In the cool mountains of the Upper Yangtze region, Chinese villagers clamber up dogwood and maple trees to gather what Dr. Oz has called a "miracle anti-aging pill." The small, red schisandra berry has a peculiar taste — five tastes, in fact, because it's considered to be at once sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent.
Chinese restaurants serve it macerated in alcohol from tall glass containers, like the office water cooler, where customers can fill a cup. Long before it became a "superfood" in the U.S., schisandra was made into bright-colored juices, jams and savory soups. It has always been a medicinal plant, prized for its ability to calm chronic coughs, night sweats, incontinence and insomnia. But now the berry is at the center of a dramatic new approach to conservation, helping to save both the forest where it grows — one of the most biodiverse places on the planet — and the villagers who harvest it.
Across China, families are allotted farm plots by the government. For years, people in the Upper Yangtze pooled resources to supplement what they could grow on their own with communal fields of corn and other staples on the high slopes surrounding their homes — crops they sold for extra cash.
But as the hills were stripped to make way for farms and logging, the mountains started to break with mudslides and rockslides. That destroyed forests where the vast majority of the country's commercially harvested medicinal plants, like magnolia bulbs and angelica roots, are found, as well as crucial habitat for the endangered giant panda.
In the late 1990s, the government banned timber operations on the hillsides. Later, in a program called "Grain for Green," it barred agriculture on the tall slopes, too. It was salvation for the forests, but the farmers had to scramble to replace the lost income. Families started gathering more wild plants than ever, ripping entire schisandra vines from trees to get as many berries as possible. This not only killed the plants, but also spread the foragers' human scent, scaring panda mothers who then abandoned their babies.
It was a lose-lose in terms of biodiversity, and the obvious response seemed to be to end the schisandra harvest, even if the villagers suffered as a result. But that's where this conservation story takes an unusual turn.
In 2008, Josef Brinckmann, an ethnobotanist and research fellow in medicinal plants at Traditional Medicinals tea company, traveled to the Upper Yangtze. He believed that the solution, both for schisandra and the people collecting it, wasn't to ban wild harvests, but to improve and encourage them.
"Rural villagers understand the environments where they live better than anyone," he says.
Two years later, Brinckmann was part of a team, along with members of the World Wildlife Federation, the Swiss and German governments, and other groups, that created the FairWild standard — the first verification system to focus on both environmental conditions and labor practices in the wild-plant industry.
Under FairWild, indigenous and rural groups around the world are trained in sustainable harvesting methods, allowing them to secure contracts to sell their products for higher prices. Under the program, villagers are rewarded for protecting their landscapes and seen as keepers of often ancient botanical knowledge.
Around the world, 19 plant species in 10 countries are now certified under FairWild, and at least 1,000 households in Central Europe and Asia are involved. That amounts to about 300 tons of plant material each year, with Roma collectors in Hungary and Bosnia filling sacks with rose hips and nettles, while families in Kazakhstan dig for licorice roots.
Many of the collectors around the world are elderly or women and children, who otherwise depend on subsistence farming. But many are also completely landless.
"Wild harvesters are often some of the poorest people, because they don't have access to land to farm," says Natsya Timoshyna, the medicinal plants program leader at TRAFFIC, an anti-wildlife-trafficking organization that helped create FairWild.
Instead, these gatherers, like the villagers in China's Upper Yangtze, are quietly responsible for maintaining the world's supply of wild plants, a supply that provides medicine — as well as food — for up to 80 percent of the developing world.
"The biggest threat to biodiversity is farming and development, not over-harvesting wild plants," says Brinckmann.
In fact, a fifth of wild plant species today face extinction, and a third are threatened, because agriculture — more than any other factor — is consuming their habitat, according to the Kew Garden's "State of the World's Plants" report.
"If you don't assign a value to a forest or a meadow, local people will switch to farming or grazing," says Brinckmann.
Of course, neither was an option for the villagers of the Upper Yangtze, whose situation looked even more difficult after a massive earthquake hit in 2008, killing 69,000 people and leaving nearly 5 million homeless. Before the earthquake, collecting medicinal plants made up as much as 40 percent of an average household's cash income. After the earth stopped shaking, restoring the wild-plant economy became a national priority.
With help from the EU-China Biodiversity Program, World Wildlife Fund-China, and the United Nations Development Program, the Chinese government put the FairWild standard in place. Researchers like Brinckmann trained local schisandra pickers to gather berries only from the lower two-thirds of the vine, leaving the rest for birds and wildlife that would spread the seeds through the forest.
Collectors also avoided giant panda breeding areas, one of a number of protection efforts that seem to be working. Last year, the giant panda's status improved from "endangered" to "threatened," after a 17-percent rise in population from 1994.
Today, the schisandra project has helped families set up a 23-village cooperative and establish contracts with buyers, including Traditional Medicinals, that pay a set price that is at least 30 percent more than the market rate. Once the Chinese government finishes training inspectors to carry out FairWild certifications (hopefully later this year), the schisandra harvesters will be officially certified under the label, though they currently abide by all of its requirements.
Convinced by the results, the villagers in the co-op already want to expand their offerings. Each time the foragers add a new plant to the FairWild list, they have to design a management plan not just for that bush or berry, but for the entire micro-ecosystem where it grows. Keeping one species healthy means keeping hundreds of others safer, too.
This story comes to us from the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit investigative news organization where Kristina Johnson is associate editor.