• China Flag
  • India Flag
  • Indonesia Flag
  • Vietnam Flag

‘Himalayan Viagra' harvest causes trouble in Nepal

Indigenous people demand their fees for valued aphrodisiac

<p>Indigenous villagers, police, government representatives and yarsagumba pickers gather in Dho-Tarap prior to the clash on June 3 (Photo by Phurwa Dhondup Gurung)</p>

Indigenous villagers, police, government representatives and yarsagumba pickers gather in Dho-Tarap prior to the clash on June 3 (Photo by Phurwa Dhondup Gurung)

  • Pragati Shahi, Kathmandu
  • Nepal
  • June 27, 2014
  • Facebook
  • Print
  • Mail
  • Share

This year’s harvest of yarsagumba, a much sought-after caterpillar fungus also known as ‘Himalayan Viagra’, has tensions flaring in the remote, upper region of Nepal’s Dolpo district.

At the heart of the matter are fees that, until this year, indigenous villagers had been allowed to charge the throngs of outsiders who flock to Dolpo every April-June to harvest the fungus. This year alone, more than 50,000 people from 28 districts have received permission to harvest it in Dolpo.

A kilogram of yarsagumba – which is highly valued for its use in traditional medicines and as an aphrodisiac – is worth US$26,000 on the market in Nepal, while the same amount once smuggled to Tibet fetches about $41,500. Of the roughly 5,000 kilograms harvested each summer in Nepal, around 65 percent is traded illegally over the border to Tibet.

Since 2008, the ethnically Tibetan villagers in Dolpo have been allowed to collect a fee of Rs1,500 (about $15.42) from each yarsagumba picker from outside the area. But now a local management committee has ruled these fees unlawful, raising questions about the rights of indigenous people to have a stake in their natural resource management. 

Dolpo district alone accounts for about 50 percent of the country's total yarsagumba production. The vast majority of residents are ethnically Tibetan Buddhists – a minority in Nepal – and many do not even speak Nepalese.

On June 3, local villagers held a protest in Dho-Tarap to demand that they be allowed to collect fees from outsiders as they have in previous years. They also demanded the return of Rs757,000 worth of fees that had been confiscated by authorities.

The scene turned violent when lowlanders, backed by district officials and police, were confronted by locals and both sides began hurling rocks.

Police charged the Tibetan side, savagely beating them with batons and firing on them with rubber bullets, according to eye-witness accounts. Dozens were injured, and two later died.

Tsering Phurwa Gurung, 30, succumbed to his injuries the following morning at a local health post. Thundup Lama, 50, died six days later after eventually being airlifted on June 8 to Kathmandu for treatment.

Phurwa Dhondup Gurung, vice-chairperson of the Dolpo Concern Center (DCC), who had been mediating the discussion between locals and officials in Dho-Tarap when the clash erupted, said that members of the Tibetan community were “physically attacked and mentally traumatized”.

He, too, was beaten by police during the incident, he said, but managed to flee the scene with other youth leaders before they could be detained.

“It was a black day in Dho’s history,” he said, adding that the local government representatives on the scene were “reluctant to address any of the [villagers’] demands”.

Shankar Limbu, secretary of the Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP), said the incident was indicative of larger issues.

“The violation of rights of indigenous people, including access and control over their natural resources, leads to conflict,” he said.

Government policy has always prioritized centralizing power and access to resources rather than ensuring that benefits are shared with local people, he said.

Another major concern of the “haphazard” collection process and “mass” influx of seasonal yarsagumba collectors into the Dolpo area is that it damages grasslands, which indigenous people depend on for yak herding, their main source of survival, said Limbu.

Phurwa Dhondup Gurung said that the collection fees were a significant loss because they had always been pooled to buy subsidized rice for locals and to fund repairs and maintenance of monasteries and traditional Buddhists religious sites.

But ethnic Tibetans are looked down on in Nepal, he said.

“They [police] yelled at us, using derogatory words like ‘Bhote’ and treated us like animals” during the clash, said Gurung.

‘Bhote’ is a derogatory term for Buddhist-Tibetans living in Nepal’s highlands.

A Tibetan villager displays the bruises on his back four days after the clash in Dho-Tarap.

 

Meanwhile, the district administration defended the police crackdown, stating that there was a need for intervention to bring the situation under control.

According to Krishna Khanal, chief district officer of Dolpo, a buffer-zone management committee has been collecting an official fee from yarsagumba pickers. This committee ruled that it was “illegal” for the local community to collect separate, additional fees.

“The dispute between the buffer-zone management committee and locals from Dho over royalty collection led to the violence. And police intervention was needed to take the situation under control and bring peace,” said Khanal. “There was no intention of promoting violence and attacking the locals.”

Khanal went on to claim that Tsering’s death was due to an “unexpected accident” and did not result from injuries inflicted during the police crackdown.

According to district police, Tsering died after falling off a cliff and Thundup died due to illness. Locals, however, strongly contest these claims.

“If he died in an accident, then why did police propose to the locals that they should sign a statement saying he was not killed in police attack?” said Sey Namkha Dorje, a monk and chairperson of the DCC, who is helping to mediate the dispute.

Tsering’s body should have been sent for an autopsy as demanded by locals, but instead was handed over to his family for the funeral, which raises concerns of “foul play”, he said.

He said that Thundup was indeed ill, but that blows to the chest during the attack left him in a critical state.

Members of the Dho-Tarap community are demanding a proper investigation into incident and have lodged a complaint at the National Human Rights Commission.

According to Jeevan Neupane, a human rights officer with the commission, Thundup’s body was sent for an autopsy before cremation and the results, expected soon, could shed more light on the cause of death. 

In a meeting this week, Minister for Forests and Soil Conservation Mahesh Acharya, said he would form a committee to look into the June 3 incident and other conservation matters in the Dolpa region. He also said he would collaborate with the Home Ministry on a comprehensive review of security and resource management in Dolpo.

But Phurwa Dhondup Gurung said it would take much more to heal wounds in Dho-Tarap.

“We will never forget the brutality from the police administration,” he said.

  • Facebook
  • Print
  • Mail
  • Share
UCAN India Books Online