Commercialization of Traditional Medicinal Plants

Non-timber forest products, or NTFPs, are all of the botanical (plant) and mycological (mushroom and fungus) resources and associated services of the forest other than timber, pulpwood, shakes, or other conventional wood products.

The forest has provided food, shelter and medicine for Aboriginal People throughout the world for thousands of years. Through their close association with the environment, Aboriginal people developed an extensive knowledge of plants, their medicinal and other uses, and their relationship to the natural environment.

As Western scientific research has demonstrated the efficacy of traditional plant medicines and the public's interest in medicinal herbs continues to grow, the commercialization of traditional medicinal plants has become an important issue for Aboriginal communities. Some communities/Nations are opposed to any attempts to commercialize medicinal and ceremonial plants, while others look for ways to address concerns while still benefiting monetarily from their traditional knowledge of medicinal plants. Perhaps no other issue related to NTFP development has the potential to create a similar level of conflict within and between Aboriginal communities, and between these communities and outside interests.

The intent of this learning object is to provide anyone working in the area of NTFP management with a balanced and sensitive representation of the different points of view and some of the underlying issues surrounding the commercialization of traditional medicinal plants. We will consider these issues through four themes:

Cultural Considerations - These issues concern the on-going importance and use of traditional medicinal plants by First Nations.

Sustainability Considerations - These issues relate to First Nations concerns about unsustainable harvesting methods.

Economic Considerations - These issues concern First Nations economic development based on the knowledge and production of medicinal NTFPs.

No Easy Answers - considers the broader context of ownership of medicinal plant knowledge.

In First Nations culture, medicinal plants were valued and respected for their healing abilities. A prayer (1) of respect and appreciation for the healing properties of the plant and its willingness to share them, was often given before harvesting. For many Aboriginal People, traditional medicines remain a gift of the creator and should not be bought or sold.

First Nations believe a respectful connection with the plant is critical to the act of healing. The individual must believe in the healing properties of the medicine or the healing powers of the plant are lost. Many Aboriginal people believe this connection is lost in modern medicine and that there is a need in communities to reconnect with traditional medicinal practices and attitudes towards healing (2).

Using these medicines outside of the cultural context (3) - and possibly without the proper respect and understanding - can render the medicines ineffective and potentially, harmful to the user.

Knowledge of the medicinal properties and care of culturally important traditional medicines is traditionally passed on by the elders (4) of each generation. Many First Nations have demonstrated an increasing interest in the revival and use of traditional knowledge. By re-connecting with their traditional knowledge about the methods and ways of traditional harvesting, First Nations groups are finding that they can re-establish a respect for nature and pride in traditional beliefs and values (5).

Respect for the land including the plants and animals, is ingrained in the traditional practices of First Nations cultures. As stewards of the land, First Nations traditionally employed a range of strategies to ensure resource use - including the use of medicinal plants - was sustainable. Sustainable harvesting practices applied to medicinal plants developed out of a close relationship with the environment (6).

In recent years, many Aboriginal People have become concerned about the threat to the environment - including valuable plant resources - presented by industrial forestry practices (7). Increased demand for medicinal plants has also led to concerns about the potential over-harvesting of important medicinal species in the future (8). Some believe that if First Nations can regain responsibility for the development, management and protection (9) of traditional medicinal plants, they can ensure a sustainable harvest of these important resources.

For many First Nations communities, the need for economic development is a major concern. Although not the entire 'solution' to the economic problems besetting many communities, the development and production of NTFPs can contribute through providing income-generating opportunities for community members. Some communities and individuals have recognized the economic potential of NTFPs and are marketing products based on both traditional and non-traditional medicinal plant products (10). The establishment of non-timber forest products businesses marketing traditional medicinal plants has raised concerns in some communities (11).

Other communities are more unified in their approach to medicinal plant development and marketing. While some First Nations have made a decision against commercialization, foregoing any potential economic benefits, others have accepted the commercial development of plant medicines under certain conditions (12).

For some Aboriginal people, it is not money from the sale of traditional medicinal herbs that is important, but the healing power of the herbs. In this case, helping others may be considered a greater reward than any potential monetary gain (13).

Aboriginal traditional knowledge - including knowledge about medicinal plants and strategies for caring for the environment - is increasingly of interest to outside researchers and others. Although this interest is positive in the sense that it recognizes the value of Indigenous knowledge, it is also a cause for concern. The historical precedence of what many Aboriginal people consider to be exploitation at the hands of the European settlers has left First Nations communities with an understandable concern that their knowledge will be used without any form of compensation (14).

The issue of protecting Indigenous cultural knowledge is complex and broader than the notion of intellectual property rights. Laws protecting intellectual property (15), including patent and copyright laws, have a narrow focus that is difficult to apply to traditional knowledge.

A positive development is the creation of international agreements (16) and protocols acknowledging that Aboriginal people have the right to be consulted about the use of resources related to their traditional knowledge and that may interfere with their own traditional or contemporary use, as well as to an equitable sharing of benefits.

Although enforcing fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived through commercialization of traditional resources remains a challenge, these agreements and protocols (17) do provide the expectation of ethical and legal obligations for those who seek to benefit from the commercialization of traditional knowledge - both in terms of sharing the benefits and of respecting the resource.

Many First Nations communities are developing guidelines or community protocols to help them handle the challenges of commercialization both from within and from outside their communities (18).

Sitamalnium rupudacous

Since time immemorial the Sulukoolawat people have collected and harvested the berries of the Sitamalnium. The legendberry grows in the northern part of the province and reaches an average of 1 m in height. This shrub produces beautiful turquoise flowers followed by delicious baby blue berries. According to Numapolasukak, a Sulukoolawat elder, "grandfather told me about how the oo'kala (Sitamalnium's Sulukoolawat name) was put on earth for the Sulukoolawat, and when the oo'kala is gone, so is the Sulukoolawat". The Sulukoolawat historically used some of the flowers from the shrub in wedding ceremonies. The flower's piercing turquoise color symbolized everlasting love and devotion to the Sulukoolawat peoples. The delicious berries - which persist on the shrub into the winter months - were widely known for their sweet and tart taste. During the harsh northern winters, the Sulukoolawat would depend on the nourishment from the berries they collected. Today, the legendberry is still widely consumed by the Sulukoolawat and is an important food for subsistence and cultural purposes; it is a mainstay of traditional feasts and activities. Recent years have seen a growing interest in the berries as a gourmet product for restaurants and other markets to the south.

The Sitamalnium rupudacous leaves have medicinal properties. Note: According to Numapolasukak, "the oo'kala can provide cures for many diseases. I have treated many people for tuburculosis, cancer and heart disease. You have to treat the oo'kala with respect, if you respect it, it will respect you, and the healing circle begins". Sulukoolawat Elders have expressed concern about sharing more information on the healing properties of Sitamalnium. Scientific study and research on the medicinal properties of the plant is currently underway. Elders have expressed concern that once the research is completed and the healing properties of Sitamalnium are widely known, there will be increased harvesting and commercial activity and that local populations of the plant will be 'wiped out'. The Sulukoolawat want to remain the "keepers of the oo'kala" and their hope is they will continue to be able to depend on the species for their own survival and the survival of their children.

What are some of the key issues facing the Sulukoolawat People with regards to the potential commercialization of the legendberry? Organize these issues according to the following main categories:

  1. Cultural Considerations
  2. Sustainability Considerations
  3. Economic Considerations
  4. Community Knowledge Considerations


Christine "Wata" Joseph, a Kwakiutl Elder from Fort Rupert, BC is a medicine women in her community.

[Video Transcript]


Chief Fred Sampson of the Siska Nation in Lytton BC, has been involved in a process to utilize the traditional knowledge of NTFPs to create a band based business, Siska Traditions.

[Video Transcript]


Dr. Mary Thomas, a Secwepemc (Shuswap) Elder from Salmon Arm B.C. holds the traditional ecological knowledge of NTFPs in her area.

[Video Transcript]


Dr. Nancy Turner, an ethnobotanist at the University of Victoria, Victoria, BC works with First Nations and has significant experience with conflicts over traditional knowledge and its use. Her expert guidance in developing this material is much appreciated.


Dr. Kelly Bannister is an ethnobotanist and science policy analyst who works on research ethics and Indigenous intellectual property rights issues in research involving biodiversity and traditional knowledge. She works in collaboration with several First Nations and treaty groups in BC and some Indigenous communities abroad.

[Audio Transcript]


Tim Brigham, Royal Roads University
Jeff Ralph, Research Assistant

Production Team

Peggy Faulds, Project Manager
Kate Seaborne, Production Manager
Judy Somers, Audio-Visual Production
Susan Doner, Instructional/Technical/Website Design
Marc Furney, Marc Furney Illustration

We are grateful to the Neskonlith Band for their assistance with arrangements and ongoing support for the project and to Dr. Nancy Turner, University of Victoria, for invaluable advice and support.

The content of this learning object was developed in 2004/05 by the University of Victoria and Royal Roads University and created as a media rich learning resource by Distance Education Services at the University of Victoria. Funding was provided by the Ministry of Advanced Education, Province of British Columbia through the BCcampus Online Development Fund. Please direct enquiries to