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Sustainable use of Chinese medicinal plants brings lasting benefits

Shuijing Township, Sichuan Province, China October 2014—A dedicated group of companies, government representatives and NGOs gathered in Shuijing Township, Sichuan Province to exchange experiences on sustainable harvesting and equitable trade in wild medicinal and aromatic plants. The workshop took place in the framework of a European Union-China Environmental Governance Programme project (EGP MAPs), implemented by TRAFFIC and partner organisations

Meeting participants included representatives of four traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) manufacturing and trading companies engaged in the initiative, which aims to establish green supply chains for the TCM industry in Zhejiang and Hunan provinces. The FairWild Standard is used as the sustainability framework for the project.

The Chinese companies were joined by representatives from the largest medicinal tea brand company in the US, TRAFFIC and WWF, and were hosted by the Shuijing Township government, Pingwu Shuijing Traditional Chinese Medicinal Material Cooperative for Schisandra collection, Wanglang National Nature Reserve and Pingwu County Forestry Bureau, and schisandra harvesting cooperative members  from Daping Village.

Set in the picturesque Minshan mountain landscape, home to the Giant Panda, Shuijing and nearby villages are the location of a successful experiment in the sustainable harvesting of TCM ingredients. Established through the European Union-China Biodiversity Programme (ECBP) project in 2007-2011, the initiative continues to generate impact for livelihoods of communities and conservation through wild-harvesting of Southern Schisandra Schisandra sphenanthera berries.

The workshop included a visit to the Shuijing Cooperative facilities, including a tour of the processing equipment and a review of the documentation underpinning the establishment of the community Cooperative. The enterprise became organic wild-certified in 2011, and remains an important primary supplier of Schisandra berries to a processing and exporting company in Shanghai. The berries are subsequently processed into an extract ingredient that is used in a popular medicinal tea by California-based Traditional Medicinals Inc (TMI), a FairWild Licensee.

During the day, participants spoke about the impact of the project on the local communities and the benefits for biodiversity conservation over the course of the project that was led by WWF China.

Mr. Luo Zhongping, Head of the Shuijing Cooperative explained how research into sustainable wild-harvesting methods had led to the development of a guidance manual for harvesters. Training and capacity-building had helped to change previously widely used unsustainable harvest methods, such as the breaking of branches and removal of all of the fruit from the vines. The Schisandra harvest guidelines were influenced by the best practice recommendations of the FairWild Standard.

The TCM harvesting initiative had the additional benefits of improving income generation for local communities and making a positive contribution towards wildlife conservation efforts to preserve the habitat of flagship species such as the Giant Panda and Takin.

As a relatively abundant, fast growing plant, Southern Schisandra can withstand relatively high harvesting pressure. Schisandra is also in national and international demand. From one village where the approach was first piloted, the co-operative now includes over 20 villages, 480 households and 1500 people. With increased quality of harvesting and production, as well as international market links established with responsible buyers, the price of the raw materials is also increasing, contributing more to collectors’ income.

Mr. Luo described how sustainable harvesting practices have been embraced by local communities who are more appreciative of the value of the TCM resource. In addition to the trade in dried Schisandra berries, Shuijing Cooperative is aiming to develop Schisandra wine made from sustainably collected products while there are plans to obtain organic certification for other species of wild fruits harvested in the area.

In the future, sustainable TCM production in the area should receive a government boost. Mr. Wang Zhenyang, Deputy Head of the Shuijing Township government, shared his views on the importance of projects like ECBP, and plans for establishing Shuijing as a centre for sustainable TCM production, including involving more villages in sustainable harvesting.

Josef Brinckmann and Drake Sadler of TMI spoke about their engagement with the ECBP project and with the Shuijing Cooperative since 2008. TMI is the largest North American manufacturer of medicinal teas with over half a billion tea bags produced annually. Drake Sadler, TMI’s founder, said: “The success of the company depends on good products and good people, hence our company’s reliance on co-operatives and producers around the world delivering the highest quality ingredients following best practice standards, as well as collaboration with organizations and companies who share the same values and principles.”

He drew attention to the important role the government should play in supporting such sustainable production initiatives, including through favorable financial conditions, infrastructure, and transportation access. He stressed the importance of partnership between government, private sector and civil society leaders in generating successes for communities. “Sustainable certification and co-operation with credible NGOs is of extreme importance,” added Drake, “as it allows better product marketing and differentiation at consumer markets, in turn ensuring continued demand for products like sustainably produced Schisandra.”

Josef Brinckmann, TMI’s Vice-President of Sustainability gave an overview of the development of collaboration between TMI and Shuijing Cooperative, which gradually increased over the past five years. Trading relations started with an initial test purchase of 500 kg of Schisandra berries in 2009. After the co-operative demonstrated they could meet TMI’s quality requirements, the annual purchase volume has increased to the current volume of about 15 tonnes of berries, with an intention to increase this if sustainably possible.

Although FairWild certification, which provides a third party audited framework for fair trade in wild harvested products produced in accordance with the FairWild Standard, is not presently available in China, TMI took the initiative to establish the agreement with Shuijing Cooperative and Draco Natural Products, committing to pay a fair premium price for Schisandra in addition to the organic premium price. The agreement also expresses an intent to purchase FairWild-certified ingredients should they become available in the future.

TRAFFIC’s Zhang Ke also spoke about the EGP MAPs project and was joined by Mr. Dai Dexiong, Vice General Manager of Wecome Pharmaceuticals Ltd, who told meeting delegates about the plans concerning supply chain management, increased use of standards and certification schemes, and training for collectors in Zhejiang and Hunan provinces. 

The meeting provided valuable insight into the activities planned under the EGP MAPs project, in particular the set-up of the collectors and farmers’ cooperative, and opportunities for marketing sustainable products internationally, including the use of voluntary standards such as FairWild in China, and identified opportunities to continue the discussion, for example through TUGRMM, the trade alliance established under the ECBP and continuing to engage through the EGP project.

Bryony Morgan, FairWild Foundation Secretariat, also participated in the workshop and subsequent meetings of the EGP MAPs project.

“It is really encouraging to see the Schisandra sustainable harvesting and equitable trade initiative continuing to deliver benefits for the stakeholders involved. The EU-China Environmental Governance programme is now providing an opportunity to further the TCM industry leadership being shown, with actions on sustainable sourcing underway by companies such as Wecome. It is also helping to understand the policy and regulatory landscape in China for international voluntary sustainability standards such as FairWild.

These are important market-based tools that can help to deliver social and environmental outcomes, while taking advantage of continued global market trends that favour botanicals with sustainability and fair certifications.”

The EGP MAPs project will continue in 2015. For more information download the project flyer (PDF in English, Chinese) and see www.traffic.org

All photos ©TRAFFIC.