<%@ LANGUAGE="VBSCRIPT" %> Tibetans, Chinese Battle Over Access to Medicinal Fungus

Tibetans, Chinese Battle Over Access to Medicinal Fungus

WASHINGTON, DC, June 2, 2005 (ENS) - Thousands of Tibetans on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau have clashed violently with security forces in a protest over access to an area where a medicinal fungus is traditionally collected in early spring, sources have told Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan service.

A government official from Yushu Prefecture in northwest China’s Qinghai Province confirmed anonymously that a clash had occurred in Dzato County on May 20 and 21.

Yushu Prefecture is in the traditionally Tibetan area of Kham, now under Chinese jurisdiction.

Other sources, who also asked to remain unnamed, said several hundred security forces from outside the area had been brought in to guard county government offices after a violent clash in which shots were fired and county offices were burned.

Reports of casualties in the clash could not be independently confirmed.

The clash erupted after Dzato County officials imposed a "tax" of 1,500 yuan (US$181) per person from neighboring Tibetan areas before allowing them to visit the area to collect the medicinal fungus.

Local Tibetans accused the Chinese authorities of pocketing most of the tax money, which they say totaled more than 650,000 yuan (US$78,500), according to Radio Free Asia.


Known as yartsa gunbu in Tibetan, the fungus is called chong cao in Chinese, and in Latin is known as Cordyceps sinensis. (Photo © Daniel Winkler)
Tibetans who had traveled to Yushu Prefecture to collect the fungus but were prevented from doing so demanded their money back, sources said.

Officials refused and instead called in security forces who beat members of the crowd, striking some with electric prods.

For centuries, Tibetans have collected this prized medicinal fungus in early spring. Endemic to the alpine grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau, collection and trade of the fungus is an important source of income for rural Tibetan communities. It brings high prices throughout East Asia as supply often falls short of demand.

Cordyceps sinensis is sold in its natural state, as an extract, and as a powder in capsules.

Cordyceps sinensis includes fungus that grows on caterpillar larvae. Both the plant and the larvae are contained in the product and both are consumed.

According to a clinical summary published by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, cordyceps is used to treat a wide range of conditions including bronchitis, coughs, lung cancer, kidney dysfunction, high cholesterol, fatigue, sexual dysfunction, and as an immune stimulant.

Cordyceps grows on grasslands or shrublands at an altitude of 3,300 to 5,000 meters (10,800 to 16,400 feet). Collecting has intensified since the 1980s when commercial collectors began to enter the plateau in search of the valuable fungus.

The long-term impact of intensive collection on cordyceps and its reproduction is not clear, says ecologist Daniel Winkler, who specializes in the sustainable management and utilization of medicinal plants and mushrooms and their conservation.

"From a mycological point of view, it can be speculated that, if the fungus is collected after it had time to release enough of its spores, there might be no negative impact at all," says Winkler. "To the contrary, handling the fungus might even result in wider spore dispersal."

For a comprehensive survey of the fungus, see Winkler's paper, "Yartsa Gunbu - Cordyceps sinensis - Economy, Ecology & Ethno-Mycology of a Fungus Endemic to the Tibetan Plateau," online at: http://ourworld.cs.com/danwink/id71.htm?f=fs

Radio Free Asia is found at: www.rfa.org