25-31 July 2014 #717

Himalayan ginseng

Adding value to yarsagumba and regulating it may help Nepal profit more equitably from the trade
Bishwo Paudel

Yarsa is also added to cigarettes and whiskey in China.
Every summer, hundreds of families living in the Nepal Himalaya make the difficult journey to higher reaches of the mountains, risking their lives in search of yarsagumba.

The prized caterpillar fungus, reputed to have aphrodisiac properties, is a popular gift in China and can sell for as much as Rs 10 million per kilo in Shanghai. Chinese athletes who break world records are known to follow yarsa-based diets. Yarsa is also added to cigarettes and whiskey in China.

The yarsa trade can be lucrative, but increased cometition for crops has made the job riskier. In June this year, two pickers were killed and dozens injured during a Yarsa dispute in Dho-Tarap VDC, Dolpa. Seven people from Gorkha were killed by locals in Manang in 2009 after a similar dispute.

In the absence of a regulatory body, such disputes are bound to become more common in future. Trade will falter altogether if yarsa picking remains unregulated. Setting up a Yarsagumba Authority may give the trade a corporate structure that will benefit all stakeholders - the government, investors, and locals. It will regulate the harvest, storage and trade and curb smuggling.

Guidelines could be set for yarsa pickers and the authority could reserve the right to control the entry of businesses into the trade. Permission to collect, process, and sell yarsa should be given to financially stable and clean businesses with sound knowledge of the market, and on the condition that they allocate shares to locals.

There are stores that specialise in yarsa in Lhasa.
Locals have the first right to the natural resources in their area but, at the moment, the strong and cunning monopolise the benefits. In houses with no young men, only old or ailing residents, yarsa hasn’t brought in a single rupee. Regulating the trade can spread the benefits more equitably.

As per last year’s financial reports, business from yarsa was worth more than revenue from all others Himalayan herbs combined.  A few Nepali businesses sell yarsa directly to Chinese customers, via the online shopping site Alibaba. But a large portion of the market, such as yarsa-based dietary supplements, remains untapped.

The authority can allow more access to the yarsa market by granting permission to businesses willing to open herbal processing plants that meet international standards in the same way that Korean companies add value to ginseng. Nepali companies should also take the initiative to open stores in China’s major cities, reaching directly to the customers and thereby cutting out losses to middlemen.

The ‘Made in the Himalaya’ tag already gives Nepali yarsagumba a branding edge over others. We just need to market it better.

Dipendra Bhandari's documentary, Journey to Yarsa

Bishwo Poudel is an economist and teaches at Kathmandu University.

Read also:

Over-harvesting yarsagumba, Bachhu Bk

Himalayan Ginseng, Bishwo Paudel

Yarsa Land, Dipendra Bhandari

Fighting for Yarsa, Bhrikuti Rai

2 killed in yarsa dispute

One Day in the Life of Mingmar

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