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Facai kicks up a storm

By Mary Kwang, The Straits Times, 29 July 2000

BEIJING -- The hair-like facai kicked up a storm recently, creating havoc nationwide -- from Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Ningxia to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and as far as Hongkong and South-east Asia.

It started in spring when several serious sandstorms engulfed Beijing, reaching even Shanghai.

The authorities attributed the sandstorms to environmental damage in the west, notably land laid barren in vast stretches of Inner Mongolia. One cause of this damage is the wanton gathering of facai.

Early this month, the state council, China's Cabinet, slapped a ban on the foraging and distribution of three wild plants -- facai, liquorice and ephydra, grown in the country's dry western regions.

At the same time, the authorities prohibited the export of facai, a prized delicacy in southern China and Hongkong.

Liquorice is a key ingredient used in Chinese medicine such as cough mixtures. Ephydra is also used in medicine, such as to relieve asthma.

Facai grows mainly in the grasslands of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia.

Unfortunately, it grows on the roots of the grass.

To gather the moss, a collector has to rake the grass, in a combing action. The grass is uprooted from the soil, leaving the earth barren.

Experts have said that to gather 100 gm of the moss, two-thirds of a hectare is laid barren and would need 10 years for the grass to grow on it again.

The most seriously damaged area is western Inner Mongolia's Alxa region, 85 per cent of whose surface has become desert.

The winds whip up the exposed sand and blow it over areas to the south.

According to a China Economic Times report, peasants from other parts of China make 100,000 trips to the Alxa region each year to rake the moss.

The peasants, who make fortnightly forays into the area, used to operate in scattered bands of four or five.

Today, they are better organised and flock to the area in cars or tractors and in groups of several hundreds.

The hordes of facai collectors have been involved in confrontation with outnumbered local shepherds and law-enforcement officers who want them off the land. Such incidents have sometimes been fatal.

In Ningxia, the authorities have enforced the ban by closing down the region's biggest facai distribution centre in Tongxin on July 17.

The move is a major disruption to livelihood in the county, where 40,000 people eke a living from the facai trade. The ban has also affected traders in the regional capital, Yinchuan.

To alleviate their lot, the local government is encouraging the cultivation of the moss as opposed to the gathering of wild facai.

In Guangzhou, traders in the Yide Street Facai Market were in a selling frenzy at the beginning of the month, in a last gasp before the trade was banned there on July 14.

Buyers were out in big numbers to grab the last lots of facai before supply dried up.

Ever quick to beat adversity, though, enterprising Cantonese restaurants have concocted dishes with auspicious-sounding names but using other plants or vegetables.

Replacements include the lettuce or shengcai, which in Putonghua, means to grow riches.