We recently returned from our annual pilgrimage to the sun…the gorgeous beaches of Thailand are ALWAYS a welcome break from winter blues in our home in China. On our flight we got a recent copy of Newsweek (the acquisition itself was a fun reminder of early days in Asia when Thai Air was our primary source for finding international magazines.)
Catepillar fungus for sale at a shop in our neighborhood.
The magazine had an article which referenced our heartland on the high Tibetan Plateau and quoted one of the modern trends that is EXACTLY why we are starting Reywa Fibers. In this region of the Plateau, a full 90% of local income is generated through digging for a fungus locally known as “yar-tsa-geng-mbe” – “summer-grass-winter-bug.” This interesting little thing is indeed a caterpillar that dies and grows a fungus out of its behind in summer. Or maybe the fungus comes first and then the poor critter dies. Whatever the order of events, the primary way most of our friends pay for food, education, health expenses, and life in general is through finding and selling as many of these mummified caterpillars as they can.
The yar-tsa, as we know it, is indeed valuable. As Newsweek says, it can be worth its weight in gold. Literally. A single caterpillar can sell for hundreds of dollars in a ritzy Chinese medicine shop. And evidently it has great health enhancing properties. But, there are huge problems in how the bug is collected.
First of all, the fungus is found on the high grasslands, which are already in a state of gross deterioration. Along with bimo, another important medicinal herb, the fungus is dug out of the ground to the detriment of grass just barely surviving already. As whole villages of Tibetans head out during harvest months to seek these guys, the grasslands are left pocked by tiny craters where thousands upon thousands of catepillars have been shaken free of their graves. The grasslands take another hit, and along with them, the long term prospects for nomad families and their herds to survive. The caterpillars help them make it through this year…but destroy their long term future.
Additionally, the harvest itself is dangerous. Each year we cringe to hear of our young students heading off into the boondocks to search for this fungal gold. It is simply not safe. Some have guardians accompany them, others don’t. Land feuds, conflicts between nomads and farmers, territorial rights, regulations (and violations of regulations) on crossing provincial borders, and outright assault threaten the safety of youth who venture out to search for income to help their families survive. Right now it is necessary. But it shouldn’t be.
Tibetan communities need new ways to generate income. And they have another precious resource that is laying primarily dormant…down. Lovely, soft, warm yak down. So let’s spin that down up into some awesome yarns, pick some patterns, and start enabling families to survive…without destroying their environment or putting themselves in physical danger.