(An edited version of this article is in today’s issue of The Philippine Star, Business/Agriculture section. Posting this full, unedited version with the additional photos not found in the hard copy.)
In July 2014, typhoon Glenda (international name: Rammasun) caused extensive damage to Central Luzon, Mimaropa, Bicol and the Cordillera Administrative Region. Quezon province was among the worst hit with at least 10 persons killed and some P2 billion worth of agricultural crops and both public and private facilities destroyed.
But every cloud, as the saying goes, has a silver lining.
The Quezon provincial government soon initiated a relief campaign, which included a rehabilitation caravan to help survivors by distributing relief packs to thousands of families in badly devastated areas. During this campaign, the Office of the Provincial Agriculturist (OPA) introduced its Herbal Program as a possible livelihood alternative to residents. Many local government officials responded positively to the concept, having been oriented on the increasing global demand for medicinal plants as an alternative way to health and wellness.
Herbal farming sounded like an economically viable proposition.
Herbalism, then and now
The oldest recorded proof of using medicinal plants to alleviate medical conditions were found in ancient Sumerian writings, estimated at 5000 years old. The illustrations depicted instructions on how to use various plants for treating ailments. Yet even before writing was invented, skeletal remains of Neanderthals aged at 50,000 years found in a cave in northern Spain suggested that prehistoric humans might have resorted to herbal remedies as well. Their teeth samples revealed a diet that consisted not only of meat, but also of some bitter-tasting plants. The conclusion was that because of their unpleasant taste, the plants must have been eaten for reasons other than flavor, most probably for medication.
Since then, there had been descriptions of how Arabs, Romans, Chinese, Indians, and other indigenous cultures, including African and Native American, had used herbs in healing rituals. Traditional herbal therapy systems, such as Ayurveda, emerged. Researchers have shown that in different parts of the world, people tended to use the same plants for healing purposes.
The turning point
Between the 16th and 17th centuries, iatrochemistry, a school of thought that sought to provide chemical solutions to medical ailments, started to drive a wedge between herbalism and science-based medicine. In the early 19th century, scientists learned how to isolate and modify the chemicals from plants. Over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favor of modern drugs. Still, most pharmaceutical drugs were derived from botanicals.
Today, an ideological shift back to the merits of herbal medicine is sweeping both developed and developing countries all over the world. Widespread dissatisfaction with the high cost and declining efficacy of prescription medications has driven consumers to return to natural remedies. Plant-based health and wellness as well as beauty products proliferate. Alternative health clinics and spas using herbal preparations are flourishing. Studies have shown that herbal remedies can actually complement conventional healing modalities.
There’s money in those plants
A study published in the World Journal of Pharmaceutical Research (WJPR) in 2015 stated that the global market for herbal medicines currently stands at over $60 billion annually. The sale of herbal medicines is expected to get higher at an average annual growth rate of 6.4%. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), herbal medicines are lucrative globally and they represent a market value of about US$43 billion a year. The global market for all herbal supplements and remedies could reach US$115 billion by 2020, with Europe the largest and the Asia-Pacific the fastest growing markets. In another article published in the International Journal of Academic Research in Accounting, Finance and Management Sciences in 2013, the global market growth for the herbal industry is expected to grow at 7% annually from year 2000 to 2050, at which time it is forecast to reach US$5 trillion.
The diversity of categories for traditional or herbal medicine products makes it difficult to make an accurate assessment of the actual market size. Still, available figures suggest that the industry is worth big money.
Traditional medicine in the Philippines
Herbal medicines had been widely used in the Philippines long before modern Western medications were introduced. In many rural areas in the Philippines in the past and up until now, the albularyo is a prominent and sought-after person for his ability to cure common diseases. The term albularyo was derived from the Spanish word herbolario, which means herbalist.
There is an astounding variety of medicinal plants in the Philippines. The health advocacy group Alay Kapwa Kilusang Pangkalusugan (AKAP) has been able to list 1,297 plants in the Philippines that are known to have folk medicinal uses. There are reportedly 9,000 different plant species, 60% of which are believed to be endemic to the Philippines. So far, fewer than 500 of those species have been identified to have medicinal uses.
In 1992, then Health Secretary Dr. Juan Flavier parlayed his decades of experience as a barrio doctor into championing the use of herbal drugs. During his term as Health Secretary, the DOH endorsed 10 Philippine plants clinically tested to have medicinal value. He also co-authored the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act (TAMA) that gave legal recognition to natural healing side by side with pharmaceutical drugs. It was signed into law (R.A. 8423) by then President Fidel Ramos in 1997. The law also created the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Health Care, a state-owned corporation supervised by the DOH designed to promote scientific research on medicinal herbs and plants.
The Quezon Integrated Herbal Industry Program (QIHP)
Against the background of increased awareness of the health benefits of herbal medicines and growing demand for plant-based products globally, the Herbal Program envisioned by the provincial government of Quezon, which was warmly received by local residents after typhoon Glenda, was immediately set to motion. In 2014, Quezon Gov. David Suarez issued an executive order that created the Quezon Integrated Herbal Industry Program (QHIP) Committee composed of different government agencies, academic institutions and representatives from the private sector.
The QHIP Committee drafted the Herbal Industry Development Program, which focuses on five major areas: research and development, enhancement of herbal production, information and education, promotion and marketing, and agro-enterprise development. The Quezon Herbal Program is supervised by the OPA headed by Provincial Agriculturist Roberto Gajo with Mr. Walter Dapla as Program Coordinator.
Before the year was over, the provincial government led by Gov. Suarez conducted its first-ever Quezon Herbal Conference with the theme, “The Prospects of Herbal Plants in Quezon Province” in Tayabas City. The conference brought together municipal mayors, municipal agriculturists, municipal health officers, department heads of the provincial government of Quezon, non-government organizations, academic institutions and herbal health advocates. Participants were briefed on the significance of the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act, the herbal plants found in Quezon Province, global market positioning of the Philippines, processing and manufacturing herbal plants as medicines, and business opportunities in essential oils, among others.
The provincial government identified co-operators (individuals, groups, cooperatives) to participate in the production and processing of selected medicinal plants that have huge market demand. Six towns were initially chosen as pilot areas for the program and were given planting materials. Various forms of assistance were provided to the chosen co-operators, including needs assessment, training in production and product development, provision of equipment and tools, and financial management.
The Quezon Protected Landscape Herbal Pavilion
Last May 26, 2015, Gov. Suarez led the Memorandum of Agreement signing between the provincial government of Quezon, the local government of Atimonan, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region IV-A for the beautification of the Quezon Protected Landscape (formerly Quezon National Park) and developing it as another tourist destination in the province. It also marked the groundbreaking ceremony for the Quezon Protected Landscape (QPL) Herbal Pavilion along the iconic zigzag road known as Bitukang Manok in Atimonan.
Along with recreational facilities for visitors, the QPL Herbal Pavilion will have a display center for products made by different organizations, cooperatives and individuals involved in the Herbal Program. It will be a sanctuary for different types of medicinal plants and other species endemic to Quezon province, making it an ideal destination for those who want to enjoy nature and feel its healing power. Gov. Suarez was unequivocal about his vision when he said “I want Quezon Province to be the center of herbal medicine in our country, where all kinds of herbal plants and requirements can be acquired.” The Governor also sees this initiative as a way of promoting environmental protection and rehabilitation by providing alternative jobs for those who still resort to cutting trees and slash-and-burn activities in the area.
With the targeted opening of the QPL Herbal Pavilion this year, Quezon Province is well on its way to becoming the “Herbal Capital of the Philippines.”