Inner Mongolian herdsmen harvest fruit of the desert
Herdsmen in northern China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region have been supplementing their modest incomes by growing desert plants, using advanced techniques under the guidance of an enterprising Chinese pharmaceutical company.
Alxa League, an administrative division of Inner Mongolia, is a region notable for its fragile ecological environment, with two-thirds of its land covered by desert.
Herdsmen in the league, in the western part of Inner Mongolia, used to depend on raising cattle and sheep on grasslands which cover 90,000 square kilometers.
But the deterioration of the grasslands in recent years made cattle and sheep breeding difficult.
Then in 2012, the herdsmen were encouraged by local authorities to plant Cistanche deserticola, a perennial hardy shrub-like herb growing in deserts, commonly called Roucongrong in Chinese.
The plant is used as an ingredient for making Chinese herbal medicine, usually used in treatments for anti-aging and for nourishing kidneys. The region was already the top producing area of the herb in China.
But due to its low survival rate in the wild, the herdsmen were given equipment and taught advanced cultivation techniques by a local pharmaceutical company.
Alxa Congrong (Group) Co Ltd, founded in 1996, is China’s first company to organize the research and production of the herb and its downstream products as an industry.
It established a cooperative working relationship with the local herdsmen, providing them with free seeds, instruments, and training in cultivation techniques for the herb.
Now when the herbs are ready for harvesting, Alxa Congrong buys them from the locals and processes them into products, including herbal medicines, alcohol and tea, said Ren Cunfu, Party chief of the company.
The working relationship attracted the attention of hundreds of herdsmen, who started to plant the herb.
Ma Zhongqiang, one of the herdsmen, planted 1.3 square kilometers, harvesting a crop which earned him 150,000 yuan ($22,737) last year.
“The income from the herb is three times more than my earnings from raising goats in the past,” Ma said.
If the herdsmen don’t want to grow and manage the herb by themselves, they can rent their land to the company and work for it. The group currently oversees 51 square kilometers of the herb.
In the end, they can get both the rent and also payment for their manual labor.
As a result, the average annual income of each laborer increased by 15,000 yuan to 32,000 yuan, Ren said.
According to a research report provided by the company, the traded volume of the herb in the domestic market is less than 700 metric tons, which makes it a very small industry.
“But it is emerging and has a big potential market, because its applications are being made known to more and more people,” Ren said.
The sales revenue of the company in 2015 totaled 88 million yuan, up 51 percent from the previous year, he said.
The company can process at least 300 tons of ripe Cistanche deserticola annually.
This year, its area under cultivation is expected to increase by 67 square kilometers. Each square km can yield about 150 kilograms of ripe herbs, the company added.
average annual income of each laborer in Inner Mongolia
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