Medicinal Rhodiola species, including Rhodiola rosea L. and Rhodiola crenulata (Hook.f. & Thomson) H.Ohba, have been widely used as traditional herbal medicines with numerous claims for their therapeutic effects. Faced with resource depletion, environment destruction and higher demand, R. rosea and R. crenulata are becoming endangered, making them economically even more valuable, but also increasing the risk of adulteration and low quality - and raising awareness for the role of often unlicensed collectors and middlemen.
Although R. rosea is the most well known in Europe, R. crenulata is the recognised species in China. On the border of Sichuan and Tibet, members of the Yi minority collect R. crenulata in order to sell it to the “traditional” Chinese medicine market. Collection of this medicinal herb represents about one third of the annual income for the Yi. Three times a year they climb up to 5,000 metres in search of the plants. As it is stripped out, the Yi have to travel to more and more inhospitable places to ensure its supply.
At Taibai mountain along the border of Sichuan and Shaanxi, the same medicinal plant, hongjingtian in Chinese, is growing in the wild, too. Yet, in a socioeconomic context, collectors do not have a particular ethnic background such as Yi, Tibetan or Han collectors. Here, the collectors are various unlicensed providers-cum-prescribers 'caoyi'. (The term does not mean herb-physician, as one might assume from terms such as caoyao (herbals). It means unofficial or not following the scholarly standard.) Using neither an ethnic identity nor the general botanical terms in Latin, they claim Daoism and terroir of their mountain as a sign of good quality ‘Taibai hongjingtian’.
There appears to be no strategy in place to protect the species across all those socioeconomic, ethnic and provincial boundaries, and without some intervention it is likely that R. crenulata will eventually become so rare that it can no longer be collected in the current quantities. This will have consequences both for the livelihoods of the Yi and of various Caoyi, and also for the conservation of R. Crenulata and it’s sustainability.