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The Global Mushroom Trade

Wild mushrooms have long been gathered intensively in many parts of the world. But with the globalization of trade, mushrooms are now being picked in more places than ever before, and they are traveling farther and faster. Japan and western Europe are the major importers of wild mushrooms. The global trade in matsutake alone is estimated at three to five billion dollars annually; for chanterelles it is about $1.5 billion.

In many developing countries, wild mushrooms have become an important source of income for people in remote forested regions where there are few other opportunities to make money. Impoverished farmers in Bulgaria, for instance, have bought new tractors with money gained from selling boletes to Italy, and villagers in Zimbabwe pay school tuition fees for their children by selling mushrooms from their native miombo woodlands, including chanterelles that they can ship out of season to Europe.

One striking success story is in Champa, on the eastern flank of the Himalayas where Tibet and the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan come together. Virtually all of the Tibetan villagers in this rugged region spend the summer months picking, buying, and selling wild mushrooms, or servicing those who do.

Despite a short growing season, the mushrooms provide families with anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of their annual income. In two months, some Tibetan families living in matsutake-rich forests are able to earn more than ten times the annual average wage of a worker in developed China (Shanghai). And in contrast to North America, where the pickers are widely scattered and the material benefits of the mushroom harvest are difficult to distinguish, the wealth generated by mushrooms in Champa is dramatically evident to outsiders, because virtually all of the local money comes from the mushrooms. Villages near matsutake beds are dotted with new two-story wooden houses built in the traditional Champan style but several times larger and more ornate than anything known before; small shops and other businesses have begun to blossom as the new homeowners look for other ways to invest their money.

Even in forests where less valuable mushrooms predominate (e.g., chanterelles or gypsy mushrooms, a locally sold species), the villagers have new houses. They are less grandiose than the matsutake "mansions," but are still a major improvement over the hovels that characterize deforested areas.

Rural boomtowns financed by distant urban elites are nothing new. But what is extraordinary about this area in Champa is that intact forests are seen as the key to rural development rather than as an impediment to it. Several villages have developed their own mushroom management plans, timber harvest has been scaled back, and cultural integrity is noticeably greater than in nearby areas that cater to tourism.