communities in Kachin State about traditional medicine.”

- Male elder herbal healer


PKDS is working alongside villagers in Village X in Kachin State.11 Traditionally, villagers here were subsistence rice farmers, collecting herbal medicine for personal use. The rural villagers in this area rely on food from the forests. They believe that everything that comes from the forest can be used for food as well as medicine. One village herbalist explains, “If people know how to eat appropriately, then they don’t need a clinic for medical treatment, except for major accidents. Our ancestors taught us that people can eat any kind of plant except those which are avoided by goats and insects, because those animals know how to tell between poisonous and non-poisonous plants.”

The livelihoods of the villagers, however, have come under threat due to government policies forcing everyone to plant jatropha as well as confiscation of land by local and Chinese companies to make way for teak and rubber plantations. Farms have been confiscated, causing loss of income and threatening local food security. Villagers are also used as forced labor on plantations. Farmers are forced to cultivate areas further away from their village, decreasing productivity and putting more pressure on natural resources. Many areas where traditional herbs were collected are being lost.

In response to the growing pressures on local livelihoods, nine low-income households began to collect and sell unprocessed herbal medicines. Before collecting herbal medicinal plants, villagers borrowed money from a middleman to use for transportation and food costs during the collection of the plants. The amount of the loan and interest was deducted from the sale of the raw plants to the middleman. Villagers never made enough profit to cover their own expenses, and this borrowing-repayment cycle continued year after year. The villagers were trapped in a debt cycle, and economic need pushed villagers to over-harvest medicinal plants, leading to overexploitation of local natural resources and degradation of the forest. Although villagers were aware that over-harvesting the medicinal plants was not sustainable, they were also in debt and unable to send their children to school.

Ensuring Sustainability

In early 2005, PKDS began to work with local villagers to slow the pace of medicinal plant collection and ensure sustainable management of the forest, while also raising villagers’ incomes. The objectives of the project were:

  • Raising self-reliance of local Kachin communities by encouraging them to use locally available traditional herbal medicines instead of less accessible and more expensive western medicine;
  • Documenting and cataloguing herbal medicinal plants to promote their role in community forestry initiatives;
  • Supporting village income generation activities based on the propagation, conservation, and processing of herbal plants and other non-timber forest products;
  • Limiting the extraction of herbal medicinal plants from local communities by outsiders;
  • Integrating sustainable natural resource management practices in the production of herbal medicines; and
  • Sharing the knowledge and experience of Kachin villagers and traditional herbalists through the publication and distribution of a traditional herbal medicine book.

At the initial stages of the project, PKDS conducted a problem analysis workshop with villagers to discuss how to reduce the over-harvesting of medicinal plants without losing income. The concept of “value adding” was discussed, and it was decided that a community-based cooperative would be set up to collect, process, and distribute the medicine directly to consumers. The cooperative was set up in February 2006, land was donated by a villager for an herbal medicine centre to store the raw materials, process the medicine and provide a space for community meetings. A small start-up grant was provided by PKDS for transportation and food costs during the phase of initial collecting herbal medicine plants.

In October 2006, villagers spent one month in the forest collecting herbal plants, and an herbal medicine elder provided informal practical training. Plants were carefully selected, with small plants left to regenerate. The plants were then dried, processed, and packaged by villagers for distribution. The medicine was then distributed by committee members and other traditional medicine traders to villages and cities.

Long-term Benefits

The traditional medicine projects operate in a village with 31 households. Every year four types of medicine are produced (500 packages each) and distributed around Kachin State. As of the end of 2008, these medicines have benefited over 2,000 villagers. They are used to relieve pain and aid in the recovery of damaged joints and bones; as a general healing medicine for women (Dam Ningsam and Myinyap Tsi)12 ; to treat a form of cancer; and to help cure common diseases such as a cold or infl uenza. Members of the group use the medicine for free and sell the medicine to other villagers.

Profits are divided into three parts. The first part is given to members of the group involved in the process, the second is kept for a social welfare and emergency fund, and the third is kept for materials. The social welfare fund is used primarily for school fees, with each member of the group given approximately 25,000 kyat to send their children to school. This has motivated other members of the community to become part of the herbal medicine group.

The project has also ensured the protection of the local forest. The village committee has also seen the positive impacts that the project is having on the community and environment, and as a result, a 30-acre community forest was set up in 2007 and is now registered with the SPDC forest department. Herbal medicinal plants are propagated to ensure their long-term supply.

After one year, the group decided to document the indigenous knowledge of herbal medicinal with the assistance of PKDS. A booklet on Kachin traditional medicine was published in December 2007, recording 25 different kinds of herbal medicine including the name, habitat, and uses of each plant. By the end of 2007, the group became self-sustaining, and members are keen to share their knowledge with nearby local communities. Recently two more families joined the group. In the future, the villagers and PKDS plan to improve and modify the medicines for wider distribution. The medicines will be made easier for users (for example, there will be no need to boil), and packaged so that it can be stored for longer, making them more marketable.

Marketing of the herbal medicine in Village X helps keep the tradition alive and has created mechanisms that ensure sustainable use of medicinal plants. Evaluation that PKDS has conducted with the group has shown that the income that is generated can only be sustained if the raw materials are not overharvested. Long-term benefits are also beginning to be seen by other villagers as well. The group manages the collection process, has begun replanting, and plans to do more replanting in the future.

Results of the Activities in Village X:

  • Creation of a 30-acre community herbal forest.
  • Villagers plant herbal medicines in the forest to ensure continued future supply.
  • 25 kinds of traditional herbal medicine have been recorded, with four kinds of herbal medicine being produced to offer relief to various ailments. A medicine that treats cancer is currently being developed.
  • Access to locally available medicines is greatly improved, resulting in better primary health care.
  • Local herbal medicine knowledge has been documented, with 1,500 copies of a booklet on Kachin Traditional Medicine printed and distributed.
  • After beginning to process medicines by themselves, families have reported a doubling of their income.
  • Community awareness of the importance of forest preservation for their livelihoods has improved. Villagers gain skills in community organizing, participatory decisionmaking, and project management.


4. Conclusion

The case study of the Kachin herbal medicine group is a concrete example of indigenous knowledge of conservation being used for sustainable development. Community ownership and participation in all stages of the process has ensured the sustainability of the project as the community is directly benefiting from the project. At the same time the project is conserving local biodiversity through the creation of more favorable conditions for forest management. Results of the project include conservation, sustainable extraction of forest resources, cultural revival and income generation and poverty alleviation.


1. Whetstone fixer creeper (Yu Shalawn Ru)

Burmese name AA-PKDS-WhetstoneCreeper-Burmese Kyawk set say nwe bin
Species Two types, white and red.
Characteristics A creeper with smooth bark when young. The bark turns coarse when older. It has round, wide and thick leaves. The surface of the leaf is smooth. The white type usually has wider leaves then the red ones. According to traditional Kachin herbal medicine, the red one is more powerful than the white one.
Smell It has pleasant, sweet-smelling smell. The red one is distinctively more sweet-smelling than the white one.
Taste Has a slimy texture and a pleasantly sharp taste.
Usefulness Able to fix broken bones.
Place to find In cool, of dense forests where it clings onto big trees.
Method of application When there is a broken bone or a dislocated joint, the vine should be chopped, boiled with water and drunk. The vine may also be crushed into a pulp and wrapped on the fracture. If there is an open wound it should be wrapped close to but not directly on the wound, as this may lead to suppuration.

Fig HM1a and HM1b Whetstone Fixer Creeper

Whetstone fixer creeperWhetstone Fixer Creeper


2. Blood conveying vine (sai gang tsi ru)

Burmese name AA-PKDS-Bloodvine-Burmese
Species Two types, white and red.
Characteristics A creeper and often seen twining onto high trees or creeping on the forest floor. The white ones have white bark while its wood is red and the red type has red bark and red wood. Blood-like sap oozes when cut. The leaf is longer than it is wide. It has small white flowers which bloom in clusters. According to Burmese traditional herbal medicine, the white one is more potent than the red one.
Smell It has rank smell of blood.
Taste Acrid; the red one is more acrid than its counterpart.
Usefulness A blood tonic
Place to find Mostly found in dense forests.
Method of application Those who are suffering from anaemia should take this medicine by chopping it into pieces and boil it with water. The same formula can be used for diarrhoea. It also has the power to strengthen the uterus and ovaries and thus enhances fertilization.

Fig HM2a and HM2b Blood Conveying Vine



3. Remedy for cancer (Mawng tsi hpun)

Burmese name AA-PKDS-CancerRemedy-Burmese
Species none
Characteristics It is a kind of bush and is growing along its own roots. The stem as well as the root is whitish in colour and it has medium size foliage. It bears many twigs and is leafy.
Smell Bad smelling.
Taste No distinctive taste.
Usefulness A remedy for removing various cancerous cells.
Place to find Forests and outskirts of towns and villages.
Method of application Drink the boiled roots of this tree. If cancerous boils appear on the surface of the skin, the same method can be used. It can also prevent or cure uterine and breast cancers.

Fig HM2a and HM2b Remedy for Cancer

Remedy CancerCancer Cure

Fig HM4a, HM4b, HM4c Final products

Final productsFinal product

Final Product


About Pan Kachin Development Society (PKDS)

PKDS was formed by socially-conscious Kachin scholars and civil society leaders in 1994. Originally, it coordinated pilot projects for basic education and healthcare in the Kachin Independence Organization’s (KIO) jurisdiction of Kachin State. PKDS’s focus is to help revive Kachin culture and language in Kachin State, Burma. In the past, PKDS has also worked on HIV/AIDS intervention and community development projects. Currently, PKDS runs an environment project that includes developing environmental curriculum for schools, promoting and teaching villagers how to produce traditional herbal medicine, conducting logging and mining research, and training on environmental awareness. In addition to working with locals to establish protected community forests, PKDS also manages community-based development projects that help protect the forest.

Website: http://www.pankachin.net



1 Conservation International. “Indo-Burma,” at: <http://www.biodiversityhotspots.org/xp/hotspots/indo_burma/Pages/default.aspx>. Last accessed 12 Dec. 2008.

2 The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is one of the strongest political armed resistance groups in Kachin State.

3 The New Democratic Army – Kachin (NDA-K) is another armed opposition group in Kachin State. It originally broke off from the KIO.

4 Since 2006, villagers throughout Burma have had to endure the confi scation of land, imposition of procurement quotas and forced labour to cultivate jatropha plantations for the production of bio-diesel. See generally, Ethnic Community Development Forum, Biofuel by Decree: Unmasking Burma’s Bio-energy Fiasco, 2008.

5 Global Witness, A Choice for China: Ending the Destruction of Burma’s Northern Frontier Forests, 2005.

6 Ibid.

7 Wanasanpraikhieo, T, Changes and Challenges of Community Forest Practices in Forest-Dependent Communities in Kachin State, Chulalongkorn University, 2008.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 The real name of the village is withheld for security reasons.

12 According to local sources, many herbal plant species have not been scientifically named.

Contact PKDS for related information or to support them