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Yarshagumba: protecting a potent trade

Dried Yarsagumba (Sushil Gyawali, ANSAB)
Dried Yarsagumba
Sushil Gyawali, ANSAB

Unsustainable harvesting frequently threatens non-timber forest product (NTFP) enterprises. But in Nepal, despite government intervention, increasing demand for yarshagumba, a rare and unique fungal herb, is threatening forests high in the steep, remote valleys of the Himalayas.

In May this year (2007), 16 harvesters were reported killed in heavy snow storms in the Dolpa district of western Nepal, although local reports claimed that fatalities were much higher. Each year thousands of Nepali villagers trek to Dolpa's high pastures, hoping to share in the harvest of this lucrative commodity, and the bodies buried in the snow were the latest victims to succumb to the potent lure of the yarshagumba trade.

Regulation and royalties

Yarshagumba has been collected by communities for centuries but a 'gold rush' was first triggered in the spring of 2002 when people from neighbouring districts began to risk their lives by camping on the mountain slopes. Until 2001, collection of the fungus had been illegal but in response to its rising popularity and lobbying from various organisations, the government attempted to regulate the industry by lifting the ban and imposing a substantial tax, or "royalty fee", of 20,000 Nepali Rupees (Rs) (US$280) per kilogram collected.

At the same time the trade was legalised, the market price of yarshagumba soared to over NR100,000 per kilo (US$1560), leading to thousands of hopeful harvesters heading to the hills in 2002. However, enforcement of the royalty fee proved ineffective as much of the trade went unreported. The market price of the fungus currently stands at between US$3,000 per kg for the lowest quality to over US$15,000 for the biggest, highest quality larvae.

Yarshagumba: the caterpillar fungus Nicknamed the "Himalayan Viagra", yarshagumba (Cordyceps sinensis) is a rare species of parasitic fungus from the highlands of Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. In Nepal it is found at altitudes above 4000m in the Karnali region and western Himalayas, with more than 50 per cent coming from the Dolpa district.
All Cordyceps species are parasitic, mainly on insects and other arthropods. C. sinensis is the best known as it has long been a highly-prized ingredient in Chinese medicine, used as an aphrodisiac and treatment for a wide variety of ailments from fatigue to cancer. Demand for the fungus is highest in China, Thailand, Korea and Japan.
The fungus grows on Thitarodes caterpillar larvae that feed underground on the roots of trees and shrubs on the slopes of the Himalayas. Once infected, the body cavity of the larva fills with fungal mycelia, killing the host. A finger-like 'mushroom' grows out from the larval head above the ground during the spring and summer; the entire fungus-caterpillar organism is hand-collected during this time.

Community takes control

For Nepali communities in Dolpa, the yarshagumba trade has always been a vital source of income. Local authorities say schools and offices frequently close down during the picking season as children help their parents collect the fungus. But the increasing trade and influx of outsiders is putting local villagers' livelihoods and their forests at risk. In 2006, it was reported that over 30,000 harvesters had gathered in Dolpa's forests.

To protect their livelihoods and the delicate mountain habitat, local communities in Dolpa have sought to find their own solution to regulating the yarshagumba trade. Community forest user groups (FUGs) are found throughout Nepal, but many in Dolpa had ceased to function while others made no provision for NTFPs in their management plans. With support from the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB), a Kathmandu-based NGO, which had lobbied the government over the excessive yarshagumba royalty fee, three FUGs are now meeting regularly, having revised their constitutions and management. The harvesting areas have been surveyed and district authorities have officially handed over management of these to the groups.

Metamorphosis of yarshagumba trade

Yarsagumba collection in Bajhang-Nepal Himalaya (Sushil Gyawali, ANSAB)
Yarsagumba collection in Bajhang-Nepal Himalaya
Sushil Gyawali, ANSAB

The FUGs are now responsible for collecting entry charges from harvesters (NRs. 100 per collector) and a further conservation charge (NRs. 5,000 per kg) is levied. In the first year alone, the groups collected over NR800,000 (US$12,500). Following initial difficulties in collecting the charges, the FUGs set up four teams of younger group members to guard the entry points to the harvesting areas and enforce the fees. The fee income has been used to develop a micro-hydropower plant, benefiting all three FUGs.

There are still a number of challenges which need to be addressed. However, the intervention of ANSAB and commitment of FUGs has proved a viable and profitable alternative to the shortcomings of government regulation of yarshagumba collection in Nepal. ANSAB is now calling for more FUGs to become involved in forest management schemes to protect the communities they represent and the forests they depend on.

Date published: September 2007

 

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