Matsutake Mycelium Under Attack in Southwest China
How The Mushrooming Trade Mines its Resource and How to Achieve Sustainability
By Daniel Winkler
Mushrooms offer important rural income in the mountain areas of Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet AR. The recent rise of the matsutake mushroom industry helped soften the abrupt loss of income the region experienced due to the 1998 logging ban and is supplying a cash income to rural households unmatched by any other resource. However, sustainability of current matsutake collection is very questionable.
A change of policy is necessary to reverse the degradation of this resource, which could contribute substantially to sustainable development of this remote mountain region. An initiative to protect this resource is necessary before it is destroyed by inappropriate collection techniques and short-sighted overexploitation.
The great economic importance of matsutake mushroom collection and trade for local people in Southwest China have become well known. Local cultures have a long-standing tradition of mushroom use and trade; the century-old tradition of collecting Caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis, Yartsa Gunbu, Chongcao, photo) in spring often contributes 50% - 80% of the annual cash income of poor rural households in Tibetan livestock herding areas. There are concerns regarding over-harvesting of this very peculiar medicinal fungus. It is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau and no mycological field studies have yet been published regarding its ecology, reproduction cycle or sustainable harvesting techniques.
However, the focus here is centered on matsutake, also known in English as pine mushroom (Tricholoma matsutake, Tibetan: Beshing Shamo or short Besha, meaning Oak mushroom, Mandarin: songrong, photo). Its collection and trade is developing rapidly. It was only discovered in 1988 by Japanese businessmen visiting Northwest Yunnan. In the 1990s it became evident that Southwest China and especially the Tibetan areas possess vast resources of this culinary mushroom highly prized in Japan. In areas with evergreen oak or pine forests [matsutake form a symbiotic relationship living in mycorrhizal association with these trees], matsutake collection and trade has developed into the main source of local income, often providing 80% to 90% of household cash income. In the months of July and August anyone capable of searching the steep slopes is out in the woods hunting "besha".
The total of matsutake annually dealt in the Southeastern Tibetan Plateau of Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet AR probably figures several 1,000 t, generating over 100 million Yuan ($12.5 million) for rural households alone. The whole industry is generating over 1 billion Yuan annually. The importance of this new source of income for rural households and administrations, which started to tax matsutake traders after the enactment of the logging ban, cannot be overstated. Additionally, when the proceeds from the matsutake trade have found their way into official statistics, many counties will lose their poverty status and miss out on millions more of central subsidies the region currently receives.
As described, the development of the matsutake resources has been extremely positive for the rural population and the region as a whole. However, currently of great concern in the matsutake industry in Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Pinyin: Diqing TAP, NW Yunnan), an area with one of the highest extraction rates in Southwest China, is a clear decline in matsutake production in recent years. It can not be stated with complete certainty that this decline is not based on natural conditions, such as fluctuations in precipitation or temperature, which could induce less productive fruiting. However, all parties involved in the trade are convinced that unsustainable harvest methods are at the core of the decline.
Harvest totals are not reliably recorded, baseline data is missing as for most species collected from the wild. Reliable data on mushroom harvest and trade are very hard to come by, since mushroom collection is shrouded in secrecy. Collection quantities vary greatly in Chinese publications. In addition, dealers are not keen on advertising their turnover, since taxation is likely to follow. Thus, it is necessary to rely on data shared by informants. However, these figures do indicate a clear trend.
Everyone interviewed in the matsutake trade in Yunnan expressed their concern that harvest decline is caused by destructive harvesting practices. Climatic influence was ruled out or regarded as minor cause. The decline of the matsutake harvest can be examplified by Zhongdian's biggest matsutake processing facility, which has an annual turnover of 6 million RMB. In July 2001, its director stated that in the 1990s over 1,000 t of matsutake were dealt annually in Zhongdian Town (Tibetan: Gyalthang, Deqen TAP). In 2000, it was down to 400 t. The Zhongdian Xian Minzu Shangmaozong Gongsi facility itself, which processes fresh matsutake into canned, brined, frozen and dried matsutake for export to Japan, used to process over 100 t per year. In 2000, it was down to 80 t, in 2001 a total of around 50 t was processed.
Inquiring about the cause for the steady decline, all informants blamed the current harvesting methods as most likely cause for the dwindling supply. Pickers harvest matsutake as young as possible. Higher prices for buttons are an incentive for local collectors to dig for the buttons under the duff layer. Japanese consumers prefer matsutake before the cap has expanded and its veil is ripped. Digging for buttons seriously disturbs the mycelium. Exposing the mycelium and its primordia, which would grow into buttons, seriously reduces its fruiting capacity, undermining sustainability. It has been observed in the Pacific Northwest of the USA that digging up or raking fruiting sites of closely related Tricholoma magnivelare (= Armillaria ponderosa) negatively impacts the organism. In many Western countries there are regulations prohibiting harvesting methods that hurt the mycelium.
In Deqen TAP buttons fetch a higher price than mature specimens. In July 2001, 1 pound of small buttons was dealt from 60 to 80 Yuan on the local market in Zhongdian, while big specimens were dealt for 30 to 40 Yuan per pound. It takes about 15 to 40 mushroom buttons to make up 1 pound, while 2 to 10 mature matsutake specimens can weigh 1 pound. When the director of the mushroom processing facility was asked why nobody is halting these unsustainable harvesting methods he stated `we told locals not to hurt the mushrooms, but they do not listen. They need to make a living'. It is unreasonable to expect local people living in poverty to forgo possible immediate income. Interestingly, in Litang's Junba Valley (Ganzi TAP, W-Sichuan, photo), where the market is not as developed as in Deqen TAP, locals have not observed a decline in matsutake production. Here, locals sell their mushrooms only by weight without sorting them by size; pickers received 20 to 25 Yuan per pound in August 2001.
The decline in matsutake production raises the question whether the region is bound to lose another important resource due to unsustainable harvesting practices. Decades of unsustainable logging have resulted in a total ban on all commercial logging since 1998. The chance to practice sustainable, ecologically appropriate forestry was missed, although Chinese scientists warned about possible resource exhaustion since economic liberalization started in 1981. The current experience of the logging ban, which is seriously impacting local administrations, should help gather the necessary political support to avoid repeating resource mismanagement.
In order to create a platform, which can provide the necessary momentum to effect a change in policy, it is suggested to convene a conference, since it is necessary to bring policy makers together from several Chinese provinces, especially Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet AR. Zhongdian would be a very suitable location, but also Kunming and Chengdu could be considered.
This conference will help to raise awareness, provide an opportunity to gather information regarding matsutake mushroom resources, collection and trade and will demonstrate successful approaches to mushroom conservation in China, such as WWF's Baimaxueshan project, as in North America and Europe.
Such a meeting should bring together and foster exchange between
- Government officials from provincial, prefectural and county departments of Science & Technology, Forestry, Agriculture, Trade etc.
- Members of the Chinese SEPA and State Forestry Bureau
- Domestic and international mushroom dealers
- Mycologists, forestry experts, ecologists, non-timber forest product & rural development experts working on mushroom conservation and harvesting
- Experts from foreign aid and conservation organizations working in the region
Participation of regional experts and local administrators is of great importance. Some areas in Southwest China are experimenting with harvest regulations. Successes and difficulties of these approaches should be shared. Local advocates, preferably from receptive government entities, need to be found to co-host the event and support these efforts.
Ideally, as a result of such a workshop an action plan would be devised outlining necessary steps to protect mushroom resources and guarantee sustainable harvest rates for the future. In advance, available information on sustainable harvesting techniques and best practices should be collected and made available to participants. Representatives of other matsutake producing countries could share their knowledge (i.e. Japan, Korea, USA, Canada, Bhutan) as well as representatives of countries that have experience with managing other wild mushroom resources. Thus, regional participants receive an introduction to possible measures of mushroom management and protection applied elsewhere. Many other mushroom species are being traded in Southwest China, such as morels, boletes, chanterelles and shitake. Since the market does not demand buttons of these species, sustainability of the harvesting techniques is of concern, but not as pressing.
If consensus develops that inappropriate harvesting techniques are causing the current decline in matsutake harvest quantities, strategies to safeguard mushroom resources can be developed based on successful models of mushroom conservation presented by participants from China and abroad. Regulating harvesting periods or rotating harvesting areas could be implemented on an experimental basis. Simple regulations regarding the minimum size of mushrooms could halt unsustainable harvesting techniques in the region. Local collectors will quickly realize that mushroom specimens need to have a minimum size for selling or can only be sold at a certain time. Enforcing such a regulation on the mushroom trade should be feasible and very effective, since nearly all mushrooms from Southwest China are exported to Japan by air cargo via Kunming and Chengdu.
Based on the findings of this workshop an educational campaign needs to be developed that will demonstrate to pickers that it is more lucrative to forgo digging for buttons and instead collect bigger specimens, even if they fetch less money on a per pound basis. Thus, such a change of harvesting technique is a real win-win situation, for the local collectors and the matsutake resource.
Precious fungal resources in the Southwest China are being endangered, but halting the decline in matsutake fruiting seems practical - if the political will is generated - with a relative small investment. Matsutake and other fungal resources need to be secured for future generations in Southwest China. Their economic importance for rural communities cannot be underestimated. Money from the mushroom industry greatly contributes to the improvement of rural living conditions. It enables rural households, which otherwise have very little cash to send their kids to school and to receive medical treatment. A measure as radical as the logging ban can be avoided if action is taken now. It is possible to introduce sustainable harvesting methods without burdening local economies or further depriving disadvantaged rural populations.