April 21, 2006
worst sandstorms this year, China issued an emergency notice
ordering local authorities to "strike hard" against a resurgence
in the illegal harvesting of a precious plant that helps to
The digging-up of the plant known as fa cai, or hairweed, is
"seriously damaging the ecological environment of the grassland"
in parts of the northern regions of Inner Mongolia, Gansu
and Ningxia, the agriculture ministry said on its website.
The plant is an expensive delicacy in southern Chinese
restaurants, where fa cai, while bland, is most often used in
soups and primarily consumed because its name is a homophone for
"At least 4,000 to 5,000" people have been detained this year
while gathering fa cai in the worst-hit area, Inner Mongolia's
Alashan League Left Banner, and returned to their homes in
Ningxia, a grassland protection official told Deutsche
Presse-Agentur dpa by telephone.
"This year, they were mainly from Tongxin, Haiyan and Guyan
counties in Ningxia," said the official, who gave only his
Thirty people alone were detained Wednesday and sent back to
Haiyan and Tongxin, Zhang said.
The quarry these hunters were after is a thin, black type of
moss that intertwines with grass. Its roots stabilize the soil,
and when it is dug up, the exposed soil quickly dries out and
blows away, feeding the sandstorms that hit a
2,000-kilometre-long stretch of northern China each spring,
blowing to Beijing and Tianjin and sometimes to Japan and the
west coast of the United States.
The people arrested are all "extremely poor" and are attracted
by a price of about 150 yuan (19 dollars) per jin, or 500 grams,
of fa cai in Ningxia's wholesale markets, Zhang said.
"Recently, in some places, activities of gathering fa cai have
been on the rise again, causing deterioration of the grassland,
intensifying desertification and seriously damaging the
ecological environment of the grassland," the agriculture
ministry said in its emergency notice this week.
The notice was issued as areas of northern China experienced
their worst sandstorms this year.
"Every locality should increase the power of law enforcement,
and strike hard against the activities of illegal fa cai
gathering," the ministry said.
However, if authorities catch people with fa cai, they usually
burn the plants and send the farmers home without paying any
fines. Many of them return to Alashan again, spurred by the
knowledge that an illegal wholesale market for fa cai continues
to operate in Ningxia.
Consumers in the affluent southern city of Guangzhou were paying
about 460 yuan for 500 grams of fa cai, more than three times
the wholesale price in Ningxia, the Hong Kong-based South China
Morning Post said recently.
For many years, thousands of poor farmers have flocked to the
grassland to harvest the plant, selling it to traders in Ningxia.
Armed clashes sometimes erupted between ethnically Han and Hui
farmers from Ningxia and the mainly Mongolian herders who live
in Alashan, prompting some farmers to carry weapons.
China banned the collection of fa cai in 2000 as it started
forestation projects in Inner Mongolia to help reduce the impact
of sandstorms on northern cities.
Last year, the government said Inner Mongolia had lost 420,000
square kilometres of land to desertification, or 35.5 per cent
of the region's territory, mainly because of overgrazing and
non-sustainable farming over several decades. Nationwide, the
annual rate of desertification was estimated at 2,460 square
kilometres, the government said.
But illegal fa cai picking has grown again since 2004 as prices
continued to rise, Zhang said, adding that prices in Ningxia
before 2000 was 50 to 80 yuan.
Last year, about 50,000 people were thrown out of Alashan for fa
cai harvesting with spring and autumn the peak seasons, he said.
Another group of about 250 people were caught last month after
they dug up 300 jin of fa cai in two days in Alashan.
The farmers, who were equipped with more than 200 rakes and
other tools, travelled to Alashan on six three-wheel tractors,
the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Police confiscated the farmers' tools and vehicles before
sending them back to Ningxia.