Better and better

07 April 2014 | Article

An award-winning project involving the sustainable collection of a medicinal plant by village cooperatives in protected panda habitat in central China is bringing benefits for people, wildlife and business alike

The fruits of Southern Schisandra, a woody vine, are used in various medicinal and food products such as herbal teas, tinctures, medicated wine, jams and dietary supplements.

In China, as in many other countries, over-harvesting of wild medicinal plant species is a serious conservation concern. Aside from problems caused by the harvesting itself, collectors can also have serious secondary impacts through camping in reserves, hunting and gathering fuel-wood to dry commercial quantities of medicinal plants. Such habitat destruction and disturbance also threatens endangered wildlife, including the Giant Panda.

The collection of medicinal plants in the Upper Yangtze is rising as households compensate for the loss of income from farming and timber harvesting caused by policies that ban logging and discourage farming on steep slopes.

To help alleviate the problem, a joint initiative was developed and implemented in 2007-2011 by IUCN, WWF and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, as part of the EU-China Biodiversity Programme. This led to local producer association members, harvesters and governmental officials being trained in organic wild crop harvesting practices and certification procedures, as well as piloting application of the FairWild Standard.

“This initiative has shown how sustainable harvesting of wild plant resources creates positive benefits for local livelihoods and conservation efforts,” says Anastasiya Timoshyna, TRAFFIC’s Medicinal Plant Programme Leader.

Income for local producers in the project areas has increased, thanks to higher prices paid for certified, sustainably-harvested medicinal and aromatic plants. In the case of Schisandra berries, international and local buyers paid at least 30% above normal market prices for certified produce. A survey of project sites in March 2011 found incomes from medicinal plant collection had risen, thanks to the price premium for certified ingredients; in one village by almost 18% over 2007 levels.

The project also led to the creation of links between producer associations and buyer groups. Two communities have signed purchase agreements with a local winery and the newly-established Shuijing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Cooperative has signed a five-year fair trade agreement with a Californian company for the supply of sustainably-harvested Schisandra fruits.

The project, supported through the Kangmei Institute of Community Development and Marketing has seen further adoption of sustainable harvesting methods in the region and communities working through international partnerships to promote a ‘giant panda friendly’ brand and to create panda-friendly certification standards for local harvesters.

TRAFFIC has begun follow-up work in China focusing on greening supply chains in the Traditional Chinese Medicine sector. Through a project supported by the EU-China Environmental Governance Programme, TRAFFIC and partners will support industries in Zhejiang and Hunan provinces to demonstrate social responsibility by implementing the FairWild principles for sustainable and fair trade in wild-harvested medicinal plant species with their suppliers.

Beyond the experience in China, the FairWild Standard is serving as a best-practice framework for sustainable harvesting and equitable trade in wild plants from various countries around the world. Such trade is supporting sustainable use in and around protected areas including the South Xuan Lac Species and Habitat Conservation Area in Bac Kan Province, northern Viet Nam, for harvesting several medicinal plant species and with the Waorani community in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador for harvesting Chambira palm leaves.

TRAFFIC and IUCN’s Medicinal Plant Specialist Group are contributing to a series of publications by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the World Health Organisation on health and biodiversity which will be launched at the CBD conference and the World Parks Congress later this year.