Providing a Healing Hand to Sustainable Biodiversity


Chinese Traditional Medicine farmer Yu Zerun, shows off his Schisandra harvest in Pingwu County, Sichuan Province.

As the sun rides higher in the sky, Yi minority villager Yu Zerun begins his long journey home. On his way he will collect firewood and a bag of mushrooms to conceal the real target of his morning's expedition into the nature reserve. It is nearly time for his weekly visit to the nearby town to trade his caterpillar fungus with the dealer at the local market. But, despite the fact that these caterpillars provide a valuable source of income for him and his family, even he is concerned about the sustainability of his activities.

Highlights

  • For many villagers living on the steep mountain landscapes of the upper Yangtze River basin, this is the story of how an abundance of natural resources once divided loyalties between preserving the environment on which they depend, and the need to survive.
  • This time, rather than prohibiting harvesting, the project encouraged farmers to adopt community ownership systems and adopt common cash-crop species suitable for collective planting and sales.

For many villagers living on the steep mountain landscapes of the upper Yangtze River basin, this is the story of how an abundance of natural resources once divided loyalties between preserving the environment on which they depend, and the need to survive. This delicate conflict followed a series of bans aimed at tackling excessive deforestation (1998) and farming (2000) which left entire communities with little alternative but to turn to other means of supporting their families.

With restrictions on logging and farming hitting hardest along the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, the collection of wild traditional Chinese medicinal plants offered enticing income opportunities for enterprising residents. Nevertheless, despite contributing significantly to primary healthcare industries, harvesting quickly rose to unsustainable proportions and resulted in the widespread destruction of fragile habitats and encroachment into protected areas and nature reserves.

An estimated 75 percent of commercially harvested traditional Chinese medicinal plants are found in these fragile regions of western China, including some of the world's only Chonglou plants – used to stop bleeding and relieve pain. Yet, with few incentives to deter locals from entering nature reserves illegally, and with wildlife habits in danger, there was an urgent need to convince people that safeguarding their own prospects for sustainable livelihoods and preserving biodiversity could provide mutually beneficial social, economic and environmental benefits.

In response to this challenge, UNDP and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) identified 19 villages in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces in 2007, and set about demonstrating the benefits of more advanced business planning, and cultivation and harvest management techniques. By combining nature conservation with the sustainable use of local resources and income generation a series of training workshops, lectures and exchange visits, allowed residents to regain a sense of ownership over their environment, while their newfound assets meant they now possessed a vested interest in protecting the nature reserves from poachers.

This time, rather than prohibiting harvesting, the project encouraged farmers to adopt community ownership systems and adopt common cash-crop species suitable for collective planting and sales. In doing so, China's first association business model for Schisandra was successfully implemented in Daping Village, Sichuan Province, in 2009, and the pressure placed on 10,000 hectares of giant panda habitat was reduced. The approval of new international certification standards was followed by the securing of large contracts with buyers from North America and a local winery, and the Daping Association was supported in registering as a legal entity with the County Civil Affairs Bureau. Several community associations were also established at other project sites, with funding provided by micro-finance grants and a Community Development Fund. Through these arrangements, farmers in Daping sold their Schisandra for as much as 17 yuan (US$2.7) per kilo – 115 percent higher than the market price of 8 yuan (US$1.3). It also signed a new 5-year Memorandum of Understanding with its international buyers.

"Before I had to take many risks to get plants and I didn't make much money," said Yu Zerun. "Now I don't have to worry about getting caught I can earn enough to support my family by selling my plants overseas."

This remarkable transformation has allowed local farmers to gain a foothold in a market that is growing at 12 percent annually, and training manuals have been produced to ensure that enthusiasm towards the sustainable cultivation of traditional Chinese medicines is not lost over time. Policy recommendations have also been drafted alongside local and provincial government partners, and energy-efficient stoves have been installed in small production facilities to reduce the amount of energy used during processing. Meanwhile, in 2012, the Kangmei Institute of Community Development and Marketing was selected from 800 entrants as one of 25 winners of the Equator Prize 2012 – a global award scheme recognising local and indigenous initiatives – for its role in promoting medicinal plant and herb cultivation techniques.

Backed by US$1.8 million in grants awarded by the EU-China Biodiversity Programme (ECBP), and with a total budget of US$3.5 million, this four-year project has seen a dramatic shift in the way people balance their short and long-term needs with those of future generations. To assist them, the WWF is set to continue to assist communities avoid the temptation to return to over-harvesting once competition increases and prices drop. Over the next five years, its focus will be on diversifying plant species to reduce the reliance on individual natural resources.

Since its launch in 2005, the ECBP – a €49 million (US$58 million) initiative funded by the European Union and managed by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and UNDP – has overseen 18 projects across China. As part of the China Biodiversity Partnership Framework, more than 100 development agencies have come together to identify conservation management solutions and strengthen biodiversity awareness. From grassland management demonstrations in Altai, Xinjiang, to school projects in Lhasa, Tibet, ECBP advocacy and training activities have helped promote sustainable lifestyle changes that are transforming China's natural landscapes.

Having done so, the foundations have been laid for lower-carbon and greener economies and, while there is still a way to go before this can be fully realised, the ECBP has established a lasting legacy consistent with all of UNDP's environmental interventions and objectives.