By Wu Bangfu and Pam Logan
This year, the economy of the eastern Tibetan plateau has taken a sharp downturn. Statistics are not easy to come by, but Kham Aid Foundation has collected some anecdotal evidence that is extremely worrying.
Our field staff report that the most serious problem encountered by ordinary Tibetans in Kham this year is a drop in demand for two key exports: caterpillar fungus and mushrooms. Caterpillar fungus, or Yartsa Gunbu in Tibetan, is a wild grub collected by Tibetans in the mountains and sold as medicine to lowland Chinese
and people around the world. Western consumers know it as Cordyceps sinensis.
Families living in areas where the product is abundant have been known to rake in more than 80,000 yuan (about US$11,000) during the two-month gathering season. Caterpillar fungus sales are responsible for a great deal of the economic growth in Tibetan Sichuan in the past fifteen years. Last year, an average grub sold for about 22 yuan each. This year’s average price, however, is only 6 yuan, a drop of more than 70%.
Second to caterpillar fungus as a major Kham export product is the exotic matsutake mushroom, known in Chinese as songrong, which is also gathered wild in the mountains. In Japan the mushrooms are prized as a delicacy. During the past couple of decades an intricate supply chain has evolved: Tibetan pickers bring the fresh mushrooms to trading centers like the town of Sha-de where middlemen purchase them, load them
into refrigerator trucks, and send them down to Chengdu for air transport overseas. This year, however, the export market has dried up. The reasons are unclear but anyway buyers are scant and prices depressed.
Locals say that only 40% as many tourists came to Ganzi Prefecture in 2008 as came in 2007. Since Tibetan unrest in March, many lowland Chinese are afraid and unwilling to visit Tibetan areas. Certainly the May 12 earthquake prevented some trips. Foreign travel in Kham and all over China has been more difficult than in previous years due to high security wrought by the Beijing Olympics. Home-stay hotels, hostels, and other tourist-oriented businesses like Kangding’s popular Black Tent Hotel and Café have suffered a drop in income of about 60% compared to last year.
Some businesses have been relatively immune to the downturn. Big hotels like the Kangding Hotel and the Love-Song Hotel in Kangding derive a large part of their business from hosting official delegations from the counties; they have suffered a drop in business of only 20%. Small shops, restaurants, and hotels catering to local clientele, not tourists, saw their business drop by only about 10%.
While the effects of the downturn have been uneven, the overall economic climate in Ganzi Prefecture is considerably worse than in the recent past. Government programs are an imperfect but nevertheless important safety net for families living on the margin. Programs include incentives for herdsmen to build homes and settle down and subsidies for farmers to purchase better agricultural equipment. Government-subsidized health insurance and education up to grade 9 are also helpful, but even all of these together are not enough to keep many families out of poverty.
While people all over the world are feeling the pinch this year, Tibetans in Kham are being hammered by a triple whammy: global economic crisis, plunging tourism, earthquake. China’s double-digit growth has slowed, which means that tax revenues are sure to decline, and with them the government’s capacity for subsidizing essential services in poverty-stricken areas like Kham.
This winter in Kham could be a very long one indeed. Now more than ever, families in Kham will need outside help. Kham Aid Foundation will be there and we hope you’ll join us. Our website tells how you can get involved with our work as a donor or volunteer. Thanks for your support.