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Growing trade in foraged medicinal plants

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Dozens of families gather herbs and plants to sell to brokers for added income in Kampong Chhnang province. FB

Growing trade in foraged medicinal plants

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced villagers in Prey Moul commune’s Khleng Por village of Kampong Chhnang province’s Rolea Ba’ier district to flock to the forests and valleys in the province to find medicinal plants to sell via brokers to people who need them for traditional Khmer medicine.

Kheng Por village chief Kao Moeun tells The Post that the business was a secondary profession used to increase the family’s income in addition to what they make farming.

He adds that at first about a half-dozen families – including his family – were engaged in this business on top of farming, but now the local villagers have taken up this activity in almost every home since the pandemic began.

“Once a week, I go up the mountain to dig up the tubers of medicinal plants. I bring them to my wife who chops them up and dries them for sale to the brokers who resell them to traditional medicine sellers in Phnom Penh. Through this side business, my family can earn an additional income of 30,000 to 40,000 riel [$7 to $10] per month,” he says.

According to Moeun, he spends a few days in the forest hiking to find medicinal plants according to the orders of middlemen – such as wild grape tubers and many other traditional Khmer herb plants. The prices depend on the type of medicinal plant and the season.

“In the dry season, the prices are not very high. About 500 to 3,000 riel per kg, depending on the type of plant and its popularity,” he says. “Because in the dry season many villagers have these medicinal plants to chew them or sell them because they are easier to find.”

Chhoeung Khea, a 56-year-old carpenter in Kleang Por village, tells The Post that he had never previously been in the forest to find medicinal plants to sell. In addition to farming, he was often contracted to build houses in his village or in other nearby villages and districts, but since the coronavirus outbreak he has not been able to earn that extra income by doing construction.

“Farming alone cannot improve our family’s livelihood,” he says. “That is why my wife and I, along with our two children, went into the forest to look for vines, roots, bark, mushrooms and tubers of medicinal plants to dry them and sell them to support our family life.”

Although this new part-time job may help increase his family’s income to some extent, Khea isn’t very happy when asked how much his family earns in a month from this business.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A woman dries plants to sell to a broker for use in traditional medicines in Kampong Chhnang province. FN

“Only 20,000 to 30,000 riel. Because sometimes brokers do not buy them and claim that there are no orders from Phnom Penh,” Khea says with a sigh.

Khea says that although he and the other villagers know the names of the medicinal plants, no one knows how to combine them to treat diseases. Otherwise, they would be able to sell the package at a higher price.

According to Khea, about 30-40 families in his village are engaged in this secondary business now. This trend has caused the prices of medicinal plants to fall further and some environmentalists fear that it may even lead to the loss of some medicinal plants from the forest eventually from over-collecting.

On the corner near the Orussey market in Phnom Penh, there are many traditional medicine shops which are a testament to Cambodia’s fast-growing traditional medicine business. Most medicinal plants are sourced from brokers and brought from the remote countryside of Cambodia while some are imported.

Kong Khieu Chheng, the 36-year-old owner of a traditional medicine shop, tells The Post that her shop collects herbs from provinces across the country – but mostly from Kampong Chhnang, Battambang and Preah Sihanouk.

“Our shop does not collect directly from people and not all kinds of medicinal plants. We order from brokers in the provinces according to the demands of the traditional medicine practitioners who are our customers,” she says.

Despite being a trader in traditional medicine ingredients, Khieu Chheng does not know how to combine these herbs to cure diseases other than knowing that some herbs are said to cure chronic gastrointestinal disorders and some are said to cure rheumatoid arthritis or high blood pressure or hyperglycemia.

“I may know some of the herbs that can treat diseases such as gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis, high blood pressure or hyperglycemia, but I’m not a traditional healer, so when customers [who aren’t healers] come to buy them and request a combination of them together to heal some disease, I always refuse,” he says.

Chan Sineth, a specialist in herbal medicines and secondary medicines at the Cambodia-China Sen Sok Referral Hospital, tells The Post that mixing traditional herbs together to cure diseases without consultation with a traditional healer first and without knowing the proper dosage of the chemicals in the plant can pose a serious risk to health such as causing liver cirrhosis or sudden death.

“The combining of tubers, roots and barks of medicinal plants to treat disease without proper weighing of them for the dosage or taking into account whether they were boiled in water or soaked in alcohol can damage the liver and cause liver cirrhosis. It can also poison a person or even cause immediate death when overused,” he says.


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