Building sustainability into the Belt and Road Initiative’s Traditional Chinese Medicine trade

By Amy Hinsley & Tien Ming Lee

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The Belt & Road Initiative is best known as a multi-billion dollar infrastructure project, building roads, railways and shipping links between China and countries around the world. The potential environmental implications of these building projects has received some attention but the BRI is much more than that, and other risks (and opportunities) for sustainability have been overlooked. Our new paper in Nature Sustainability focusses on the expansion of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a key part of the BRI’s aim to foster ‘people-to-people exchange’ through cultural connectivity. 

We first became interested in the possible environmental and social implications of TCM expansion to BRI countries in 2018. Several of the paper’s authors were in Jilin province collecting data on the use of TCM products, as part of a collaborative project on TCM sustainability led by China’s National Forestry and Grassland Authority, IUCN, University of Oxford and Sun Yat-sen University. That week we had been reading official Chinese media reports about the great opportunities that the BRI would bring for the expansion of demand and supply for the TCM industry. We were surprised this was not being discussed more widely in the conservation community for its potential implications for wildlife trade, especially as the ingredients of many TCM products are derived from plants, animals and fungi, ranging from orchid tubers to antelope horns. While many of these products can be sourced legally and sustainably, there is also the the risk that rapidly increasing demand could lead to an increase in illegal or unsustainable wildlife trade. We decided to look into this further, especially how China’s commitment to greening the BRI could play a role in making TCM trade more sustainable. Further, we firmly believe that as well as risks there would be opportunities for sustainable trade the could bring real benefits to people in BRI countries, if they could be identified.

Tian ma (Gastrodia elata) orchid tubers in a TCM shop

Whilst our experience working on wildlife trade issues allowed us to consider the potential implications of better connectivity and increased demand for TCM products, it was clear that to create meaningful impact we must get buy-in from relevant stakeholders. We secured an opportunistic meeting with representatives of the Chinese Association of TCM (CATCM) in Beijing, who work with the TCM industry, including on BRI expansion. Following discussions with CATCM we established that there was interest in developing more sustainable TCM supply-chains in BRI countries. However, we also realised that the situation was going to be highly complex, with both supply and demand of TCM products likely to vary greatly between different countries and regions.  

We invited authors from different disciplines and sectors to help develop a strategy for sustainability that could account for the complexity of BRI TCM markets. Our final author team includes academics and practitioners working on wildlife trade, livelihoods, and sustainable supply-chains for medicinal plants, as well as a policy-maker in China with experience of working on TCM and conservation. This collaboration resulted in a paper that lays out a realistic, four-step strategy for understanding the risks of BRI TCM and turning them into opportunities for sustainability. As the BRI enters its seventh year, China is reaching out to more countries to cooperate on the marketing, registration and promotion of TCM products. There is now a critical short-term window for the identification of potential risks and opportunities, to ensure that sustainability is built into these markets from the start.

The paper is available in English and we have translated it into Chinese.

Amy Hinsley

Senior Research Fellow, University of Oxford

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