Selling "facai" moss outlawed in China

truffler1635 at truffler1635 at
Sat Aug 5 10:02:05 EST 2000

The following article is from The Oregonian, August 4, 2000

Poor gatherers of "facai" must turn to the black market deals or risk
losing their meager incomes


	TONGXIN, China - With bread loaf-sized bundles tucked under their
arms, the scruffy sellers frequently glanced over their shoulders as they
waited for buyers.
	Some had the gaunt, desperate look of drug dealers. But it was not
drugs they peddled one recent afternoon outside a dusty, open-air market
in Tongxin in the southern part of Nigxia Hui Autonomous Region in
northcentral China. They were selling a black, hairlike moss that for
centuries has been harvested by China's poorest citizens and eaten by its
richest in soups and a variety of dishes in the belief that it will
increase their wealth.
	There is no evidence that eating "facai," which sounds the same as
"get rich" in Chinese, has the intended effect. But there is evidence
that harvesting the bland-tasting moss has turned millions of acres of
grasslands into desert.
	To combat China's severe problem of sprawling new deserts and to
quell the violence between roaming bands of facai hunters, and the sheep
and goat herders whose pasturelands in several provinces are being
ruined, the central government in mid-July banned sales of the moss. But
a flourishing - if furtive - trafficking continues outside what had been
China's largest wholesale market for facai, called "black gold" by
	"We cannot plant crops because there is no rain," said Wang Guying,
a 35-year-old farmer who was among those looking for buyers outside the
closed market. "If we cannot gather facai, we will all be begging."
	Facai gathering, logging, destructive farming practices, diminishing
rainfall and a water table that's falling as the population rises have
turned southern Nigxia into a wind-swept wasteland.

Wells dry
	Most wells ran dry long ago. Most farm families never bathe, saving
the precious few gallons they trap during infrequent rainfalls to keep
themselves alive. There is no irrigation. The landscape is mostly bare
dirt with clumps of grass.
	Average annual income is about $50. Many families live in caves,
unable to afford even a humble, mud-brick house.
	Wang said the only income for 90 percent of the farmers in his
county, nearby Guyuan, comes from facai. Experts say that figure holds
for the farmers in other southern Nigxia counties, which have a total
population of about 2.6 million.
	China's State Forestry Bureau estimates that millions of acres in
Ningxia and adjoining Gansu province have been damaged by facai
gathering. In Inner Mongolia, another north China region, the figure is
estimated at 33 million acres.
	What makes facai gathering so destructive is that the moss grows
only in sandy areas vulnerable to becoming desert, and its tiny tendrils
often are entangled in the roots of other plants that stabilize the soil.
Rather than plucking the small pieces of facai one by one, gatherers tend
to rake up everything in sight and sort through it later. That loosens
the sand, which rises into blinding dust storms when the wind grows
	So small and sparse is facai that experts say about four acres of
grassland are damaged for each pound of moss collected.
	Before it shut down July 15, the market in Tongxin sold about 60
tons of facai a year, much of it to brokers from southern China and Hong
Kong. It retails for about $40 a pound. The farmers who gather it earn
only about $22 a pound, and that includes a 50 percent price increase
that's due to the legal market closing.
	It's not easy money.
	Gu Zhanxiao, a 30-year-old farmer who lives with his wife and two
small children on a bare hilltop a few miles outside Tongxin, said it
typically takes him about three weeks to collect one pound of moss.
	Because much of Ningxia has been picked clean, his searches begin
with a five- or six-day trip to Inner Mongolia by freight train or on the
back of a flatbed truck crowded with other facai hunters, who often
travel in groups of 20 or more for protection.
	One reason it takes so long to collect the moss, Gu said, is that
gatherers much spend so much time defending themselves and hiding.
	"The local farmers really hate us," he said.
	Whether facai gatherers will be dissuaded by the prohibition on
sales remains to be seen. Penalties have not yet been announced. The
local official in charge of enforcement declined a request for an
	Li Tingmin, a 45-year-old farmer with four children, said he would
continue to hunt for the moss regardless of the penalties because he has
no other means of support.
	But Gu said he is ready to hang up his rake, even though his income
from facai - which has ranged from $60 to $200 in recent years - is his
only source of money.

Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler

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