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Middlebury College

Publication Date

Spring 2015

Program Name

Nepal: Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples

Abstract

Despite the fact that it has been used in tradition medicine for centuries, the caterpillar fungus known as yartsa gunbu (Othiocordyceps sinensis), has only become a popular medical supplement in the last fifteen years. Demand in China has driven what has been dubbed ‘the Himalayan gold rush’, a scramble for the fungus that has utterly transformed the agro-pastoral economies of the remote Himalayan regions where cordyceps is found. In many cases, the locals have prospered economically from the commodification of yartsa gunbu. In one such region of Nepal, the Tarap valley of the Dolpa district, while the villagers have benefitted financially, nearly ten thousand additional Nepalis come to pick the fungus each summer, resulting in detrimental environmental impacts to the sensitive grasslands where the fungus grows. The valley is now littered with trash, its animals and pastures significantly weaker than ten years ago. Thefts, deceit, chaos and violence have now become commonplace during yartsa gunbu season in the Tarap valley. Last year, a dispute between locals and government officials in Dho Tarap resulted in the serious injury of over forty villagers and the death of two. As the price and demand for cordyceps continues to increase, the fungus become increasingly difficult to find and harvest, threatening this burgeoning economy. Yartsa gunbu has caused a cascade of social, environmental, political, and economic shifts in the Tarap valley. This paper is an attempt to understand the full consequences of yartsa gunbu. Forty villagers, two traditional doctors, several teachers and three government officials were interviewed in Dolpo as research. Special attention was given to the details of the clash and to the environmental impact of fungus harvesting. While no absolute conclusion as to the definite long-term impacts of cordyceps can be drawn from this study, one salient point is clear; the Dolpo-pa ancient way of life has undergone rapid change in the last ten years as a direct result of cordyceps, and these shifts are profoundly threatening the culture and society of the Tarap valley.

Disciplines

Agricultural and Resource Economics | Asian Studies | Community-Based Research | Environmental Health and Protection | Environmental Sciences | Environmental Studies | Family, Life Course, and Society | Natural Resource Economics | Natural Resources and Conservation | Organization Development | Other Social and Behavioral Sciences | Place and Environment | Politics and Social Change | Social Control, Law, Crime, and Deviance

 

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