by L.J. Devon

High up in the Himalayan mountains, hidden in the quiet pastures, grows a rare medicinal fungus. Speculators from around the world have heard what the fungus can do. (It’s a powerful aphrodisiac.) They have learned how valuable it is. (It’s more valuable than gold in the Chinese markets.) It’s an understatement that Big Pharma’s eyes are getting big – their greedy grin widening. The rush for the rare medicinal fungus Yartsa gunbu is on.

Nicknamed Himalayan Viagra, Yartsa gunbu (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) is harvested in early spring from the mummified bodies of caterpillars. When ghost moth caterpillars burrow into the ground, the rare fungus invades their cocoons. The fungus, appearing as dime-sized spores, is collected from the grasslands in early spring from mummified caterpillar bodies high up in the Himalayan Mountains across the Tibetan Plateau. The rare fungus is more valuable than gold in the Chinese markets. That’s why speculators come from far and wide to claim their share.

Local, sustainable cultivation plan spreads wealth among villagers, preventing Big Pharma from cashing in on rare medicinal fungus

The Himalayan locals, however, have prevented Big Pharma and other speculators from pillaging the mountains and taking over the spring harvest of Yartsa gunbu. Two isolated Tibetan communities have come up with a plan to keep Yartsa gunbu sacred and protected. New Research from Washington University in St. Louis has found out how the local communities are keeping the pharmaceutical industry off their mountains and away from their valuable resource.

Co-author of the research, Geoff Childs, PhD said, “There’s this mistaken notion that indigenous people are incapable of solving complicated problems on their own, but these communities show that people can be incredibly resourceful when it’s necessary to preserve their livelihoods.”

The small communities of Nubri and Tsum, located high up near Nepal’s northern Gorkha District border, have put together a plan locally to cultivate Yartsa gunbu sustainably and share its wealth among its villagers. The villagers, whose annual incomes only amount to hundreds of dollars on average, usually get by doing farm work, timber sales, or grazing. Harvesting Himalayan Viagra provides a more lucrative business opportunity.

Those who register with the village to harvest the fungus have gone from poverty to riches. Average annual incomes have been multiplied by eight. Villagers who used to earn hundreds of dollars a year now earn up to $4,000. For some, collecting Yartsa gunbu provides 80 percent or more of their income for the entire year.

Village roll calls prevent over harvesting, while sacred conservation measures help sustain the fungus’ breeding population

In his research, Geoff Childs reveals the strategic and innovative resource management plan created by the Tibetan locals. The local’s regulatory plan is authoritarian but it appears necessary to keep merciless crony imperialist pharmaceutical speculators off the mountains, away from the rare fungus. The small communities don’t want to be exploited and have found a way to protect the natural pasture lands in the Himalayan Mountains.

In fact, during the harvest season, the strategic management plan requires that all locals, including any visiting speculators from the outside, show their faces four times a day at mandatory roll calls. The roll calls help the villages make sure no one is off harvesting the rare fungus for their own gain. The sustainable plan restricts harvest to all members of all local households, requiring all harvesters to register and pay a small tax. The plan enforces penalties on those who harvest out of the community-enforced season. At 7 a.m., 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. during harvest season, all villagers must meet for a roll call. Some areas considered sacred are to be left alone, allowing for conservation to preserve the fungus breeding populations for the future.

The plan has kept speculators out and has improved the local’s quality of living. New business ventures have brought more opportunity and greater education resources for children.

“In the case of Nubri and Tsum, management practices that were devised independently of state interference may prove to be sustainable over the long-run,” Childs said. “Although many observers have called for more government intervention in the harvesting and sale of Yartsa gunbu, our research demonstrates that, at least in some communities, it is better to allow locals to manage the resource and reap the benefits on their own terms.”