This Chinese berry is part of a conservation revolution

A small, red Chinese berry is at the heart of a radical new approach to conservation, “helping to save both the forest where it grows in the Upper Yangtze region — one of the most biodiverse places on the planet — and the villagers who harvest it,” writes FERN associate editor Kristina Johnson in a story co-produced with NPR’s The Salt.

“The small, red schisandra berry has a peculiar taste — five tastes, in fact, because it’s considered to be at once sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent,” says Johnson.  The berry has gained “superfood” status in the U.S., with Dr. Oz proclaiming it a “miracle anti-aging pill.” But well before it became fashionable here, it was served in jellies, soups and liqueurs in China, and used as a medicine to treat chronic coughs and other ailments.

After villagers in the Upper Yangtze region — an area home to the Giant Panda, as well as hundreds of Chinese medicinal plants — were banned from farming on the mountainous slopes by the government because of heavy deforestation, locals struggled to replace the lost income.

“Families started gathering more wild plants than ever, ripping entire schisandra vines from trees to get as many berries as possible. This not only killed the plants, but also spread the foragers’ human scent, scaring panda mothers who then abandoned their babies,” writes Johnson.

Yet, instead of trying to stop schisandra harvests, a group that included international NGOs, and the Swiss and German governments, came together to implement a program called FairWild — the first verification system for both environmental conditions and labor practices in the wild-plant industry.

The project, which works with indigenous and rural foragers around the world, trained the Chinese harvesters to only take schisandra berries from the lower two thirds of the vine, saving the upper portions for wildlife to eat and spread seeds throughout the forest. FairWild helped the schisandra pickers establish contracts with buyers worth at least 30 percent more than the market price.

“Around the world, 19 plant species in 10 countries are now certified under FairWild, and at least 1,000 households in Central Europe and Asia are involved. That amounts to about 300 tons of plant material each year, with Roma collectors in Hungary and Bosnia filling sacks with rose hips and nettles, while families in Kazakhstan dig for licorice roots,” reports Johnson.