Yartsa Gunbu (Cordyceps sinensis) and the Fungal Commodification of Tibet’s Rural Economy
- 957 Downloads
Yartsa Gunbu (Cordyceps sinensis) and the Fungal Commodification of Tibet’s Rural Economy. Cordyceps sinensis is a mushroom that parasitizes larvae of Thitarodes (Hepialus) moths, which inhabit the alpine grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau. Tibetans have used the mushroom, which they call yartsa gunbu (“summer-grass, winter-worm”) for many centuries, if not millennia. A 350% increase in the price paid to pickers between 1997 and 2004 has turned this tiny mushroom into the single most important source of cash for rural households in contemporary Tibet. On average, 40% of the rural cash income in the Tibet Autonomous Region is derived from its collection, which government statistics figured at 50,000 kg in 2004, contributing at least CNY (Chinese yuan) 1.8 billion (USD 225 million) to the Tibet Autonomous Region’s GDP. A dramatic fungal commodification of the rural Tibetan economy is occurring, as the income from sale of Cordyceps often accounts for 70%–90% of a family’s annual cash income in areas where it grows. The ever-increasing harvesting pressure raises the question of sustainability. The fact that Cordyceps has been collected for centuries and is still common argues for its resilience, but the lack of harvest studies for C. sinensis precludes a definite answer as to whether the harvest can be sustained at its current level.
Key WordsCordyceps grassland products medicinal mushrooms mushroom harvest mushroom income rural Tibet Tibet AR Tibet GDP Tibet income
China’s Beijing-based Tibet Research Institute sponsored the fieldwork in Tibet AR in 2005. This article integrates the findings of this cooperation. Special thanks to Luorong Zhandui, who took me to remote sites in Tibet AR. Without his support, I would not have been able to acquire much of the data. Jakob Winkler translated the yartsa gunbu text by Nyamnyi Dorje from Tibetan into English. In addition, I want to acknowledge all the other researchers who shared their knowledge and my Tibetan counterparts who supported me while tracking bu. Last, but not least, I am grateful to all the collectors and dealers who freely shared their knowledge and data.
- An, C. and G. Chen, eds. 2003: Dictionary of Common Tibetan Personal and Place Names, Chinese-English-Tibetan. Foreign Languages Press, Beijing.Google Scholar
- Bhattarai, N. K. 1995. Biodiversity—People Interface in Nepal. Non-Wood Forest Products 11—Medicinal Plants for Conservation and Health Care. FAO, Rome.Google Scholar
- Boa, E. 2004. Wild Edible Fungi. A Global Overview of Their Use and Importance. Non-Wood Forest Products 17. FAO, Rome, 1–147.Google Scholar
- Boesi, A. 2003. The Dbyar Rtswa Dgun’Bu (Cordyceps sinensis Berk.): An Important Trade Item for the Tibetan Population of the Lithang County, Sichuan Province, China. The Tibet Journal 283:29–42.Google Scholar
- Canney, S. 2006. Cordyceps sinensis—Animal, Vegetable or Both? Journal of Chinese Medicine 80:43–49.Google Scholar
- Chen, S. J., D. H. Yin, L. Li, X. Zha, J. H. Shuen, and C. Zhama. 2000. (Resources and Distribution of Cordyceps sinensis in Naqu Tibet). Zhong Yaocai 2311:673–675, (Chinese, English abstract).Google Scholar
- ENS 2005. Tibetans, Chinese Battle over Access to Medicinal Fungus. http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/jun2005/2005-06-02-01.asp.
- Fischer, A. M. 2006. Subsistence Capacity: The Commodification of Rural Labour Reexamined through the Case of Tibet. LSE Working Paper Series No. 06–75.Google Scholar
- Gawä Dorje. 1995.’Khrungs dPe Drimed Shel Gyi Melong. Mi Rigs dPe sKrun Khang, Beijing.Google Scholar
- Halpern, G. 1999. Cordyceps, China’s Healing Mushroom. Avery Publishing, New York.Google Scholar
- He, S. A. and N. Sheng. 1995. Utilization and Conservation of Medicinal Plants in China. Non-Wood Forest Products 11—Medicinal Plants for Conservation and Health Care. FAO, Rome. http://www.fao.org/docrep/W7261E/W7261e13.htm.
- Holliday, J. and M. Cleaver. 2004. On the Trail of The Yak: Ancient Cordyceps in the Modern World. http://alohamedicinals.com.
- Hywel-Jones, N. 2003. Cordyceps sinensis—An Extraordinary “Herb” and Its Poaching by Tibetans in Bhutan. Bhutan Connections, Bhutan Society Newsletter, London 26:8.Google Scholar
- Liu, J. B., ed. 1994. Forestry History of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Ganzi Zangzu Zizhizhou Lingyezhi, Chengdu, China (in Chinese).Google Scholar
- Luorong Z. and C. Dawa. 2005. The Research Report on the Chinese Caterpillar Fungus Strategic Position and Impacts on Tibetan Economy and Society. International Conference for the Western Development and TAR Rural Development, Chengdu, September 23–25, 2005. Pages 40–48 (Chinese, English abstract).Google Scholar
- Namgyel, P. 2003. Household Income, Property Rights and Sustainable Use of NTFP in Subsistence Mountain Economy: The Case of Cordyceps and Matsutake in Bhutan Himalayas. Paper presented in November at the Regional CBNRM Workshop.Google Scholar
- Schei, P. A., S. Wang, and Y. Xie. 2001. Fifth Annual Report of the Biodiversity Working Group /CCICED. Conserving China’s Biodiversity (II). China Environmental Science Press, Beijing. Pages 78–100.Google Scholar
- Tibet Statistical Yearbook 2005. 2006. China Statistics Press, Beijing.Google Scholar
- Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library. 2008. www.thdl.org (April 2008).
- Wen, Y. 2004. High Cost of Popular Little “Worm.” China Daily 8-30-04. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-08/30/content_369919.hTibetan Medicine.
- Wild, R. G. and J. Mutebi. 1996. Conservation through Community Use of Plant Resources: Establishing Collaborative Management at Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks, Uganda. Pages 1–45 in UNESCO, People and Plants Working Paper 5.Google Scholar
- Winkler, D. 1998. Deforestation in Eastern Tibet: Human Impact—Past and Present: Pages 79–96 in G. E.Clarke, ed., Development, Society and Environment in Tibet. Proceedings of 7th Seminar IATS, Vol. 5, Vienna, Austria.Google Scholar
- ———. 1999. Forestry, Floods, and Hydroelectricity—China’s National Natural Forest Protection Project and Its Impact on Tibetan Areas. In Sinosphere 3.2, published at www.chinaenvironment.net/sino/sino5.
- ———. 2000. Patterns of Forest Distribution and the Impact of Fire and Pastoralism in the Forest Region of the Tibetan Plateau. Pages 201–227 in G. Miehe and Zhang Yili, eds., Environmental Change in High Asia. Marburger Geographische Schriften 135.Google Scholar
- ———. 2003. Forest Use and Implications of the 1998 Logging Ban in the Tibetan Prefectures of Sichuan: Case Study on Forestry, Reforestation and NTFP in Litang County, Ganzi TAP, China. The Ecological Basis and Sustainable Management of Forest Resources. Informatore Botanico Italiano 35-Sup.1, 116–125.Google Scholar
- ———. 2005. Yartsa Gunbu—Cordyceps sinensis. Economy, Ethno-mycology and Ecology of a Fungus Endemic to the Tibetan Plateau. Pages 69–85 in A. Boesi and F. Cardi, eds., Wildlife and Plants in Traditional and Modern Tibet: Conceptions, Exploitation and Conservation. Memorie della Società Italiana di Scienze Naturali e del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano, Vol. 33(1).Google Scholar
- ———. n.d. The Mushrooming Fungi Market in Tibet Exemplified by Cordyceps sinensis and Tricholoma matsutake. In K. Bauer, G. Childs, A. Fischer, and D. Winkler, eds., The Shadow of the Leaping Dragon: Demography, Development, and the Environment in Tibetan Areas. Proceedings of 11th Seminar IATS. Journal of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (in press).Google Scholar
- Wong, J. L. G. 2000. The Biometrics of Non-Timber Forest Product Resource Assessment: A Review of Current Methodology. Research paper ETFERN, DFID, UK. www.etfrn.org/etfrn/workshop/ntfp/text.pdf.
- Wu, N. 1997. Rangeland Resources and Conditions in Western Sichuan. Pages 23–40 in: D. J. Miller and S. R. Craig, eds., Rangelands and Pastoral Development in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas. ICIMOD, Kathmandu.Google Scholar
- Xizang Diming 1995. Place Names of the Xizang Autonomous Region. China Tibetan Studies Publishing House, Beijing.Google Scholar
- Yutog Yontan Gonpo. 2002. Bdud rtsi snying po yan lag brgyad pa gsang ba man ngag gi rgyud. (“The  Tantras [Comprising the] Precious Nectar of the 8 Secret and Extraordinary Branches [of Medicine]”). Reprint, Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, Lhasa.Google Scholar
- Zang, M. and N. Kinjo. 1998. Notes on the Alpine Cordyceps of China and Nearby Nations. Mycotaxon 66:215–229.Google Scholar
- Zhang, J., W. Wang, and Y. Geng. 2001. A Case Study on the Exploitation and Management of NTFP in Shirong Village of Xiaruo Township in Deqing County. The International Seminar on NTFP, http://www.mekonginfo.org/mrc_en/doclib.nsf/0/4DF3BAFD4FB10F4947256B420029A216/$FILE/FULLTEXT.html.