The tragedy of the (fungal) commons
Commons are always being overexploited to maximize individual benefit, which also leads to local extinctions of species in some areas. The yarsagumba (or “summer plant, winter insect” Ophiocordyceps sinensis), an endemic species to the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau, faces this very fate. This unusual and much sought after species starts as a caterpillar in the winter and transforms into medicinal mushroom in the summer. Before the rainy season begins, Cordyceps spores settle on the heads of underground-dwelling ghost moth larva and the fungus takes over the body of the caterpillars by summer.
Yarsagumba is a rare and unique fungus that only grows in meadows above 3,500–5,000 meters (11,500–16,500 feet) in the northern Himalayas. This caterpillar fungus has immense medicinal values, such as curing headache and toothache, and it is also known as the “Himalayan Viagra.” In an effort to conserve and protect this species, the Forest Regulation 1995 and Forest Act of 1993 banned the sale, collection, use and export of yarsagumba. But, this was largely unsuccessful and even encouraged illegal trade and smuggling instead. Thus, after 2005, the government of Nepal lifted the ban with the hopes of regulation to encourage conservation. However, since then, the demand and the market price has soared and the species has been highly exploited, which is also causing conflict among yarsagumba collectors.
Competition over yarsagumba breeds conflict
The yarsagumba, considered the world’s most expensive biological resource, has uplifted the lifestyles of local people, which brings pride to the collectors. According to government data, 300–400 kilograms of yarsagumba—worth one billion rupees (over USD 16,250,000 USD)—is harvested in Nepal each year. The market value of yarsagumba is up to 2,500,000 rupees/kilogram (or approximately USD 12,000/pound) and carries an additional heavy government tax that brings income to much needed social programs.
The other side of the coin is not so good. While yarsagumba contributes greatly to household incomes, communities are also dealing with a resource curse. There is a sharp rise in criminal activities during the period of yarsagumba collection (June-July every year), the root cause of which is the provision of rights for collecting yarsagumba. The right has been given to the villagers of some areas only, so there is unfair competition and territorial disputes between locals and invading harvesters. In 2009, seven people were killed by locals in the Manang district after a harvesting dispute. Another collector from Ramechap was found dead in Dolpa in May 2014. 40 million rupees (the equivalent of USD 400,000) worth of yarsagumba was stolen in the Dolpa region. These are just a few of many stories of conflict in the region.
Solutions needed to lessen violence and ecosystem degradation
In addition to anthropogenic conflict, overharvesting jeopardizes the ecosystem in this vulnerable region. Both social and natural scientists worry that overharvesting of yarsagumba will disrupt both the delicate mountain ecosystem and one of the few sources of income that local communities directly rely upon.
Without any doubt, if this resource were utilized properly with co-management and equitable sharing of the resources, the Himalayan communities could benefit from yarsagumba, while protecting their environment. If not, the lifestyle and possibly the entire existence of these communities are at stake if these clashes prevail. Some areas have found a solution, in which locals regulate the resource by issuing permits and taxes with the help of authorities; the income is being used for community development projects. However, more efforts on the part of the government are needed to identify the areas being overharvested, give permission for new studies and limit harvesting in vulnerable areas.Anju Air is a graduate student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, studying natural resource management. She also holds a Masters of Environmental Science from Tribhuvan Vishwavidalaya in Nepal.