Shae Frydenlund: The Yarsagumba Effect

Shae is a recent graduate of Colgate University. She is currently studying the world medicinal plant trade in various countries around the world.

or Chongcao in Chinese, has become an economic tour-de-force in the
Tibetan prefectures of western China, where entire populations derive
income exclusively from fungus collection and sales.  As Tibetan nomads
are being resettled into permanent concrete dwellings, they sell their
yaks and flocks, which have been their only source of income for
generations.  The government provides no job training, and the one-time
stipend is quickly spent.  Therefore, Tibetans rely on Yartsagumba for
cash flow; it is estimated that over 90% of individuals in Litang
County, Sichuan, and 80% of individuals in Naqu County, TAR, earn 100%
of household income from Yarsagumba. Nobody can say exactly how much
Yarsagumba is collected every year, nor how much is purchased. 
Obviously, this presents an enormous concern for the natural environment
in addition to the Tibetan peoples.  If the supply is exhausted, there
is no economic future for impoverished, formerly nomadic, communities.

After creating a survey and research template in Chengdu, Dr. Guo Jinlin
(a professor at Chengdu University of Chinese Traditional Medicine),
Xueyan Liu (head of plant conservation at TRAFFIC), and I interviewed
about 150 people in Kangding and Litang (small towns in Ganze Tibet
Autonomous Prefecture).  I learned that there is a complex system of
taxing among different social groups; nomads charge about 1000 renminbi
(RMB – the official currency of the People’s Republic of China) to
collect Yarsagumba on their land, half of which is subsequently taken by
the government.  In addition, in several small villages near Kangding,
Yarsagumba is used as a type of payment – when a woman marries outside
her village, she must pay an homage tax (measured in grams of
Yarsagumba) to her home village.  To make a long story short, the
project was a success; I wrote up a full report, complete with full
results tables, photos and analysis, which I will upload to the site for
the interested reader.  Dr. Guo is working on getting it published, and
hopefully I can submit it to a few journals in America.

addition to the academic aspects, the trip provided a rare glimpse into
the lives of Tibetan nomads during a time of social and environmental
transition.  I spoke to one Tibetan man, a wealthy Yarsagumba dealer,
who spoke at length about the implications of Chinese strip mining and
the overexploitation of Yarsagumba.  He told me how the mountains’
energy has been disrupted. The pollution from factories and automobiles
has made the mountains angry, and that the land is no longer at peace. 
He described how the 2008 earthquake was the result of Chinese
development, and how the weather is more extreme and unpredictable. 
Twenty years ago, he said, one could collect 1000 Yarsagumba.  Today a
good harvest is 20 pieces per day, which sell for about 50 rmb per each
(in Beijing, one piece can fetch 300 rmb, and one kg 300,000 rmb, or
50,000 dollars).

the survey and trade flow assessment, I sat down with Professor Guo to
discuss the feasibility of a uniform system of control regarding the
Yartsagumba harvest.  In cooperation with the Chinese government, WWF
hopes to implement regulations that control the number of specimens
collected every year, while issuing a tax in order to more closely
monitor the industry.  It is my hope that within the next few years, the
government will take the first step toward ensuring the future of the
unique caterpillar-fungus as well as the future of the Tibetan people.

4 thoughts on “Shae Frydenlund: The Yarsagumba Effect

  1. Thank you for your comment, Daniel,
    I am delighted that you encountered my blog – I am actually quite familiar with your work, and have read many of your publications. While compiling my report, I actually used your website and cited your findings repeatedly. Your research on Yarsagumba is the most comprehensive and detailed in existence, and I hope to add to your already impressive body of information with my own work. I will be returning to the TAR in May, so perhaps we can join forces.

  2. good story – thank you. i believe it is important to harvest Yarsagumba in a sustainable way as it is on the brink of extinction. Just because there is a huge demand coming from China it does not mean that the plant has to disappear forever!

  3. Thanks for your comment, Daniel, it is clear that there are many nuances to this story that experts like you are doing due diligence to investigate. We’ll be sure to check out your website.

  4. Great to see your story on Yartsa Gunbu, Ophiocordyceps sinensis.
    It is true that every collector is finding less fungi all over the Tibetan Plateau, but there are many, many more people searching.
    On my web pages, covering many aspects of this phenomenon, I have production figures from the last 10 years in Tibet AR published and it does not look like the natural production is collapsing, which is rather surprising taking the intensity of collection. Still more research is clearly needed, especially regarding sustainable harvesting techniques. It is very disappointing that Chinese research and government institutions have neglected this crucial research while focusing on genetics etc.
    Daniel Winkler

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