Il Viagra dell’Himalaya mette a repentaglio l’economia nepalese

Il funghetto che vedete qui sotto, che cresce negli altipiani del Tibet e del Nepal, avrebbe molte proprietà medicinali, ma sarebbe soprattutto un potente afrodisiaco. Quanto basta per provocare una sorta di “corsa all’oro” e mettere in crisi gli equilibri economici e sociali di quelle regioni.

Yarsagumba, il Viagra dell'Himalaya / Credit: Thomas Kelly

La storia la raccontano su Salon Jamie James e il Center for Investigative Reporting:

The boom in “Himalayan Viagra” – Drugs –

Fortunes are being made – and lives are being ruined – not over gleaming metal nuggets, but in the reckless pursuit of yarsagumba. A rare hybrid of caterpillar and mushroom that grows only in the high alpine meadows of Tibet, Nepal and India, it has been prescribed by traditional healers in Asia for centuries to treat lung and kidney diseases, build up bone marrow and stop hemorrhaging. But it is prized above all for its reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac, earning it the nickname “Himalayan Viagra.”

Yarsagumba – also known by its scientific name, Cordyceps sinesis – was unknown in the Western world until 1994, when two female Chinese athletes at the Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan, set new world records for mid- and long-distance running.

The astonishing times they posted gave rise to suspicions that they were using illegal performance enhancers such as anabolic steroids, but post-race drug tests revealed no trace of illegal substances. The runners’ controversial coach, Ma Junren, told foreign reporters that the women got their championship edge from daily doses of Cordyceps.

Thus began the yarsagumba boom. It is difficult to find an accurate estimate of the total production of yarsagumba, owing to the high degree of cross-border smuggling to avoid paying taxes and bribes. But according to Daniel Winkler, a botanist specializing in the fungus, it quickly has become the most expensive herbal remedy in traditional Chinese medicine.

Winkler estimates the annual yarsagumba harvest at between 85 and 185 tons, and in some areas, the crop represents the most significant source of income for residents, even greater than mining and industrial production. One official in Tibet’s Dengqen County estimated that 37,000 of the area’s 60,000 inhabitants had participated in fungus collection, Winkler reported in a recent scholarly journal.

“Among the wealthy and powerful in China,” Winkler wrote, “Cordyceps has come to rival French champagne as a status symbol at dinner parties or as a prestigious gift.”

The explosive growth in the yarsagumba market beggars the most extravagant superlatives: In 1992, a pound of the stuff sold for $3; today, the same quantity retails for around $9,400.

Nathan Lee, an apothecary in Hong Kong, said he has customers who spend thousands of dollars a month for daily doses of yarsagumba. “They give their children three to seven pieces a day, to promote good health and help them study,” he said. “They mix it with their breakfast cereal.”

The lucrative trade in the mushroom has transformed the economy of the Himalaya region. An ancient, yak-based culture that survived for centuries in one of the most extreme environments on earth is now unraveling in a tragic collision with the global marketplace.

Tibet is the main source of Cordyceps, but the trade may be having its most profound impact on Nepal, where extreme poverty and decades of political instability have led to deepening social entropy.