Monthly Archives: June 2012

NEPAL: Caterpillar fungus harvest impacts environment

Published by IRIN. 


DHO TARAP, 20 June 2012 (IRIN) – The seasonal influx of migrant harvesters into Nepal’s Himalaya Mountains seeking a caterpillar fungus used as a traditional medicine and believed to have aphrodisiac properties is causing environmental damage along the rural border with Tibet.

When a parasitic fungus infects and kills caterpillars, the high value of the fungus drives tens of thousands of harvesters to hunt for the insect corpses on treks at altitudes of 4,000 metres from May to June each year in the Himalayan springtime.

Known in Tibetan and Nepali as “yartsa gunbu” (winter worm, summer grass) and prized in traditional medicine in China and Tibet for centuries, the fungus – some pieces measuring no more than 4cm – retails at up to US$800 for around 28 grams.

Research conducted on the Tibetan Plateau – which encompasses the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province in China – showed a 350 percent increase in the price paid to some harvesters between 1997 and 2004.

“I came because people in my village were talking about how much money people can make during the harvest,” said a 34-year-old mother of two who gave her name only as Lakshmi.

Police in Dolpa, a rural Himalayan district on Nepal’s western border with Tibet, traditionally rich in yartsa gunbu, told IRIN they estimated that 40,000 people would enter the mountains by the time the harvest ended.

In the district’s economic capital, Dho Tarap, citizen committees levy a $33 tax on seasonal migrants and the money is used to subsidize food for villagers in Dolpa and support environmental clean-up.

A former committee member said in one year the revenue was used to purchase seven 40kg bags of rice per household, and in another it was handed out in cash, with each household getting approximately $500. But despite efforts to spread the wealth, residents say the environmental degradation may outweigh the seasonal economic boost.

“More people coming for the harvest means more feet trampling on the grass, and more bushes and shrubs destroyed,” said Gyalpo Thandin, 27, a student. “When the grasslands are damaged, our cows and yaks don’t have enough to eat, so they die more easily in the winter.”

Kedar Binod Pandey, who has been a school principal in Dho Tarap for 19 years, warned: “We can’t assume that just because we are making money from the harvest now, that income will always be here for us.”

He pointed out that the tax income policy may be short-sighted. “Yes, more people means more money, but it also means more depletion of the yartsa gunbu and destruction of the environment.”

The government of Nepal has attempted, with little success, to monitor the harvest. “The impact of the crowds going for the harvest is a concern,” said Yajna Nath Dahal, Under Secretary at the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation in Kathmandu, in the capital.

“We try to have district forest officers and rangers monitor as much as possible – we know the impact of many people going to the fields is hard on the environment. But the lack of infrastructure in rural areas limits what we can do, so we rely on local committees.”

Kakana, 40, a farmer from the neighbouring Jajarkot District, said he had been coming to harvest for the past five years but things had changed. “I used to get 200 pieces before leaving for home. This year I have been here for nearly two weeks and I only have 40.”

Experts say the lower yields may be due to a variety of factors. For example, aged yartsa gunbu has typically been left unpicked due to its low market value, but with more harvesters looking for income, even decaying pieces are picked and sold, leaving fewer spores for the following year.

“Sustainable resource management is the best solution to the problem,” said Daniel Winkler, an international consultant ecologist and geographer who has researched yartsa gunbu for more than a decade.

He noted that “unprecedented collection intensity”, or over-harvesting, the recent economic dependence of local economies on caterpillar fungus collection, and rainfall variability could lead to lower yields this season.

“This yartsa gunbu causes a lot of problems in Dolpa,” said Ujol Lama*, a guest-house owner in Dho Tarap. He has seen migrant harvesters die from altitude sickness, cold, or a lack of adequate food. “We need a rest or a gap of one year or more so we can think about a better way to do this.”

*not his real name


A caterpillar fungus is Nepal’s El Dorado

Published by Radio Netherlands Worldwide.


Laxmi Subedi and her eleven-year-old son, Nabindra, traveled by foot for six days to reach the harvesting fields of Dolpa from their home village in Jajarkot district in western Nepal. They migrated because Lakshmi’s husband’s health was failing and, with it, the family farm. For years she had heard rumors of the fortune that was to be made in the annual caterpillar fungus harvest. This year she made the trip for the first time.

Flora or fauna?

Every spring, countless people across the Himalayas flock to high altitude fields in search of a rare commodity: a caterpillar, killed by a parasitic fungus (cordyceps sineasis), which then grows out of the ground in tiny, barely-visible stems that look like blades of grass.
The product is a flora-fauna combination, the corpse of a caterpillar mummified by a mushroom. Known locally by its Tibetan name, yartsa gunbu, meaning “summer grass, winter worm,” it has been used in Tibetan and Chinese traditional medicine, among other practices, for millennia.
In recent years, the increased market value of yartsa gunbu has driven up the demand for the harvest. Its reputation as a potent aphrodisiac – dubbed “Himalayan Viagra” – has made it particularly popular in some parts of the world.

A Nepali El Dorado

“Every year we say the same thing, we have never seen so many people coming before!” says Lakpa Lama*, a farmer in Dolpa whose family operates a small store and restaurant seasonally to supply migrant harvesters with food and supplies.
A middle man who operates a supplies store in a tent along the route to the harvest fields in Dolpa explains: “I buy decently-sized pieces for between 300 and 500 rupees (between 2.75 and 4.40 Euros) and then sell them later in the summer in Tibetan markets.” He reports that he has earned up to a 300% profit on some pieces.
While thorough research in Nepal is lacking, studies of the yartsa gunbu harvest elsewhere in the Himalayas have estimated that yartsa gunbu is the single most important source of household income in some communities on the Tibetan Plateau.
And as word has spread of the fortune to be found in the mountains, more people from near and far have gambled on gossip and joined the annual harvest.

Profit at a human cost

But for migrant harvesters, the effects of cold weather, strenuous hiking, and extreme altitude can take a toll on their health – and their ability to turn a profit. While trolling a hillside field at approximately 4200 meters, Subedi explained: “I have been sick since I arrived a week ago. If I find a small [yartsa gunbu], I eat it because it helps with the sickness.”
Subedi is not alone. Harvesters who migrate from Nepal’s middle hills and Tarai plains sometimes suffer in Dolpa’s extreme environment. Kakana, a seasoned harvester from Rukkum district explained: “I have been harvesting here for five years. By this time I usually have 200 pieces, but this year only 40. It is cold so I need more food every day, and I am running out. I’ll need to leave soon.”
Nonetheless the pressure to succeed remains. Migrant harvesters’ communities outside of the high Himalayas have also come to depend on the informal economy of the caterpillar fungus harvest.

Children as harvesters

Kathmandu newspapers have reported that children are leaving school this year to join the harvest and earn the money to pay their school fees, causing schools to struggle to remain open.
Some schools have adapted to the seasonal pull of the harvest and shut down to allow students time to participate. But the effects of such gaps are not insubstantial.
Ram Chandra Buddha is administrator and teacher at a school less than a hundred kilometers from the fields, and he’s seeing the demands the work is making on his students who are pressured to work with the harvest to support their impoverished families.  “We have had to limit the amount of vacation time we allow students to take for the yartsa gunbu harvest to 15 days.” His school also applies age limits, primary school students are not allowed any time off for the harvest. “Otherwise,” he says, “it really starts to have a negative impact on their studies.”
For Lakshmi and Nabindra, there is little choice in the matter. “With my husband sick, this seemed like the only option, and I can’t leave my son at home – plus, he helps find pieces,” she explains. She hopes that a successful harvest will mean she can eventually send him to boarding school in Kathmandu.

*name changed at interviewee’s request.