Uprooting Paradise: How Foraging Is Transforming Shangri-La
YUNNAN, Southwest China — On a sheer mountain slope high above the Mekong River, grizzled medicine collector Wangdak Sona yanks what looks like a gnarled root out of the ground, brushes off some soil, and — seemingly satisfied — stows it in his knapsack.
It’s hardly a glamorous way to make a living, but it’s thanks to roots like these that Wangdak’s life is better than ever. In certain months, the 48-year-old can make more money from seasonal foraging than the average rural resident in the region earns from their full-time job.
Tibetan foragers like Wangdak are common in Diqing, an autonomous prefecture in northwestern Yunnan province known to most Chinese by the name of its largest city, Shangri-La. Until a few decades ago, Tibetans here generally used local flora to augment nutrient-poor diets and concoct traditional medicines. Today, a commercial market for Shangri-La’s edible plants and fungi is thriving. More and more people are turning to foraging and selling their spoils at local markets where they can earn thousands of yuan a month, a handsome windfall in a formerly impoverished, isolated area.
But the foraging boom is coming at a cost to Shangri-La’s dazzling biodiversity. With its ranks of imperious, snow-capped peaks that give way to undulating, densely forested foothills, the region is home to more than 20 percent of the total sum of plant species in China. But that’s under attack from human activity — ambitious highway-building initiatives, mining, and deforestation. The problem is exacerbated by global climate change, a particular issue on the Tibetan Plateau, which is one of the world’s most sensitive regions to climate change. In 2013, Greenpeace claimed that “one-quarter of the species in Yunnan could be extinct by the end of the century.”
Ironically, foragers themselves are partly responsible for threatening the very biodiversity that makes their enterprise so profitable. Li Jianrui — a Shangri-La specialist based at Southwest Forestry University in Yunnan’s provincial capital, Kunming — says in the last few years, the government and all sorts of external forces have helped the economy grow rapidly. “This carries great implications for local biodiversity, including wild plant resources,” she says.
But in the sun-drenched living room belonging to Wangdak’s cousin, Nimya Tenzin, these concerns are far from anyone’s mind. It’s here in Nalong — a hillside hamlet of whitewashed farmhouses in which around 40 Tibetan families live — where we first meet Wangdak, a wiry man with an easy smile. He greets Nimya warmly as he walks in, before we all set off on what Wangdak calls one of his less-demanding medicine hunts.
Despite Wangdak’s flippancy, we soon find that foraging is an energy-sapping endeavor. Most summer days, Wangdak gets up, calls on the 51-year-old Nimya, and arrives at a chosen mountain by 8 a.m. A day’s work sees them scrabbling up and down steep hills well into the evening, digging, tugging, and slashing at anything edible, and ferreting plants away in bags and jacket pockets. Before long, we find ourselves sporting mud-caked T-shirts, ripped pants, and bruised egos, gingerly following as the two men — both around two decades our senior — stride along precipitous dirt paths with billy-goat surefootedness.
Like many in the region, Wangdak learned to forage from older family members. “I didn’t go to school as a child,” he says. “I began working on my dad’s farm when I was 6 years old, and started foraging for medicines at 18 or 19. Little by little, I came to recognize more and more [plants].”
Wangdak’s botanical knowledge is indeed formidable. That afternoon, amid a haze of postprandial cigarette smoke, he tips the spoils from our outing onto Nimya’s lunch table, revealing a dozen or so roots, leaves, twigs, shoots, and fungi. The knobby root that he dug up that morning belongs to Paris polyphylla, a plant native to China and Southeast Asia. The root itself — technically a fleshy underground stem called a rhizome — is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat swelling and inflammation. Other species abound, too: There’s beimu — fritillary bulbs believed to cure coughs and skin lumps — and Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a parasitic fungus that essentially kills and mummifies moth larvae. “Caterpillar fungus is also useful for backaches, foot pain, and rheumatism,” Wangdak explains.
Wangdak only began taking medicinal plants seriously about five years ago, after the government linked his home village of Shidi — where Wangdak still raises cattle — to the local county town of Deqin via a network of paved roads. Although many mountain roads are little more than long, thin ribbons of unmarked concrete, they nonetheless reduced his journey time to the mountains by about one-third, connecting him to formerly hard-to-reach foraging spots. They also provided easier access to local markets, where middlemen come to buy foragers’ unprocessed plants before selling them on to traditional Chinese medicine doctors and manufacturers — the first stage in a growing, and globalizing, industry worth tens of billions of dollars.
Nowadays, medicine-picking supplements Wangdak’s income to the tune of 3,000 to 6,000 yuan ($433 to $865) a month. In Diqing, the average disposable income for rural residents was just over 7,000 yuan per year in 2016, according to Yunnan’s provincial government. On the morning after our foray into the wilderness, Wangdak’s scooter whizzes along the highway to the nearby town of Yanmen. He and Nimya wander through the crowded market, searching for middlemen to relieve them of the last few days’ haul.
Wangdak has given little thought to the environmental effects of his foraging, but evidence suggests that wild populations of all three of the abovementioned plants face depletion. Research published earlier this year in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology concluded that wild P. polyphylla supplies are being sapped by “species specific, unsustainable harvest on a massive scale,” among other causes. A 2017 article in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology stated that the bulbs of wild Fritillaria cirrhosa, which are harvested as beimu and are a protected species in China, are “still at the risk of depletion” despite efforts to commercially cultivate them. And although the Chinese government listed the caterpillar fungus as an “endangered species for protection” as early as 1999, scientists suspect that the degradation of the Tibetan Plateau’s vegetation and soils is partly due to its continued overharvesting.
Perhaps understandably, Wangdak prefers to talk about how economic development has lifted his family out of poverty. A couple decades ago, his father drove a mule several hours along rutted tracks to barter herbs and home-churned butter at the market. “When I was a kid, breakfast was highland-barley noodles, lunch was buckwheat or tsampa [roasted flour eaten across the greater Tibetan region], and dinner was maize cakes,” he smiles. “But now, I can eat anything. I can live however I like — I can even have three dishes and soup with every meal!”
MANY TIBETAN PEOPLE in Shangri-La are aware of the environmental impact of over-foraging, but economic necessity often compels them to continue, says Li, the Kunming-based expert on the region. “That’s the conflict between conservation and development,” she says. “It’s complicated.”
Li is technically an ethnoecologist: She researches how different groups of people understand and interact with the ecosystems around them. The subject demands both formidable environmental knowledge and cultural sensitivity, and — as befits a region named after a fictional paradise — Shangri-La is the perfect place to study it. “‘Paradise’ is exactly the right word,” Li laughs.
As part of her research, Li frequently travels into Shangri-La’s remotest corners, lives alongside local Tibetans and members of other ethnic minorities, and documents how they use local plants. “We see them as teachers, and want to form cooperative relationships with them on an equal footing,” she says.
In recent years, rural residents have expressed concern to Li that overeager foragers are causing supplies of certain edible plants to dwindle. Locals know that there’s a demand for the natural fauna around them, she explains, “so they collect large amounts of them, even too much of them.” Wangdak’s much-loved caterpillar fungus — so useful for aches and pains — and zhuyecai, a common perennial in the genus Maianthemum with edible leaves, are among the plants at risk, Li adds.
But the greater threat comes from the large-scale development of basic infrastructure. Li cites highways, railroads, airports, and hydropower stations as major disruptors to plant ecosystems: “In the past, foraging was very difficult. People who lived at lower altitudes had no way of climbing higher to gather plants, and so it wasn’t terribly destructive,” she explains. “But it’s true that now, with paved roads stretching right to the feet of these mountains, people can ride motorbikes all the way there, climb a few hundred meters farther up, and collect [plants].”
Because many of Shangri-La’s plant species remain either poorly understood or — perhaps — undiscovered, ethnoecologists are racing to document the region’s foraging cultures. But at times, the work can be slow-going. Li says it often takes time to bridge the gaps between well-heeled, highly educated researchers and the more bucolic experiences of the farmers alongside whom they work. “[We have] to work for their approval and make them realize that we’re trying to be their friends.”
And although part of Shangri-La’s thrill comes from its demographic diversity, such cultural pluralism can also hinder communication between rural foragers and the — mostly Han — scientists trying to understand and protect local species. Most Tibetans in Shangri-La speak Khams Tibetan or local Yunnanese dialects, neither of which are easily comprehensible to speakers of standard Mandarin. Medicine-pickers Wangdak and Nimya, for instance, speak only a smattering of formal Chinese.
Of course, when it comes to naming plants, language rarely respects scientific distinctions. When a forager plucks a fig, for instance, they seldom care whether it comes from Ficus pumila — a vine-like creeper — or its freestanding cousin, Ficus sarmentosa. What matters is that it produces figs. Neither does it matter much whether the abovementioned zhuyecai is Maianthemum purpureum, M. forestii, M. oleraceum, or another species. More interesting is the fact you can stir-fry the leaves or feed them raw to farm animals.
Ethnoecologists pay as much attention to cultural know-how about plants as to the plants themselves. But as foragers increasingly cater to the demands of the market and invest their earnings into their children’s futures, they are less likely to pass on more traditional plant knowledge. At the same time, large numbers of Shangri-La’s young people are turning away from farming and foraging, and toward new careers in China’s urban areas, according to Li. “They’re not really interested in inheriting this folk knowledge, and once that happens, this heritage very easily becomes fragmented,” she says. “So that’s another downside to economic development.”
Wangdak’s 16-year-old son, who attends middle school in Deqin, is a case in point. Wangdak is naturally happy to see his boy get the education he never had, and hasn’t taught him how to forage. “I’ve told him: ‘Go and study if you want to. Middle school, high school, university — if you’re able to do it, then do it. I’ll pay for it,’” he says. “He can go and live in some other big town, in a city … If he gets out of college and can’t find a job, then I’ll teach him about plants.”
Aside from a welcome rise in people’s fortunes, Wangdak has noticed little change in the region since his childhood. While that may be true in the area around his home village, the severity of environmental degradation — and human responses to it — vary significantly across Yunnan. Wangdak himself admits that he hasn’t ventured far beyond the limits of his village. “I know it’s old-fashioned of me, but this is where my grandfather came from, where my mom and dad came from … It’s where my roots are. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I could go and earn money anywhere, but I still prefer to stay in our village. It’s my favorite place of all.”
Li says intensive foraging is an unsustainable model, but has faith that the situation will improve: “China is rolling out all sorts of targeted poverty-relief policies at the moment. Once the rural economy has had time to develop, greater consideration will be given to the sustainable use of natural resources.”
Ultimately, she says, outsiders shouldn’t judge local people too harshly if they put money matters before conservation. “Development and protection — they conflict with each other. But [many] local people are, actually, still extremely poor. They need to fill their bellies, or get themselves an income. So we can’t say that their choices are wrong.”
AS THE MARKET economy collides with foraging culture, it’s reshaping Shangri-La’s countryside in sometimes bizarre ways. In Chugu, a village of mushroom pickers, residents have made enough money to build themselves lavish mansions — so lavish, in fact, that they don’t dare live in them.
We arrive in Chugu on a dreary morning, as soft rain forms oily puddles on the unpaved ground. Hardly anyone is around, save for a couple of staring children and a decidedly less curious elderly woman dozing on her porch. Twenty-four-year-old Chumpal Gyalpo, who comes from a family of mushroom pickers, greets us outside the family’s magnificent three-story home, then unexpectedly waves us into a humbler single-room dwelling off to one side, where his mother and elderly grandmother sit by a stove bolted into the cement floor. “We don’t use the big house during mushroom season,” Chumpal says. “It’s easier to just stay in here.”
In the past, most people in Chugu made a living by growing barley, rapeseed, and turnips in a narrow mountain valley. Back then, it was customary for only the most affluent villagers to build handsome houses, Chumpal says. But in the 1980s, Japanese traders, facing dwindling domestic supplies of the popular and expensive delicacy of matsutake, began to import the mushroom from overseas. Since then, the village’s fortunes have increased dramatically. Now, Chugu’s 150 or so residents earn tens of thousands of yuan a year by collecting and selling matsutake in the mountains around their village, and luxurious mansions have sprouted up on virtually every street.
Yet these elaborate houses are often unsuited to local farming and foraging lifestyles, not to mention local cooking methods. Consequently, many families spend most of the year in the equivalent of little Western-style outhouses, only moving into the main house during Spring Festival and other major holidays, Chumpal says. And since a 1998 logging ban, wood has become harder to come by, making people nervous that repair work will be expensive. “People seldom use [the mansions] now — they’re scared that smoke [from their stoves] will blacken the wood, or cause other undesirable effects,” Chumpal explains.
In the summer months, when the sunny, humid pine forests around the village start sprouting matsutake, Chugu becomes a ghost town for long periods of the day. Most able-bodied villagers rise before dawn and walk the two-hour journey into the mountains to collect matsutake. In the half-light, they cram their bags with as many mushrooms as they can find, returning to Chugu at around 10 a.m. to sell their yields to buyers. In the afternoon, they do it all again.
Chumpal says his family normally earns around 20,000 yuan — around half of their annual income — from the summer mushroom hunt. But that means villagers’ livelihoods rely heavily on a weather-dependent commodity traded according to the whims of an international market. Chugu experienced unusually frequent, heavy rainfall this year, Chumpal says; as a result, the mushrooms sprouted later, and did not grow in the same volumes as previous years. “More and more people are going out hunting for mushrooms and taking longer to look for them,” he says. “We’re really not finding that many.”
Just before 10 a.m., Chumpal’s father, Shang Tan, saunters into the concrete outhouse. The gangly 40-something carefully removes a bulging plastic bag from his satchel, stows it by a pair of scales in one corner, and sits by the stove to dry off.
Shang has the slightly self-conscious demeanor of a man who feels his wealth belies his humble origins. He grew up in a nearby village, began foraging at the age of 11, and moved to Chugu at 19 to get married. He speaks uncertain Mandarin and frequently dips into the local Tibetan dialect to ask Chumpal how to phrase something. Chumpal, for his part, has a habit of lightheartedly needling his father’s linguistic shortcomings, quickly reducing both men to fits of laughter.
Shang takes a more serious tone, though, when the conversation turns toward his dwindling matsutake yields. “In the last few years, our output has fallen dramatically compared with how it was before,” he says. “Previously, matsutake were quite easy to find. You’d see them whenever you went into the mountains, because back then, people didn’t deliberately seek them out so much. But now we mostly have to look for them under the topsoil, because more people are searching for them.”
The impact of mushroom picking on the local ecology is less cut-and-dried than that of the medicinal plant industry. American mycologist David Arora, for example, has written that scientific evidence of a link between intensive mushroom harvesting and adverse environmental effects is inconclusive. In addition, matsutake production is known to peak when the trees on which it grows reach a certain age, and then decline thereafter.
Nonetheless, in recent years a number of NGOs have advised village communities to roll out certain policies designed to root out perceived over-foraging. Although Arora says that many such community-based approaches are well-intentioned, they are often unnecessary or fail to adequately listen to villagers’ own views on conservation. “The present model of being advised by NGOs and scientists presumes that [they] know something about harvesting matsutake that [villagers] don’t,” wrote Arora to Sixth Tone in an email. “I’m not sure what that would be.”
Arora favors “letting communities come up with their own guidelines and management if they choose to.” That could mean rotating picking areas, reserving certain easier-to-access hillsides for elderly foragers, or instituting so-called rest days, when villagers are forbidden from picking mushrooms in order to let them grow back.
Chugu’s mushroom industry remains unregulated — though the community no longer harvests medicinal plants. After a lunch of flatbread and sweetened yak cheese, Shang and Chumpal take us on the afternoon mushroom hunt. As we strike out into Chugu’s barley fields and mist-filled mountains, the rain grows heavier. An hour or so into our hot, exhausting climb, Shang and Chumpal leave the path, slosh across a knee-high brook, and disappear up a steep slope of dripping pine trees. Mushroom hunting is dangerous work on days like this, when the tree roots turn slick and the soil gives way at a moment’s notice.
But many think the risk is worth it. Matsutake — nicknamed “The King of Fungi” among locals — are so much more valuable than other varieties that, these days, foragers bypass many other mushroom species and may not pass on important knowledge about them to younger generations. On the slope, all manner of jewel-like domes peer out from under carpet of pine needles; one large, violently red specimen is locally called “chili” due to its spicy taste, while a more rotund customer is known as Catathelasma ventricosum to Western mycologists, and the more prosaic-sounding “old head fungus” to locals. Shang and Chumpal aren’t interested in any of them. “They’re hardly worth anything,” says the latter over his shoulder.
Higher up the slope, Shang lets out a sigh. “Someone’s dug all this up already,” he says, poking at a patch of disturbed soil with the carved wooden stick he uses to extract mushrooms. Even after the matsutake’s caps are picked, remnants of its mycorrhiza — root-like links to its host tree — remain underground, enabling the mushroom to regenerate. For this reason, foragers keep a mental note of where they have discovered matsutake in the past, returning every few days during the peak growing season to repeatedly harvest them.
“This mountain is really popular,” explains Chumpal, adding that certain overzealous foragers pick mushrooms before they are fully ripe, or inadvertently remove some of the mycorrhiza with them, slowing regrowth. “So all we can do is travel farther to search for them.”
This latter statement is scant consolation to us, for whom the climb has already been thigh-burningly steep and skin-pruningly wet. As we crest the hill an hour or so later, Shang seems to conclude — correctly — that his visitors are more of a hindrance than a help, and flits off to fill his burlap sack with matsutake. He reappears at the end of our descent, as the rain finally eases off, and he and Chumpal locate each other via hooting calls exchanged across the valley.
Villagers may not dwell too much on questions of conservation, but some have noticed the ways that development has been chipping away at their sense of community.
After our afternoon hike, Chumpal leaves his father beside the stove and shows us around the family’s palatial three-floor mansion. A large kitchen has been built around a vast hearth; on the uppermost floor, an altar room houses a replete statue of the Buddha. Wooden door panels feature intricate reliefs of flowers and birds, and carvings of dragons’ heads peer out from under the eaves, fearsome and fine.
But for all its opulence, the house remains dark, empty, and cold. On the top-floor landing, cured hams hang from the rafters, only breaking the silence when a glob of oil thuds onto the floorboards below. Whole rooms remain unfurnished. The few possessions inside are stashed in corners or on shelves, hastily dumped there by someone looking to dispose of them, not display them.
In recent years, some villagers have complained that the matsutake industry has created a town of nouveau-riche residents who build large homes out of a desire to outdo their neighbors. “When I look around, I notice lots of people trying to keep up with the Joneses, if you will. I mean, if everyone builds themselves nice houses, then I’ll see that and build one too,” Chumpal says.
In one sense, Chumpal knows that matsutake money has afforded him opportunities that his parents’ generation could only dream of. It helped pay his maintenance fees while he studied at university in Nantong, a city in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, and eventually drew him back home despite overtures from a reputable company in the same city. He worries that the influx of money into Chugu is damaging the village’s community spirit. “I think it’s because local incomes have risen a bit in the last few years. Little by little, everyone’s developed an unhealthy sense of competition, and I don’t think it’s good at all.”
On a plot next to the main house stands the skeletal foundations of a third home that Chumpal’s family began building earlier this year, to replace the concrete outhouse. “I often say to my family: ‘The home we have is enough. There’s no need for us to compare ourselves with other people,’” sighs Chumpal. “But that competitive mindset still seeps through, unconsciously.”
Additional reporting: Wu Huiyuan; illustrations: Liu Zheng; editor: Julia Hollingsworth. With regional assistance from Thupten Tsering.
Correction: The average disposable income in Diqing in 2016 was 7,000 yuan per year, not per month.
(Header image: Wangdak Sona (left) and his cousin, Nimya Tenzin (right) at the top of a mountain near Nalong, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan province, July 19, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)