The 2012 India China Knowledge and Capacity Building Initiative began on July 21st in Kunming China. The program is an innovative multi-cultural collaboration between emerging scholars of three countries: India, China, and America. There are six teams, comprised of a participant from each country. Each team is given a broad topic that is unpacked and narrowed throughout two months of intensive fieldwork in Yunnan, China, and West Bengal, India. My team started with the topic of ecotourism. As our fieldwork began, we rapidly and frequently refined our topic. Our fieldwork pulled us toward the relationship of food cultures and ecotourism. Gradually, ecotourism waned in prominence.
To make a long story short, our research now centers on wild Yunnan mushrooms and Darjeeling tea. Our research question asks what perceptions surround these geographically unique, sensual, and idiosyncratic commodities? How are imaginaries and fetishes constructed out of these perceptions? What disconnects (between consumer perception and production) result from such perceptions?
Currently our team is in Darjeeling, the queen of hills. It was nearly two months ago that we shadowed mushroom pickers in rural Yunnan province, and wallowed away most of our research budget sampling the wild delicacies in gourmet restaurants (alas it was invaluable data collected). Compared with the local love and sensual appreciation for wild mushrooms in Yunnan, the relationship of high quality Darjeeling tea amongst Bengalis stands in stark contrast. This contrast, however, is highly generative in highlighting the varying local vs. global consumption patterns. Particularly as both regions witness an expanding middle class and increasing amounts of expendable income. What kind of sensual experiences are worth paying for?
At first glance, Yunnan mushrooms and Darjeeling tea seem an odd couple. However the benefit of their pairing lies in the balance they strike amongst similarities and contrasts. For example both commodities are intrinsic to unique ecosystems, with booming international reputations, degrees of fetishism, and local cultural and economic importance. But if you consider history, land-use, or regional consumption, the commodities couldn’t be more different.
Historicizing the commodities is crucial: Wild mushrooms have been mushrooming in Yunnan as long as the region’s pine forests have existed (indeed, these mushrooms have a mycorrhizal relationship with the trees). Records of humans eating these wild mushrooms are equally ancient. Darjeeling tea, on the other hand, is a colonial legacy. In many unfortunate respects, especially in terms of the plantation labor structures and vast monocultures that most Darjeeling tea estates retain, this colonial legacy persists.
This point on monoculture brings out the issue of environmentalism. This is a highly nuanced area for both commodities. On the surface, it may seem that the production of both commodities is kind to local ecosystems. In fact, when asked about such environmental issues, a director for one of West Bengal’s biggest tea companies blurted, “are you kidding, we should be getting carbon credits for our estates”. Those sympathetic to this line of thought, often cite the fact that shade trees and plants such as wild sunflower (to aid soil nutrients/composition) on the estates provide biodiversity. Or they will happily relate how elephants and other large mammals roam the estates. When we brought up such arguments to an employee of a local environmental NGO, all he said was ‘bells and whistles’.
The eco-friendly case may be stronger for wild mushrooms. However, with growing demand for the illusive fungi, fragile forest floors are increasingly trammeled. Additionally, the verdict is still out on whether or not picking the fruit of the fungi (the mushroom), hampers the organism’s future growth.
More apparent repercussions are found in the hasty and ill-conceived development of regions as they are subjected to such commodity booms: populations mushroom, waste accumulates, and ecosystems shift. Although the mushroom (and tourism) craze of 21st century Yunnan is hardly analogous to the 19th century gold rush of the American West, global market prices and sheer interest in Yunnan mushrooms is escalating, and the effects on local ecosystems and economies are becoming apparent. (The same can be said of Darjeeling, especially with tourism factored in.)
The environmental affects of monoculture tea estates may be more apparent than those of wild mushrooms. However, it must be cautioned that the more surreptitious environmental affects of mushroom picking can make the act awfully pernicious. In fact, it is the general lack of knowledge (scientific and local) concerning mushrooms- their reproduction and role within ecosystems- that adds to the perception that mushroom picking is innocuous.
This multi-cultural environmental fieldwork opened a further pod of peas: where do such environmental perceptions originate? Can we find multiple or divergent ‘eco-perceptions’? What beliefs, values and knowledge structures are behind these perceptions? What causes or individuals promote these varying brands of environmentalism (eco-perceptions)?
Additionally, this brings up the topic of globalization, specifically, the flow of knowledge and ideas. Beyond ecology and environmentalism, what global knowledge flows exist that concern the (possible) health benefits of mushrooms and tea? What can be said of the emerging global standards on labor, as seen in ‘fair trade’ labeling?
As seen with Darjeeling’s ‘fair trade’ tea estates, fair trade labeling still has a long way to go. It is hard to look past the hypocrisy of a tea estate, that is structurally unchanged since the colonial era, labeled as ‘fair trade’. Even after four generations have continually lived on and worked the land, workers still have no claim to the land, nor cut of the profit. Instead they are provided slum-like living conditions and a flat rate of hardly over one dollar a day (floating around the international poverty line) to produce a commodity that is renowned across the world.
To add insult to injury, the lavish bungalows where the British lived and watched over their subjects, are now rented out at exorbitant fees as vacation destinations, often filled by European aristocrats. Naturally, these tourists are sheltered from the working underbelly of the estate.
The picture isn’t all grim, however. Another type of tourism is growing around tea estates, one that caters to the more adventurous and eco/socially conscious. It is a mixture of ecotourism and tea tourism and it brings tourists into the homes of estate workers, or allows tourists to sleep in tents amongst the flora of the estates. The same is happening in Yunnan. Tourists are encouraged to reach the scenic heights where wild mushrooms grow and try their hand at foraging for the illusive beauties. There are even cooking facilities equipped with chefs and mushrooms to buy incase your foraging experience was less than fruitful.
As can be seen, our research has lead to more questions than answers. And that is the point. Two months is not adequate for any serious research, but it is more than adequate to build lasting friendships and connections, and open doors to possibilities and curiosities for future research on India and China. And for that I have the ICKCBI to thank.