John Stanmeyer‹Saba for TIME.
SEARCHING FOR A CURE: Researchers at the Institute of Botany look
for herbal miracles from Yunnan's flora .
A backward province steers its economy from drugs to a clean, green source
By HANNAH BEECH Kunming
Drugs have long been the life-blood of China's lawless Yunnan provinceand
Hao Xiaojiang hopes to keep it that way. But the portly scientist at the
Kunming Institute of Botany isn't promoting the heroin that floods over
Yunnan's 2,000-km border with Burma or the vast tobacco plantations that
paint the southwestern province's hills green. Instead, Hao wants to sustain
the local economy with a much more benign substance: herbal medicine.
Hao's efforts are part of Yunnan's plan to mend its illicit image with
clean, green economic development. For decades, the province has been
a narcotics havenand, increasingly, an environmental hell. Half
the Southeast Asian heroin seized outside the region is confiscated in
Yunnan. Logging has decimated its forests. Tobacco fills out the rest
of the economy, along with the tin mines and heavy industry that scar
Yunnan's hills and contaminate its rivers. "This economic development
is destroying Yunnan," says Hao.
The solution, he believes, is to stimulate Yunnan's economy by taking
advantage of the province's rich biodiversity through ecotourism and herbal
medicine. Half of China's seed plants are endemic to Yunnan; as recently
as the '80s, new species were discovered every 10 days on average. Researchers
predict this bounty could boost Yunnan's economy by 5% this year. "We've
always known that Yunnan is a treasure," says Wu Zhengyi, 84, a member
of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who has identified 1,300 new plants
in the province. "But now we know that protecting our flora can make money."
By 2020, Yunnan officials hope herbal medicine and other botanical goods
will replace tobacco, a state monopoly, as the province's largest money-spinner.
Already, authorities have limited the amount of tobacco planted, and surplus
land is being converted to raise medicinal plants. Money has also been
designated for scientific research, so traditional Chinese medicine firms
can compete with Western companies once the country enters the World Trade
Organization. The nerve center of Yunnan's herbal research is at Hao's
institute. In fan-cooled laboratories, scientists hunch over primitive
equipment and extract effective compounds from Yunnan's flora. Ethnobotanists
interview Yunnan's ethnic minorities to learn about the herbs used in
their folk medicine. To date, the institute boasts 20 patents. Among its
discoveries: a new source for the anti-cancer agent, paclitaxel, derived
from the Yunnan yew tree and a sunflower-based curative used by the Miao
tribe to combat high blood pressure.
Entrepreneurs are also zeroing in on Yunnan's potential. Hong Kong's New
World Development recently inked a deal to run a herbal network centered
in Yunnan. "Chinese medicine is becoming popular in the West," says Leonie
Ki, managing director of New World China Enterprises. "We will be at the
forefront of this trend." The Yunnanese aren't far behind. At a heroin
rehab center in Kunming, the detox regimen relies on a herbal pill that
is cheaper than methadone, the conventional withdrawal treatment. Although
the pills are currently available only to the compound's 3,200 addicts,
the center's head, Zhang Yuzu, has applied for a patent to sell his potion
nationwide. "Heroin is not a problem that was created in China," says
Zhang. "But we in Yunnan have invented a cure to solve this external problem."
Transforming Yunnan into a herbal center, however, will be tough. China
today supplies only 3% of the world's herbal drugs, although it hopes
to increase its share to 50% in two decades. But converting farmland from
tobacco to herbs isn't easy: ginseng, for instance, is expensive precisely
because the plant is finicky about growing conditions. Yunnanese must
also be trained to use resources responsibly. When the Yunnan yew tree
was touted for its anti-cancer properties in the early '90s, loggers razed
entire forests, depleting the resource and causing soil erosion. Still,
Hao believes Yunnan can switch its economy from the malign to the benign.
"We can break with the past," he insistseven as he puffs a cigarette
of Yunnan's finest tobacco.
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