A Mushrooming Economy
[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/11/23; November 23, 2000.]
By Jeremy Page
The Washington Post Company
Thursday, November 23, 2000; Page A53
DEQEN, China -- On a brisk fall morning in 1988, the "Big Japanese Boss" visited a downtrodden Tibetan town and told the inhabitants their key to a slice of the global economy was growing right under their noses.
With a domed cap and a pungent earthy odor, the white-gold songrong mushroom is much like other fungi growing in the pine forests of southeastern Tibet, ordinary in almost every way--except that aficionados in Japan will fork out hundreds of dollars for a single songrong--known as matsutake in Japanese and prized as an exotic delicacy with the power to prevent cancer, diabetes and radiation sickness.
Twelve years after the mysterious Japanese entrepreneur's revelation, thousands around the Tibetan border make their living from picking or processing songrong for the Japanese market, estimated to be worth more than $500 million a year.
"We were amazed. It was like a gift from God," said Achuk, a Tibetan farmer who traveled for five days on horseback to sell his crop of songrong in Deqen, a tiny market town over the border in China's southwestern province of Yunnan.
"We used to eat them occasionally like the other mushrooms we found, but they don't taste great," he said, surrounded by three tons of songrong in battered white plastic vats. "We never thought we could sell them."
The songrong boom has given a huge economic boost to the mountainous villages of northern Yunnan, western Sichuan and Tibet, some of the poorest and most inaccessible in China.
Beijing has pledged to bridge the widening gap between its impoverished west and the flourishing cities of the east with massive infrastructure spending and a wave of new investment. But harsh weather and rugged terrain continue to stunt agricultural and industrial development in this region where the mighty Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers cut steep gorges through the Himalayas as they plunge off the Tibetan plateau.
Since Beijing banned logging in 1998 to stem devastating floods downstream on the Yangtze, the region has been deprived of its primary source of income. Now the vast majority of farmers drop their plows for the summer and join the songrong rush, selling directly to traders who send air-conditioned trucks to towns like Deqen from July to September.
Fresh high-grade specimens can sell for as much as $120 a pound in Deqen early in the season, and prices on the Japanese market can be more than triple that.
Throughout July and August, trucks piled high with fungi hurtle around hairpin bends in a treacherous six-hour dash to pack fresh songrong on the two daily flights from Zhongdian to the provincial capital, Kunming, and then on to Tokyo.
For Achuk, the songrong has been a passport out of poverty. He sold his crop of mushrooms preserved in brine to Lobsang, owner of a mushroom processing plant in Zhongdian.
Once his costs are covered, he will take home $1,200 to his wife and three children--not bad considering that per capita average annual income was below $725 in Chinese cities and just over $240 in rural areas last year.
"We love the Japanese," he said, counting out wads of bank notes with his retinue of a dozen friends and relatives. "They completely changed our lives. If it wasn't for them, we'd have nothing--no jobs, no business, no income."
Achuk, 32, has built himself a house, bought new horses and is thinking of investing in a small tractor, the first motor vehicle in his village.
All around northern Yunnan, villages are filled with new three-story wooden houses built on the trade. But songrong pickers are also feeling the rough edge of globalization.
"The price goes up, the price goes down. Who knows why?" Achuk said, shrugging his shoulders. "It's very unstable. In 1998, prices were really low. We thought the Japanese had stopped liking the mushrooms. We were very worried."
Lobsang, who exports 150 tons of songrong to Japan every year, is wise to the whims of the international market.
"We were hit hard by the Asian financial crisis," said the 44-year-old Tibetan. "I guess these are luxury products, so demand was much lower during the last two or three years."
Now he is looking for other markets to hedge his bets. "We want to sell to Europe and the United States," he said. "We cannot depend on one market alone. These mushrooms are too important for the local economy."
Yunnan as a whole exports $30 million worth of songrong to Japan every year, said provincial governor Li Jiating. To boost what has become a major industry, local government leaders are planning to conserve songrong-producing areas, while others have tried in vain to grow the mushrooms commercially.
The fungus, also found in the wild in Japan, British Columbia, Sweden and Oregon, sprouts from a network of threadlike cells that feed only on the living roots of pine trees. Some environmentalists say that makes them vulnerable to overharvesting, but Li says Chinese experts disagree.
"If you pick it it can create some economic return. If you don't, it just rots away," he said. "It relies on the fungus under the ground for regrowth. As long as you don't damage the ground and just pick it, you won't damage the environment."
That is music to the ears of Lobsang and Achuk. "There are thousands, millions of them in the mountains year after year," said Achuk. "It's like gold growing under our feet."
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