Written by Cheng Gong and Kārlis Rokpelnis.

Tu Youyou’s deserved Nobel Prize award comes as a welcome recognition of the fact that lore accrued outside of the scientific method directly contributes to creation of scientific knowledge and industrial innovation. It also fits well into the nationalist narrative that a rising China embraces modernity supplemented by a rich historical and cultural layer to create something truly unique. In the hustle and bustle one can easily miss the fact that “traditional knowledge” in China is struggling tremendously.

In September 2015, during the plenary session of First National Ethnoecology Conference in Beijing, Minzu University Professor and ethnobotanist Long Chunlin commented that there is a lot of local and traditional knowledge throughout the country that remains unused.

Why won’t scientists stop illegal trade in species?

The kind of research and innovation that Tu Youyou’s work stands for is in a sorry state. An unidentified spokesperson from the Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings, a major player in traditional remedies ranging from medicaments to the more-popular-than-cola Wang Lao Ji herbal drink, was cited by National Business Daily bemoaning the fact that of the new drugs approved for use in 2014 only 2.19% were Traditional Chinese Remedies. Despite claims made by Tu herself about the promise of TCM-based pharmacognosy, successes have been very circumscribed.

Meanwhile, demand for remedies associated with traditional practices of the mainstream Han Chinese along with the prominent Tibetan traditions, and increasingly of other ethnic minority groups, exerts pressure on the ecosystems where these products are sourced. These resources have been depleted domestically, and with increasing cross-border trade, in other countries too.

Observers, particularly environmentalists, are bewildered: charismatic species are being poached to extinction for horns and tusks, which, goes the argument, have no clinically confirmed benefits. It is suggested, as for example Aksharat Rathi argues passionately, that sorting out the justified from the baseless traditional views is the key to convincing practitioners and consumers to “stop the meaningless killings” of endangered animals. Among other benefits, this could prevent embarrassing moments such as the recent arrest of Yang Feng Glan in Tanzania on charges of ivory smuggling, which feeds into traditional medicine trade.

The traditional practitioner and scientist support is needed because it is clear that bans alone do not work. Tiger bones, banned for trade since 1993, are still peddled and regulation undermined by a bureaucratic apparatus that sees the merit of such trade not just in terms of financial gain but also potential therapeutic benefits. Presumably, what is needed is an equivalent to Yao Ming’s reportedly successful crusade against shark fin soup.

However, when urging TCM practitioners, or even phytochemists like Tu Youyou, to step up and speak against the useless sections of the tradition, the advocates are asking for the impossible. Tu described the process of artemisinin as examining “more than 2,000 Chinese herb preparations and identified 640 hits that had possible antimalarial activities. More than 380 extracts obtained from ~200 Chinese herbs were evaluated against a mouse model of malaria.” What this description fails to mention is that medical practices in China Proper, not to speak of peripheries, were never a fully coherent system. The kind of research that Tu and her team carried out explicitly casts a wide net over these strains way beyond the increasingly systematized state mandated Traditional Chinese Medicine with the clear goal of including folk medicine.

Asking researchers, even those most devoted to the scientific method, to a priori exempt certain ingredients from the “may work” category means asking them to declare the whole stack of cannons relative. That is a tall order for an industry that perceives itself as being under attack and underappreciated. Even when concessions are made in the form of disingenuous commitments to avoidance of animal ingredients and general greening of the supply chain, those are frequently broken and the critics rage on.

Why doesn’t traditional knowledge drive conservation and development?

The practices, beliefs, and ways of living of the type that have fostered the medicinal cannon available to Yu Youyou are conventionally referred to as “traditional knowledge”. Born out of anthropologists commitment to viewing various societies as equal and in no small part in response to the atrocities that modernity and applications of science had brought to humanity in the first half of the 20th century, the traditional knowledge concept argues, like French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss did, that the accrual of coherent and valid knowledge systems can exist outside of the scientific method.

With increasing concern in the second part of last century about the state of the environment, traditional knowledge became one of the options for dealing with the challenges. Just like the Chinese scientists had earlier turned to tradition in search for malaria cure, the Brundtland Report, a United Nations research document that brought sustainability into the mainstream, suggested that among other things traditional peoples “can offer modern societies many lessons in the management of resources in complex forest, mountain, and dryland ecosystems”.

Concern for the environment has led to a re-appreciation of traditional knowledge by Chinese academics and activists across the country from Yunnan’s forests to Inner Mongolian steppes. Practices such as swidden farming, nomadic grazing, and even paper-making have been found to benefit biodiversity and other indicators of sustainable land management.

In 1992, coming out of the post-1989 international isolation, China eagerly embraced the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed upon at the Earth Summit in Rio. That agreement, which failed to deliver meaningful results in its first two decades and is headed towards further disappointment, came into being at a time of enthusiasm for local action, particularly for connecting traditional knowledge with bioprospecting and concern about biopiracy.

In addition to conserving biological diversity, CBD aimed to ensure “sustainable use” of biodiversity’s components and “fair and equitable sharing of benefits” arising from genetic resources. Globally this attempt at regulating access to local knowledge backfired and led to a virtual shutdown of research and development from which the research community is only starting to recover.

In China, the kind of focus on endogenous technology development that led to the discovery of artemisinin fused with global concern about irresponsible research at the time of the adoption of CBD. It led to divergent regulation for foreign and domestic research. Various laws and regulations strictly limit foreign researchers’ work with genetic material in China, particularly in protected nature areas. At the same time, domestic researchers have largely unfettered access to communities, heirloom crops, and wild species. The CBD goal of establishing a system for access and benefit sharing between communities and developers has been interpreted as a strong border between China and the rest of the world.

Chinese law and policy practice strongly rejects that indigenous peoples’ rights concept, a major focus of the CBD, could be applied to China. At the same time, the notion of “local communities” is applicable to the Chinese context regardless of the communities’ ethnic status. However, legal or administrative mechanisms for protecting local communities’ knowledge or practices has not been created. The elected village committees or creation of farmer and herder cooperatives can serve that function in practice, but they do not have legal rights to assert intellectual property and traditional practices.

If, hypothetically speaking, Ms. Tu or her colleagues were to descend tomorrow on a village in, let’s say, Hebei in search of the next wonder drug, the villagers would have no legal tools that could oblige the scientists to acknowledge their contribution to the research or share the benefits from product development. If indeed the villagers did have valuable knowledge, keeping it a secret remains the only reliable means of protecting such intellectual property. That is how Chinese doctors have gone about their business for thousands of years.

In places where local traditions and products already have high market value, more roughshod and sometimes violent protective measures are routinely adopted. Christina Larson has recently described how the value of Pu’er tea in Yunnan is protected by self-organized road vigilantes, and this is by no means a unique case.

That inability to create a workable framework for managing local knowledge and its marketable value is rooted in the contradiction between insisting that the state is the ultimate guardian and protector of tradition and knowledge and the practical reality that individuals and communities are the actual holders of skills and practices. Sanctioned protection in effect implies handing control over to government entities, which is what has happened to countless practices and products.

These challenges are not unique to China. But the scale and rate of economic growth and resulting increase in demand for remedies does set China apart. The increasingly nationalist discourse surrounding medicinal traditions hardly leaves space for scientists and healing practitioners to discuss the matter with nuance. The perceived and real economic value of local products and traditions is too big for government institutions and entrepreneurs not to get involved.

Research by Maxim Mihailev, a recent PhD graduate from Minzu University of China and now a researcher with the Russian Academy of Science, compares development models along and across China’s northwestern borders. He put it bluntly in a talk in Beijing in June. “Unlike Russia, China does care about its remote regions, and this brings disaster,” he said.

The resources available to the Central and local governments to manage and protect as they see fit have expanded tremendously and the appetite for managing has grown accordingly. With or without the Nobel for artemisinin, space for local solutions and innovation is not protected and is increasingly diminished.

Dr. Cheng Gong is an Assistant Professor at Minzu University where Karlis Rokpelnis is a PhD candidate in Ethnoecology.