Yarsagumba is a caterpillar-fungus fusion. It forms when parasitic mushroom spores infect and mummify moth larvae under the soil. Twig-shaped fungus sprouts from the head of dead caterpillars, emerging just centimeters above the earth for harvesters to find. Yarsagumba sprouts at high altitudes (between 3000-5000 meters) on rocky Himalayan peaks spanning Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Tibet. Currently, China is the world’s largest producer of yarsagumba, meeting ninety-five percent of global demand. Nepal is the second largest supplier, producing three tons of yarsagumba annually.
Discovered first in Tibet, yarsagumba has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for 2000 years. Tonic made with powdered yarsagumba is said to increase energy, strengthen lungs and kidneys, treat cancer and asthma, and boost libido (it’s often called ‘Himalayan Viagra’). Demand for the fungus spiked in 1993, and has since become increasingly valuable. Today, both practical uses and astronomical prices have led yarsagumba “to rival French champagne as a status symbol at dinner parties or as a prestigious gift.”
The impact of yarsagumba harvesting on local communities in Tibet and Nepal, arriving in swarms every year to harvest the caterpillar-fungus, is one of the most-studied aspects of the yarsagumba trade. Each year, Tibetan towns and Nepali villages are drained. Hundreds of thousands of tents invade harvesting regions along all sides of the Himalayas holding whole families – only the elderly, the pregnant women, and the infants are left out of the harvest. In Nepal, income from yarsagumba accounts for up to 65% of total household income in some Western districts. Each piece of yarsagumba earns harvesters around Rs 800 (US$8). Collectors earn an average of NRs 120,000 (US$120) in a single harvest season. A family can earn up to nearly eight times Nepal’s per capita income of Rs 76,065. Yarsagumba collection has lifted the livelihoods of local people, and government taxes levied on collection bring substantial income to much needed social programs.
At the same time, yarsagumba harvest is very dangerous work. Yarsagumba harvesters face severe health risks in the high-altitude settings where the fungus is found. Collectors walk hours to harvest areas in the early morning, return only in the evening, and get by with just one meal each day. Acute altitude sickness and respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses are common, with medical care almost nonexistent in the area. Collectors often live in poor shelter with poor sanitation and limited availability of food. But harvesters are in a precarious position, and not only physically.
Global yarsagumba harvest has been on the decline in recent years. Nepal is no exception. Poor regulation of collectors, over-harvesting and climate change now threaten the delicate mountain ecosystems where yarsagumba is found and the primary source of income for thousands in mountainous communities. The threat produces three distinct and significant outcomes: competition incites conflict among collector communities and outsiders, highlights concerns about the sustainability of the industry, and reinforces inequalities along the line of individuals and communities who profit from the trade of yarsagumba.
- In some ways a symptom of a ‘resource curse’, conflicts over yarsagumba harvesting persist between locals and outsiders and between collectors in local communities. Conflict is attributable to the provision of rights to collect yarsagumba, given to villagers of some areas only. In 2009, seven people were killed by locals in Manang district after a harvest dispute. Another collector from Ramechap was found dead in Dolpa in May 2014. In 2011 a Nepalese court sentenced six men to life in prison for murdering harvesters.
- Since 2010, villagers collecting yarsagumba have reported spending more time searching, but finding fewer yarsagumba. Desperation has prompted harvesters to pick everything they can find – including yarsagumba not yet matured, when spores form and disperse into the soil. This has reduced yields in all subsequent years. Production has also decreased due to habitat degradation and climate change. Rising temperatures and less snow in the eastern Himalayas has impacted the natural growth of yarsagumba, which thrives in regions subject to permafrost, and has in recent years pushed growth of the fungus into higher average elevations. A collapse of the yarsagumba system under global warming and high collection pressure would significantly impact communities throughout the Himalayan region.
- Finally, Nepal’s yarsagumba production is also particularly sensitive to issues of resource sovereignty. Most of Nepal’s product is sold to Chinese markets. Huge inequalities exist between individual harvesters, local communities, middlemen who sell to Chinese markets, buyers in China, and actual consumers. Much of this comes down to the huge price differentials that exist between the local and international market. Those who gather the fungus earn a very small share of profits of the trade. For example, a middle-man in Siwang, Nepal buys the harvest for 1.7 million rupees ($18,000) per kilogram and sells it for up to 3 million rupees ($31,600) in Kathmandu. Then, when yarsagumba reaches large markets in Chinese cities such as Shanghai, it can go for as much as $100 per gram.
Harvesters come from impoverished mountainous communities. They pay high prices for permits, and hope to recoup the cost by selling the yarsagumba they find. Increasing demand for yarsagumba has put increasing pressure on this economically disadvantaged population to find the fungus, leading to the growth of the hardships and risk of injury they face. On the other end of the spectrum, Chinese sellers earn handsome fees by taking advantage of the relatively low prices that Nepali (and other poor, mountainous) communities are willing to accept. One glaring gap in our understanding of the Nepal context is how middle-men figure into the equation – their tactics, earnings, and practices are largely unexplored and yet have a profound impact on the way Nepali harvesters experience the trade. It could also be that Nepali middlemen are relatively powerless compared to their counterparts within China itself and thus become merely price-takers. This is certainly an area for further exploration, research and analysis.
This post was contributed by Mary Hoeflinger on December 28, 2019.
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