Biodiversity projects improve lives in China

Farmer Yu Zerun shows his Schisandra harvest, Sichuan Province, China.
Farmer Yu Zerun shows his Schisandra harvest, Sichuan Province, China. Photo: Tony Cunningham/WWF China

Yu Zerun, a farmer from Daping village in the Sichuan province, Western China, used to harvest rare medicinal plants in protected areas of the Upper Yangtze River Basin, an area internationally recognized for its biodiversity value.

The caterpillar fungus Yu Zerun traded at the local market provided a valuable source of income for him and his family, but over-exploitation and unsustainable harvesting by local residents endangered species and degraded habitats.


  • An estimated 75 per cent of commercially harvested traditional Chinese medicinal plants are found in the mountain landscapes of the upper Yangtze River basin.
  • Rather than prohibiting harvesting, the project encouraged farmers to adopt common cash-crop species suitable for collective planting and sales.
  • Daping villagers were able to generate a 20 % increase in cash income, and gain a foothold in a market that is growing at 12 percent annually.

In response, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), identified 18 villages in the area to carry out community-based projects aimed at conserving biodiversity and improving local people’s livelihoods.

In Daping village, a plant known for its wide use in traditional Chinese medicine, Shisandra, was selected as a suitable cash-crop to help villagers generate income. Shisandra is widely available in the area and easy to process with minimal impact on the environment as it is the fruit, not the plant, which is used for medicinal purposes.

UNDP organized workshops and lectures to promote sustainable harvesting and management of the crops among the villagers and local government officials, and, with the support of WWF, helped set up a community conservation committee.

WWF also helped the village establish a non-profit producers’ association, responsible for the collection, grading, packing and sale of Schisandra.  Through this business, local households were able to generate an average annual income of around US$100, a 20 % increase of cash income.  Recently, Schisandra crops from the Daping village have been organically certified by the US and the EU, and the association has signed a 5-year memorandum of understanding with an international purchaser.

"Before I had to take many risks to get plants and I didn't make much money," said Yu Zerun. "Now I don't have to worry about getting caught and I can earn enough to support my family by selling my plants overseas.

Backed by US$1.8 million in grants awarded by the EU-China Biodiversity Programme, and with a total budget of US$3.5 million, this four-year project has seen a dramatic shift in the way people balance their short and long-term needs with those of future generations.  According to monitoring and statistics from the nearby protected areas, individual trespassing has decreased significantly.

Meanwhile, in 2012, the Kangmei Institute of Community Development and Marketing was selected from 800 entrants as one of 25 winners of the Equator Prize 2012 – a global award scheme recognizing local and indigenous initiatives – for its role in promoting medicinal plant and herb cultivation techniques.

Related links
UNDP in China
EU-UNDP-China Biodiversity Programme

The EU-China Biodiversity Programme is a joint initiative by the EU, UNDP, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Environmental Protection. It is the biggest bilateral programme on biodiversity that EU has supported worldwide.


The programme combined policy dialogue and development, institutional strengthening and awareness-raising with a set of field projects that improved biodiversity conservation and management at all levels across middle and western China. The programme has supported China in developing a biodiversity strategy and action plan at national and local levels.


It has helped embed biodiversity conservation as a major mitigation tool in China’s response to climate change. It has demonstrated the importance of local communities in conservation work at local levels and it has raised the awareness on biodiversity in the government and within the public. The programme has transformed the way biodiversity is regarded in China - and the way that it will be protected in the future.


The programme started in November 2005 and closed end of September 2011. The EU contributed 30 million euros, out of which 27.5 through UNDP.

How does this project contribute to sustainable development?

"Aside from its benefit to the local farmers, protected areas and endangered species, the project stands out because it addresses the misconception that local development options are incompatible with nature conservation and vice versa.


By taking a holistic approach to local sustainable development, it is possible to create a multiple win-win situation - this perhaps is one of the most important lessons that can be drawn from this project."


by Carsten Germer, Energy and Environment Team Leader, UNDP China