Medicinal plants worth Tk25-Tk30 crore are sold from 15 villages of Lakshmipur Kholabaria Union in Natore's Sadar upazila annually.
A total of 15,719 tonnes of medicinal plants are produced every year in these villages. Alone, Lakshmipur Kholabaria village, which is locally known as Oushadhi (medicinal) village, supplies 80% of the total amount.
According to the Department of Agricultural Extension, Natore, about 140 species of medicinal plants are cultivated in the locality. These medicinal plants are cultivated on about 150 hectares of land. Aloe vera plants are the main item planted. They are cultivated on 131.69 hectares of land and around 14,140 tonnes of aloe vera leaves are produced annually. Roots of Shimul (cotton tree) plants are in second position. Shimul is cultivated on 103.59 hectares of land. The annual production of shimul root is 1,320 tonnes.
Additionally, ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng and winter cherry, is cultivated on around 9.53 hectares of land, while mishri dana is cultivated on 9.28 hectares of land. Other medicinal plants – including kalmegh, scientifically known as Andrographis Paniculata, tulsi (basil) leaves, shotomul (asparagus), and basok – are cultivated on 28.34 hectares of land.
Almost every family of Lakshmipur Kholabaria village is involved in medicinal plant cultivation. Medicinal plants of different varieties are seen growing on both sides of the roads in the village, in the yards of houses and along ponds.
Hasan Ali Bhuiyan, a farmer from Lakshmipur Kholabaria village, has been cultivating aloe vera plants on his 0.627 hectares (2.5 bighas) of land for the last eight years. Every year, he sells aloe vera leaves worth Tk5-Tk7 lakh. Aloe vera leaves can be collected from the plants every 20 to 22 days. Hasan collects around 165 maunds of aloe vera leaves from his land after 20-22 days.
However, during the lockdown period last year, he was unable to sell leaves. At that time, he had to cut the leaves and bury them in a hole to keep the aloe vera plants alive.
Meanwhile, due to heavy rainfall during the rainy season last year, the production of the leaves reduced and most of the leaves have not matured as yet. That is why the price of the leaves is low now. Earlier he sold 7.5 maunds (one maund is approximately 37 kilogrammes) of the leaves at Tk10,000 to Tk12,000. But now he gets Tk5,000-Tk5,200 for the same amount.
However, he said that the price will increase in the coming days. Then more leaves will be available. An average of 25 to 30 tonnes of aloe vera leaves are produced on one bigha (0.25 hectares) of land per year.
Like Hasan, many other farmers of Oushodhi village cultivate aloe vera plants. They incurred losses last year due to heavy rainfall and the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mostafa Kamal, a farmer from the same village, cultivates aloe vera on 21 bighas (5.26 hectares) of land.
He said, "Aloe vera leaves are difficult to preserve. Many leaves rot due to a lack of preservation and we do not have cold storage to preserve the leaves. However, all my aloe vera leaves are bought by the Taiwan Food Company located in Bhaluka, Mymensingh."
Aloe vera requires cold storage for its preservation but other herbs do not require it.
Farmers have complained about getting fair prices for their produce.
Though in the local markets, aloe vera leaves are sold at Tk20 per kilogramme, Taiwan Food purchases the leaves at Tk13-Tk7 based on the leaves' quality. If other companies also bought the leaves in larger quantities, farmers would get higher prices, the farmers said.
Farmer Abdul Alim of Lakshmipur Kholabaria village has cultivated shimul on two bighas (0.50 hectares) of land. Shimul roots can be cultivated once a year on the same land.
He said that one bigha of land produces 50 to 60 maunds of shimul root. Raw shimul root is sold at Tk2,800-Tk3,000 per maund and dried root is sold at Tk4,000-Tk8,000. The cultivation of shimul root on one bigha of land costs Tk20,000-Tk25,000.
In previous years, it was sold at higher prices but this year, the price has decreased a little bit, said Alim. However, the price of ashwagandha is higher. It is being sold at Tk30,000 per maund.
Who buys the herbs?
There are about 15 shops selling medicinal herbs in Amirganj and Lakshmipur Bazar of Lakshmipur Kholabaria. From these shops, the species of medicinal plants are sent to different parts of the country through courier services. However, raw aloe vera goes to different parts of the country by truck.
About 12 companies – including Taiwan Food, Hamdard, Square, ACME, Zenim and Pran – buy medicinal raw materials from farmers. Of them, Square only buys ashwagandha while Taiwan Food buys aloe vera the most.
Additionally, about 1,000 street vendors sell the medicinal herbs in different parts of the country, according to Delwar Hossain, president of Kholabaria Medicinal Village Development Cooperative Society Limited.
Along with the cultivation of medicinal plants, Kabiraji treatments, also known as veshojo chikitsya (herbal treatments), have also increased in the areas. There are about 50 Kabiraji dispensaries in the localities under Lakshmipur Kholabaria union and in the adjacent villages. Many people in these areas are involved in the profession.
The farmers have alleged that although all companies use aloe vera in their cosmetics products, they do not buy the herb from local farmers. They import it from India. Thus the farmers are deprived of getting fair prices, they said.
Subrata Kumar Sarkar, deputy director of Natore's Department of Agricultural Extension, said there is no separate incentive for the farmers in Oushadhi village.
How the village became Oushadhi village
According to locals, a man named Afaz Uddin started cultivating medicinal plants in Lakshmipur Kholabaria village about 45 years ago. He also started giving people Kabiraji treatments. Everyone in the area knew him as Afaz Pagla.
Alongside cultivating medicinal plants, he motivated others to cultivate the herbs. At first, no one cared but gradually they realised it was profitable. Then they became involved in medicinal plant farming. Gradually, it increased and the village started to be called Oushodhi village. Afaz Uddin died in 2017.