Michelle Olsgard Stewart to Examine Rush for ‘Himalayan Gold’ in Tibetan China during UMass Amherst Lecture

Michelle Stewart

AMHERST, Mass. – Amherst College visiting professor Michelle Olsgard Stewart will present “The Rush for ‘Himalayan Gold’ in Tibetan China” on Tuesday, April 7 at 6:30 p.m. in the Student Union Ballroom as the 2015 Daffodil Lecturer on Sustainability and Environment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The event is free and open to the public.

In her lecture, Stewart will explain how during the past two decades, Chinese market demand for caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), a rare, wild-harvested fungus endemic to the high alpine grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau that is highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine – has soared to unprecedented rates. Stewart says this has led more Tibetans to “float” to the high mountains during the fungus’ short six-week fruiting season.

According to Stewart, Tibetans currently earn 40 to 80 percent of their annual cash income during the harvesting season, making caterpillar fungus the single most important sustainability issue for rural Tibetan livelihoods.

Drawing from years of fieldwork in harvesters’ camps and their villages in Tibetan Yunnan, this talk will discuss the social and ecological dimensions of caterpillar fungus production and governance in Tibetan China. With attention to the uneven power relations and social justice dimensions of contemporary China, Stewart will discuss what the sustainability of caterpillar fungus means and to whom.

Stewart is currently the Pick Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Amherst College. She has been conducting interdisciplinary research in Tibetan regions of China since 2007, and is now examining livelihoods, natural resource governance and land-use change in other Himalayan regions. Her research interests include the politics of development and environmental governance and expanded roles for local knowledge in international development and conservation schemes. 

She completed her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 2011-12, she was a doctoral fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Program of Science, Technology and Society for her research on caterpillar fungus.

The Daffodil Lecture on Sustainability and the Environment is supported by the Kathryn and Paul Williamson Lecture Series Fund and sponsored by the honor society of Phi Kappa Phi. The theme of the lecture reflects UMass Amherst’s leadership in green research and sustainability, including the development of biofuels and wind energy. The campus has earned recognition for its energy efficiency and green practices, including the 2014 Second Nature Climate Leadership Award for innovative and advanced leadership in education for sustainability and climate mitigation and adaptation.