Saving medicinal plants improves lives of Chinese villagers | WWF

Saving medicinal plants improves lives of Chinese villagers

Posted on 13 August 2010    
Schisandra fruits are used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to harmonise body, mind and spirit.
© Anthony B. Cunningham
Chengdu, China: As the weather cools down and fall arrives, Schisandra fruits growing on the mountains are gradually turning red. The first to change their hues are those grown at a lower altitude. After some time, the redness gradually spreads over the whole mountain.

Those newly harvested Schisandra fruits are usually sold in the local market as seasonal fruits. After everybody has tasted the fresh ones, the rest of the fruits are dried in the sun and then sold to traditional Chinese medicine stores. In traditional Chinese medicine, Schisandra fruits can be used to cure cough, wheezing, diarrhea and spontaneous sweating. Liu Shifa, a farmer who lives in Ningshan County of Shanxi province, has been following the process for years.

Liu was therefore a little bit surprised when he received an invitation to a training workshop on Schisandra fruit harvesting organized by an organization that he had never heard of.

As a team leader of his village, Liu was obliged to sit in the workshop, though he didn’t plan to stay there for very long. Once the workshop had been going for a little while however, he decided to stay.

The workshop was organized by WWF-China to promote the concepts of sustainability and organic food. Sustainability is not a totally new concept for most of the villagers, but they had not drawn any connection between that word and their Schisandra fruit harvesting.

“No one thought we needed to protect these wild plants. I mean, they are harvested from the wild. All we want are their fruits. If a branch is too high and we cannot reach it, we just cut it down,” said Lao Chen, a villager sitting next to Liu.

According to Meng Xiangming, director of Pingheliang Natural Reserve at Qingling Mountain, Shanxi Province, random and destructive harvesting has already impacted many plants commonly used in traditional Chinese medicines in the region, such as asarum and pig water chestnut. If local villagers continue the practice, the Schisandra plant could be the next victim.

It was in this workshop that Liu and his fellow villagers gradually learned what sustainability meant in relation to fruit harvesting. They also began to realize that the sustainable harvest of wild fruits is just the first step. In order to be certified as organic, the processing, packaging, storage and transportation of Schisandra fruit should also meet international and national standards.

A strategic model for biodiversity conservation

Despite being one of the oldest types of medicine in the world, traditional Chinese medicine is frequently unrecognized and even disparaged in the West. This situation, however, has never prevented the Chinese from seeing the value in studying and using herbs or animal parts for medicinal purposes. The domestic and international trade of herbs has created a booming industry that contributes tremendously to the income of local communities where the herbs are harvested.

Sadly there is a downside. The growing demand for wild plants used in traditional Chinese medicine has increased their value in recent years, which has led to over-harvesting of herbs and created a new threat to biodiversity in many regions in China.

Over-harvesting is especially harmful in the Upper Yangtze Region because it is home to an estimated 75 percent of the traditional Chinese medicine plant species in one of the world’s most biodiversity-rich areas. It is also the last stronghold of China’s national treasure, the giant panda.

In partnership with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), TRAFFIC-Beijing office, the European Union, China’s Traditional Chinese Medicine Bureau and several provincial forestry departments, WWF-China’s Wuhan and Chengdu offices have been developing and implementing a strategic model for biodiversity conservation and the sustainable management and utilization of traditional Chinese medicines. An example of the application of the model is the harvest of Schisandra fruits.

Amazing changes for villagers

Before the project, Schisandra fruit harvesting was not centrally managed and there was therefore no clear indication of the distribution and maturity of the plants. The goals of the project were two-fold. Firstly, the community could work together to manage their natural resources through more sustainable collection methods and high quality processing techniques. The second aim was to develop market access for the community.

Four processes were highlighted in the project. First, capacity building for the local communities was introduced, including training, the provision of equipment and development of instruction manuals. Then, scalable modeling provided a flexible framework for the application of the sustainable development of the industry to more regions in the future. And then, plant species and community selection ensured that only sustainable practices for plants were encouraged. Finally, monitoring and auditing was implemented to guarantee long-term adherence to these methods.

The Schisandra pilot project was especially successful in implementing these targets in a village in Pingwu County, Sichuan Province. With the help of the WWF Chegndu office, the village formed a Producers Association, and regulations around community organization and harvesting were established.

The Schisandra plant collection pattern immediately increased the income of local farmers, with orders growing from 500 kgs in 2009 to more than 20,000 kgs in 2010. The model is now being extended to 20 neighboring communities.

This project exemplifies WWF-China’s long-term commitment to empowering local communities to achieve greater conservation goals. On a larger scale, the alliance of international and local organizations has also helped to show the way forward for maintaining the tradition of Chinese medicine alongside the protection of biodiversity.

Schisandra fruits are used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to harmonise body, mind and spirit.
© Anthony B. Cunningham Enlarge

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