Planting herbs in China’s ‘water tower’: Alleviating poverty the ecological way

By Ni Tao, People’s Daily


China’s achievements in poverty reduction in recent years have been unprecedented. Official data shows China has lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty in the past four decades. By 2020, China aims to eradicate poverty to build a moderately prosperous society.

Qumalai, is such a deeply impoverished county, located in the north of Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of China’s northwest Qinghai Province. It is a pure pastoral highland in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, mainly inhabited by Tibetans.

Photo: A brook in Qumalaicounty stretches into the distance.


Its average altitude is more than 4,000 meters, with a typical plateau cold climatecharacterized by coldness and anoxia, lengthy exposure to sunshine and strong ultraviolet radiation. The annual temperature difference is small, but the daily temperature difference is large.


The harsh climate and geographical conditions have caused the county to be deeply impoverished. Among its 45,718 population, 11,328 people from 3365 households are registered as poor, said Li Jian, deputy secretary of the Qumalai County Party Committee.


Li said that a lack of industries has been the bottleneck for local development. “The largest industry, cattle and sheep, is facing limited grazing because of the degradation of grassland,” Li lamented. “We must build two or three more industries as a matter of urgency, which can protect the ecological environment and increase people’s income.”


However, creating industries in Qumalai requires caution.


As the core area where Asia’s three greatest rivers – the Yellow River (mother river of China), Yangtze River (the world’s third largest river) and the Langcang River (also known as Mekong River and the longest river in Southeast Asia), start their long journey of life, Qumalai bears great ecological significance which can never be overemphasized.


Each year, the source area of the three rivers supplies about 6 billion cubic meters of water downstream. It is therefore called the “China Water Tower.” It is also the most concentrated area of plateau biodiversity, home of the Tibetan antelope, wild yaks, Tibetan wild donkeys, brown bears, snow leopards, wolves, hawks and larks.

Photo: Water flows in the Three-River-Source region./ Credit to Three-River-Source National Park website


Qumalai’s special geographical location, abundant natural resources and important ecological functions make it an important ecological filternot only for China, but also for Asia and the world.


In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized that Qinghai must shoulder the great responsibility of protecting the source of the Three Rivers and the “China Water Tower.”


With the ecology being the first priority, the central and local governments have made relentless efforts for years. In 2015, the central government established a compensation mechanism for ecological protection among regions.


Qinghai Province has also created jobs as grassland ecological guardians for 49,000 registered poor people, said Wang Enguang, deputy director-general of the Qinghai Forestry and Grassland Bureau.


At the county-level, Qumalai has set up more than 60 ecological animal husbandry cooperatives.


These cooperatives largely optimize resources and can operate with less labor, enabling young herdsmen to accept vocational education and skills training.


As a local governor, Li is more concerned about how the local people can go beyond this goal of poverty eradicationand realize prosperous development in a sustainable way.


In Li’s eyes, a solution lies in Maduotownship, where some six hours’ trek through bumpy roads, mountains and rivers can reach from the county downtown. He sees potential in a large Chinese herbal plantation there.


Oddly, it used to be a place which by no means had any connection with“hope.””No one would want to come, and only old horses know the way,” TujuLuozhoujiangcuo, secretary of the Party Committee of Maduo township, said. There are no roads, no electricity, and no network signals. In summer, even off-road vehicles may fall into a marsh at any time.


Because of the climate, rodent infestation and historical overgrazing, the desertification of the land is particularly serious, with nearly 60 percent of the grasslands desertified. Without good grazing grassland, nearly 70 percent of the herdsmen in the whole township moved to Golmud and other places, added Tuju.


But this started to change two years ago when Zhengletang Biotechnology Group came and set up its subsidiary QumalaiZhengbaicao Traditional Chinese Medicine Planting Co Ltd, which plants isatis root and sophora flavescens rooton about 3,333 hectares of uncultivated land.

Photo: The billboard indicates what medical functions the planted herbs have.


As the pioneer of alpine herbal plantations, Zhengbaicao faces enormous challenges. In addition to the lack of infrastructure, raising herbsin cold areas with an average altitude of 4,500 meters is by no means an easy task. The first thing the company needed to figure out was the feasibility of its plan.


With the help of experts from various institutions, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences and China Agricultural University, after a long period of research and tackling key scientific and technological bottlenecks, the company has mastered the necessary cultivation, purification and extraction technology.


After more than two years, the first experimental batch of plants has been successful. Li said that the old idea that Qumulai was too high for planting had been disproven.


In fact, Maduo township’s high altitude has proven to be an advantage for herbal plantations as it offers a large area of available uncultivated land,  and excellent water quality and soil. Herbs grown here will be pollution-free.


So far, the planting base has rented nearly 6,667 hectares of land in Maduotownship, involving 14 herdsmen, and the annual income from the land transfer alone exceeds 2 million yuan ($285,000).


In the words of Wang Lige, general manager of Zhengletang, the herbal plantations not only bring job opportunities to local herdsmen, but also better preserve the water and soil and control local rodent infestation. He said the alpine rodents eat grass roots, largely causing soil desertification. The herbal rootsare bitter, effectively controlling rodent infestation.

Cuojiduojie, 35,lives in poverty in Guoyang village in Maduotownship. Other thanaround a dozen livestock for the six-member family, he has no other source of income. Last year, he worked in the plantation base loading and unloading, and earned nearly 20,000 yuan (about $2,850) in three months, a significant income.


At the same time, he learned to drive a tractor at the base. He said he plans to buy his own tractor to till the land next year. “Now I can work at my own home, and this won’t affect my daily grazing work. But also when I return home at night, I can also continue my pastoral work,” he said.


Cuojiduojie is not the only one. In 2018, Zhengbaicao recruited more than 30 herdsmen in Maduotownship. Like him, herdsmen come to the base to work after releasing cattle and sheep in the daytime. In the evening, they drive cattle and sheep back to their enclosures. During the past year, the minimum income of herdsmen from the base was 7,000 yuan ($995) and the maximum income was 30,000 yuan ($4,266).


Sun Jianfei, chairman of Zhengletang Biotechnology Group, said the base only hires local herdsmen for the labor work, because people from other places would struggle with altitude stress. “In the future, we plan to set up a primary processing plant,” he said.“Hopefully this can add some value to the herbs and achieve self-hematopoietic capacity.”


For a township like Maduo, where residents have always depended on nature to raise livestock, this is the first time for them to work at an enterprise at their doorstep. This is exactly what Zhengbaicai wants to achieve, hoping that the herbal plantations would make the local herdsmen “stay”.


With the alignment of ecological, social and economic effects, Sun said the plantation base will be expanded to 6,667 hectares in the next phase, and will gradually expand to 66,667 hectares, making it one of the largest Chinese herbal planting bases in China.