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John Stanmeyer‹Saba for TIME.
SEARCHING FOR A CURE: Researchers at the Institute of Botany look for herbal miracles from Yunnan's flora .

Nature's Remedy
A backward province steers its economy from drugs to a clean, green source of income

Drugs have long been the life-blood of China's lawless Yunnan province—and 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 haven—and, 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."

P H O T O  E S S A Y
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The men of Yantang must move to Shanghai and go into hard labour to build better lives for their families




To Our

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 insists—even as he puffs a cigarette of Yunnan's finest tobacco.

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