Date of Award

Summer 6-5-2014

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Geography

First Advisor

Emily T. Yeh

Second Advisor

Timothy S. Oakes

Third Advisor

Mara J. Goldman

Abstract

Contemporary Tibetan livelihoods across the Tibetan Plateau depend extensively on profits earned through caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) harvesting. Caterpillar fungus is a rare fungus that is internationally valued in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Western medicine and biomedical research. The income harvesters earn in the short six-week harvesting season accounts for 40-80% of their annual cash income, making "Himalayan Gold" the single most important constituent of rural Tibetan economies. Market price for caterpillar fungus has increased by a factor of ten in the past decade and two-fold in the past four years. As market demand for and derived income from caterpillar fungus continue to rise, so too does the number of harvesters across collecting areas. To date it remains uncertain how harvesting potentially influences future caterpillar fungus populations and there are few economic alternatives for a similar scale of cash income for collectors in the neoliberalizing geographies of western China.

Emphasizing a political ecological approach and based in three case studies in Tibetan Yunnan, this dissertation has examined: (i) how the nonhuman dimensions of caterpillar fungus production influence the forms its commodity chains take, by influencing who and what places are incorporated into and excluded from its production; (ii) how the rise of the caterpillar fungus market has influenced the Tibetan social relations of production; (iii) whether harvesting communities have developed governance arrangements in their caterpillar fungus commons with the rise of the fungal economy.

This dissertation shows how the biophysical and ecological specificities of caterpillar fungus growth influence who and what places are involved in the harvesting economy, and how and when it is produced, which points to the ways nature variegates the production of caterpillar fungus. It also describes how unlike other caterpillar fungus production areas, the fungal market in Yunnan is still deeply embedded in social relations that enable and constrain how the market takes form in the lives of its producers. Lastly, it shows that local governance arrangements in Yunnan have emerged, but that they are maintained and destroyed in articulation with China's political economic context. Research methods include: participant observation, focus groups, interviews, and ecological methods.

Included in

Geography Commons

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