Herding yaks in a grassland where herbs were also harvested by a Tibetan family
Photo credit: Jingjing Zhao

By Tien Ming Lee, Jingjing Zhao, Linyu Fan, Sifan Hu, Poha -, Jiayangji -, Anita Kar Yan Wan, Yan Zeng, Yongchuan Yang, and Beilu Duan.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed; please check back for a link to the full paper.

In the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau region of China, there is a unique culture and belief in Tibetan Buddhism. In the past, Tibetans harvested herbs from their pastures, which they used to repel insects, as medicines, as tea, etc. With the growth of commercial trade for medicinal plants, more and more Tibetans are now involved in commercial harvesting. With this transition from subsistence to commercial harvest, we want to understand how the local cultural context influences the Tibetans’ harvesting preferences. We also want to understand whether these preferences affect the sustainable use and management of medicinal plants.

We interviewed over 900 local Tibetan people and conducted a discrete choice experiment (DCE) using a questionnaire survey. Our experiment included choice attributes like plant use parts, harvesting tools, and income from harvests. We asked each of these questions under different economic, environmental, and social scenarios.

We found that local Tibetan harvesters generally preferred not to harvest any herbs if given a choice, and their choices were sensitive to scenario-based changes to existing livelihood, climate and environment, and land tenure and customs. If they chose to harvest, they preferred to harvest flowers and seeds, as compared to roots, and tended to use wooden tools (over the use of bare hands and iron tools). Our research identified three groups of harvesters. Two of these groups made up over 60% of the sample. These two groups appeared to have a strong preference for sustainable practices. In these two groups, one group may be dominated by herdsmen, while the other group may be Tibetan doctors or monk lamas. The last group consisted of 36% of the interviewed harvesters, who appeared to have a strong preference for unsustainable practices.

Our results highlight the importance of understanding what drives harvesting preferences and the differences in harvesting practices among indigenous and local people and their cultural and sustainability leanings. Such findings could provide crucial insights for the design of sustainable traditional Chinese medicinal plants (TCMPs) supply strategies to better inform harvester-focused management of TCMPs in regions with indigenous communities living on grasslands.