Caihuan Duojie earned a BA in Tibetan and English languages from Qinghai Nationalities University in 2008. In 2011, he earned an MA in Sustainable Development in a joint program run by Paris Dauphine University and China Agricultural University in Beijing with a scholarship granted by the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia. Currently, he is a PhD student at the University of Canterbury. My research is about Tibetan farmers’ livelihoods in northwest China. Before he began his PhD study in 2018, he was a lecturer at Qinghai Nationalities University.
Livelihoods and Capitalization: Caterpillar Fungus Harvesting in Tibetan Areas
China’s agrarian reform in early 1980s and its subsequent agricultural modernization project in mid-1990s has spurred the rapid growth of capitalism in the countryside. As a result, a drastic commodification of Tibetans’ subsistence has occurred. Caterpillar fungus, a traditional medicinal substance, has now been commodified, and largely collected for exchange value on the Tibetan plateau. This new resource economy has attracted a vast number of Tibetan peasants to earn cash income, and now plays a pivotal role in household economies. In the face of rapid agrarian change in China, the successful integration of the caterpillar fungus economy into capitalist markets has caused waves of gold-rush-like impacts on Tibetans. Yet, while well-documented in the literature, the labor transformation and commodification of the caterpillar fungus economy have rarely been discussed. This paper engages with critical agrarian studies to pursue a better understanding of the labour processes of Tibetan peasants’ involvement in the caterpillar fungus economy in China’s Qinghai province. Based on perspectives from critical agrarian studies, I mainly discuss Tibetan peasant collectors’ class struggles revolving around their agency, under the structure of capitalized caterpillar fungus economy. This paper has four sections. First, I give a historical review of the caterpillar fungus economy with special focus on the state’s intervention and the rise of middlemen in the caterpillar fungus economy in the 1990s. Second, I discuss how rapid capitalization, mainly from below, began to dominate the caterpillar fungus economy since the late 1990s and early 2000s, which in turn reconfigured Tibetan peasants’ labor arrangements and labor relations. Third, I discuss three kinds of models in which capitalist management was practiced during the collection period to control and manage peasant collectors and their labor process for more capital accumulation. Last, I discuss how capitalist managerial strategies, in tandem with overcollection, gradually exclude Tibetan peasant collectors from the caterpillar fungus economy, leading to a possible decline in caterpillar fungus harvesting. In doing so, the paper concludes with implications on the notion of sustainability in the caterpillar fungus economy in the wider context of agrarian change.
Affiliation: University of Canterbury