Conservation and Society

: 2014  |  Volume : 12  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 398--407

Wild Commodities and Environmental Governance: Transforming Lives and Markets in China and Japan

Michael Hathaway 
 Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada

Correspondence Address:
Michael Hathaway
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC


This paper explores the relationship between forms of environmental governance and a transnational commodity chain for a wild mushroom that is picked in China and shipped to Japan. I argue that unlike some portrayals of environmental governance that largely assume a unified system working towards similar goals, governance comes from a number of sources and exhibits a range of forms, which at times overlap and contradict each other. In particular, this paper reflects on notions of commodification that are often argued to be part of neoliberal environmental governance. I show that diverse forms of environmental governance are shaping the texture of commodity chains, but not always working towards the overall increase in commodification. For example, in the last decade, the matsutake economy in China has been strongly influenced by several forms of environmental governance, such as a large-scale logging ban, the declaration of the matsutake as an endangered species, and its scrutiny in Japan as a potential object of contamination. I suggest that each of these forms of governance shapes the conditions of possibility and inflects the dynamics of this chain in different ways.

How to cite this article:
Hathaway M. Wild Commodities and Environmental Governance: Transforming Lives and Markets in China and Japan.Conservat Soc 2014;12:398-407

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Hathaway M. Wild Commodities and Environmental Governance: Transforming Lives and Markets in China and Japan. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2014 [cited 2020 Aug 11 ];12:398-407
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It is now well known that environmental governance is shaping everyday livelihoods around the world. I suggest, that although environmental governance is often viewed as fairly consistent, unified, and applied towards an over-arching goal, there are in fact diverse forms of governance, which operate with a multiplicity of aims, and often at cross-purposes. For example, diverse forms of environmental governance shape people's decisions over what animals to hunt in Papua New Guinea's upland villages, how to accommodate new corporate environmental rules in Manhattan's boardrooms, and how to craft international environmental protocols in Geneva's convention centres. This paper explores how several forms of environmental governance are shaping and reconfiguring transnational commodity chains built around a valuable species of wild mushroom. It focuses on three main forms of governance that play a strong role in shaping this mushroom economy-a massive logging ban in China in the heart of this mushroom's habitat, new regulations around food safety and pesticide contamination, and its recent status as an endangered species. Looking at governance with such a broad ambit allows us to see multiple forces at work.

This mushroom, known as the matsutake in Japanese and song rong in Mandarin Chinese, is gathered in China and shipped fresh to Japan every day during its brief season each fall. I draw on ethnographic fieldwork in Japan and southwest China from 2003-2013, following the mushroom from high mountain passes on the Tibetan Plateau, to massive airport warehouses in Kunming, China, to grocery stores in Kyoto, Japan. Through interviews and archives, I trace this trade from its origins in the early 1980s when it was only known locally and had little value, into its current position as southwest China's major export crop, which employs well over half a million people. The vast majority of those involved in the trade are mushroom pickers-they are almost all farmers and yak pastoralists living in remote villages and have few other options to earn money.

A close look at this trade and the regulations built around it provides a different picture than suggested by some scholarship on environmental governance. Such scholarship often asserts that environmental governance is increasingly "neoliberal." This term is often left unspecified, as if its meaning was self-evident, but when described, many scholars agree with some of these dynamics-"the roll back of states coupled with a roll forward of new forms of regulation to facilitate private interests, the expansion of market-based mechanisms to new natural resources such as water and genetic material, as well as the privatisation of public services" (Gupta and Sharma 2006; Duffy and Moore 2010: 744). This body of literature, what some refer to as studies of "neoliberal nature," offers a broad range of insights into the rapid reconfiguration of the natural world. Although dominated by geographers, anthropologists have also contributed to a wealth of studies, ranging from the ways that forms of biodiversity conservation are being reconfigured (i.e., such as promoting ecotourism, non-timber forest products, and other market linkages to conservation) to studying how new objects (such as carbon credits and ecosystem services) are changing the relationships between capital, land, air, water, as well as humans and other species (Igoe and Brockington 2007; Igoe 2010; Brondo and Bown 2011; Dressler and Roth 2011).

While these studies draw attention to important features of the changing face of nature in the twenty-first century, there is a growing sense of unease about some of these claims, as well as how neoliberalism writ large has been conceptualised (Brenner and Theodore 2002; Mansfield 2004; McCarthy and Prudham 2004; Kipnis 2008; Castree 2008a). This paper draws on, and contributes to, calls for scholarship on neoliberal nature that avoid reifying neoliberalism and "ascrib[ing] it a greater level of coherence and dominance than it really deserves" (Duffy and Moore 2010: 744). I agree with Karen Bakker΄s claim that "scholars often use the term ΄neoliberalism΄ (or cognate terms, such as ΄privatization΄) in a variety of ill-defined, often conflated ways, often implicitly assuming that neoliberalism is hegemonic in effect (and, at times, monolithic in form)"(2010: 725; also Castree 2008b). Despite such cautions, much scholarship on neoliberal nature largely accepts, rather than explores, dominant notions of neoliberalism (Sullivan 2006; Castree 2010; Büscher et al. 2012).

This paper contributes to such studies by exploring one frequently made assertion-that neoliberal environmental governance facilitates the commodification of nature. This assertion, that commodification or marketisation 1 is growing apace, is not limited to studies of environmental governance; it mirrors the widespread notion that capitalism itself is paradoxically all-pervasive and yet ever-expanding (Gibson-Graham 1996). 2

The expansion of commodity chains for matsutake mushrooms could easily be seen as an example of how environmental governance facilitates commodification. However, I argue that divergent forms of environmental governance do not always work together, but are often piecemeal, overlapping, and often conflicting. For matsutake, as well as for many other commodities, some forms of governance may facilitate commodification, but others work against it. Overall, because governance is multiple and intersects in changing ways, its overall effects over time are not fully predictable.

Some scholars argue that many studies of neoliberal nature use a nature-as-resource model, rather than view nature-as-subject, and the former view tends towards a totalising account (Braun 2008; Bakker 2010). 3 They recommend, instead, a consideration of non-human agency-exploring how an object's actions or material specificities influence human efforts. I build on their efforts, and apply another vantage that helps us appreciate the existence of social networks that engage with the mushroom. Specifically, I use the notion of a "boundary object," a concept mainly used in studies of science, technology and society (Star and Griesemer 1989; Star 2010). As I will explain in more detail, a boundary object, which is constituted through its use by multiple groups, is not only a thing with a "social life" (Appadurai 1986), but something with several lives and social roles. By studying this wild mushroom as a boundary object, I show how concerns by multiple groups (such as Japanese officials promoting food safety, Chinese exporters trying to protect their market, Chinese scientists concerned about species endangeredness, and pickers trying to make a living) reshape the lives of this commodity. I also examine how such groups encounter each other in a particular historical context, such as China's path of agricultural development and land tenure reforms, and a legacy of antagonistic relations between China and Japan. Such relations and histories often reduce profitability, hamper trade, or produce additional red tape.

In the following pages, I first explain the concept of a boundary object in more detail and show how matsutake became such an object. I argue that its role was due to some of its own intrinsic characteristics, as well as influences from three major events, among others. These events, which happened during the 2000s, include a wide-scale logging ban issued by the Chinese government, the declaration that matsutake was an "endangered species," and the discovery in 2002 that a shipment of matsutake from China was found to be contaminated with pesticides, which led to increasing vigilance by Japanese importers.

Matsutake as a boundary object

In Yunnan, as in a handful of places around the world, matsutake have become a boundary object-that is, an object that inspires attention from a number of groups who understand and engage with it (Star and Griesemer 1989; Star 2010). Susan Leigh Star's notion of a boundary object is rich and complex, but in this essay I focus only on several aspects that are most germane to my argument. The notion of a boundary object helps us to understand the social and historical processes by which networks of differently located groups-what Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer refer to as "communities of practice"-work with and around particular objects. As Star later emphasised, boundary objects "allow different groups to work together without consensus" (2010: 602) and doesn't presume that all human actors share the same understandings of the object, or the same goals.

While the scholars Igor Kopytoff (1986) and Arjun Appadurai (1986) have insightfully shown us how things have "social lives," the notion of boundary objects emphasises how these social lives are multiple. Most analyses of commodity chains use a political economic frame, which leads to a nature-as-resource model (Bakker 2010) and tends to only include actors directly participating in the cash nexus (i.e., pickers, dealers, and consumers). A boundary object approach, on the other hand, widens the scope of inquiry to include: 1) a wider range of groups engaging with the object beyond direct economic players and 2) non-human actors (Braum 2008). When we explore the many groups connected to matsutake, we gain a more comprehensive understanding of the diverse, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting forms of environmental governance that are a feature of the contemporary era.

Although matsutake first emerged as a boundary object because it was a highly desired and valued commodity, it has become much more than a mere commodity. Like wild and farmed shrimp or salmon, it is now enmeshed in networks and debates around environmental governance (Vandergeest 2007; Hébert 2010). Unlike farmed shrimp or salmon, however matsutake has never been successfully domesticated or grown in the laboratory, despite decades of strenuous efforts. As I later discuss, especially outside of Japan, matsutake is often seen as "wild," something that grows in forests by itself; it has now become an object of forest policy and conservation interest in the USA as well as Japan, Canada, and China (Tsing and Satsuka 2008; Choy et al. 2009; Hathaway 2014). In Yunnan, matsutake has become an especially important object in debates around land tenure, sustainability, and forest management.

As a commodity, matsutake is quite interesting in part because its own characteristics deviate from our typical understandings of either agricultural or industrial goods (Benton 1989). Unlike agricultural crops that require much human labour to produce-including the massive initial labour in creating agricultural infrastructure such as draining and flattening land, removing rocks and trees, as well as the annual labour of planting seeds, irrigating, weeding, and dealing with pests-matsutake can grow without intentional human effort. Trees are another important commodity that also grow largely on their own accord but, unlike matsutake they are easy to see and persistent over long periods of time. Matsutake are difficult to monitor; they often grow invisibly under a layer of forest duff, appear and disappear rapidly (in a matter of weeks). Matsutake often grow in places with relatively low levels of human population so many are unknown to humans and never become a commodity during their lifetime. Even when humans are aware of them, turning them into commodities is difficult. As for agricultural products, constructing commodity chains for matsutake requires daily work, coordination, and social relationships-a commodity chain is not made by one person (Tsing 2005).

A boundary object approach may also explore the material properties of the object itself. Yet, because objects may be used differently by various groups, these material properties are not seen as fixed, but shaped through relationships with other actors. For example, just as petroleum's qualities change through processing, matsutake's properties change under refrigeration or storage in large batches. Because the Japanese demand their matsutake to be fresh and not frozen or dried, matsutake's material qualities create particular challenges, as they are extremely fragile and already contain small insects that are eating away at them and cause the flesh to spoil. These mushrooms are gathered in remote areas of China, far from airports. Although studies of commodity chains often suggest that humans have conquered many problems through refrigeration (Simonsen 2005; Rees 2013), the matsutake economy exceeds such assertions of control.

As I will show later in the article, the particular histories between China and Japan also condition this exchange. There are also ramifications from the fact that Japan is the global centre and one of the only recipients of the world's matsutake economy. In contrast, many transnational commodity chains are built around commodities such as oil, steel, and timber that are desired in every country. The commodity chain built around matsutake is more like a singular wheel, with spokes in over a dozen countries sending mushrooms to an import hub in Japan. As the global import market is almost completely monopolised by Japan, it means that Japanese consumers, officials, and dealers have a powerful and disproportionate ability to control prices and determine the importability of these mushrooms. This global network itself is quite young, for before the 1970s almost all of Japanese demand was satisfied by domestic production, but at that time, Japanese dealers began to search out new markets, including Yunnan.

 Changing Forms of Environmental Governance in China, 1960-2010

The commodification of fresh-shipped matsutake in Yunnan was contingent on changing forms of environmental governance, especially some major shifts that started taking place in the 1980s. During the era of Mao Zedong's leadership, from 1949 to 1976, China rapidly expanded efforts to discover and exploit natural resources. It is important to recognise that before the Mao era-based in Beijing in eastern China-much of western China was relatively unknown and inaccessible. Massive teams were sent to survey and build an infrastructure of roads, saw-mills, and mines, thus turning many of China's existing landscapes into natural resources (Kinzley 2012). Efforts to increase timber and minerals, however, were dwarfed by the nationwide interest in expanding agriculture, to fill national granaries and recover from a widespread famine during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Officials used militaristic mass-action campaigns, encouraging the rural population to build, terrace, and irrigate agricultural fields in heroic feats of effort (Shapiro 2001).

By the 1980s, however, what some Chinese scientists described as "environmental winds" started to blow (Hathaway 2013). These winds referred to a new sensibility and series of practices that included policies aiming to reduce pollution, protect wildlife, and create nature reserves. The environmental winds led to significant transformations in the relationships between humans and nature; for example, whereas clearing trees to expand agriculture had previously been regarded as improving the land-making it more productive-this was now viewed as deforestation, potentially causing increased flooding or other problems. The effects of these winds were uneven. Certain areas and ecosystems, such as the tropical rainforests in southern Yunnan, were considered especially valuable, and a number of domestic and international conservation projects were carried out there to relocate rural citizens from nature reserves, ban hunting, and eliminate swidden agriculture. In the high altitude uplands of northern Yunnan, in contrast, there was little domestic or international interest in conservation until the 1990s. At this time, matsutake was increasingly recognised as one of northern Yunnan's more valuable export products and this area became known as China's main matsutake production area, yet the matsutake economy itself was still dwarfed by logging revenues. This changed after a catastrophic flood prompted a new campaign to protect these upland watersheds, which brought about significant social and ecological transformations.

In 1997, the Yangtze River flooded its banks, affecting more than 200 million people and causing massive property damage. The following year, in response, the Chinese government instituted a far-reaching campaign to stop logging in the upper watershed of the Yangtze River, ban agriculture on lands steeper than 25 degrees, reduce grazing, and plant trees on this land. This was the world's largest logging ban, but it was not novel. Logging bans, which can be seen as a social technology, had already been implemented by some of China's neighbours, including Nepal and Thailand. The bans spread between countries despite scholarly evidence in adjacent Himalayan areas, such as Nepal, that floods were caused more by geological conditions than the actions of local farmers and herders (Ives and Messerli 1989; Guthman 1997; Blaikie and Muldavin 2004).

The ban represented a notable change in China's approach to environmental governance in several ways. First, the ban was a novel large-scale project that aimed to replace economic production with ecological protection. It was China's first major attempt to reduce agriculture, especially notable after five decades of campaigns to expand crop acreage, including at the expense of forests. Although governments in countries such as Canada and the USA have long tried to reduce crop acreage, usually to increase grain prices by reducing supply, such agricultural restrictions were unprecedented in China where the regulations were not based on the manipulation of grain prices, but on ecological criteria, specifically the fear of downstream flooding. Second, previous governmental directives were always contained within political boundaries, such as provincial or urban boundaries. Now, however, for the first time the central government created forms of territorialisation based on watershed boundaries, thereby following ecological, not political, criteria.

Some commentators have seen the logging ban as showing a paradigm shift from China's "war against nature" (Shapiro 2001) during the Mao era (1949-1978) to "waking up to the environment" (Lang 2002). Although the ban is significant, it also draws on earlier large-scale precedents to manage the environment (Perdue 1987; Elvin 2004; Marks 2012). In contemporary popular and academic literature, China has often been portrayed as the "Bad Earth," a place of ecological degradation where environmental concern is relatively absent (Smil 1993; Economy 2004). Yet, it should be remembered that, especially from the 1950s through the 1980s, China was well-regarded by several international organisations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a global model for ecological pest control, wide-scale water and soil conservation, and tree-planting (Richardson 1990; Schmalzer 2009). In some ways, then, the tenor of the logging ban as a sweeping campaign enjoining people to plant trees to help conserve soil and water, resonates with many earlier projects in China's often now-forgotten recent past.

The logging ban's stimulus to the matsutake economy

Northern Yunnan, China's main site for matsutake, was deeply affected by the logging ban. Around the time of the ban, in the late 1980s, the matsutake market had been slowly expanding, but it remained relatively insignificant compared to other sources of income such as logging. In some locales, forestry provided over 90% of local government revenues. The ban, by shutting down state-supported sawmills, lead to a rapid drop in logging, thus largely de-commodifying standing trees as lumber. 4 Yet, it also triggered a scramble by members of the local government, as well as local citizens, to find new possibilities that could substitute for lumber revenues, including trying to profit from recently established forms of ethnic tourism and the matsutake economy. The logging ban, therefore, led to a decrease in the commodification of trees and an increase in the commodification of mushrooms, and in particular an increased interest in matsutake. This mushroom became part of governmental plans at multiple scales-making it into a boundary object, of interest to officials, pickers, dealers, conservationists, and others.

In the late 1990s, transnational environmental organisations, such as The Nature Conservancy came to China, and joined the World Wildlife Fund in Northwest Yunnan. These non-governmental organisations (NGOs) took advantage of the difficulties created by the logging ban to initiate new projects. Their promotion of matsutake harvesting as an alternative to logging might look like a project of neoliberal environmentalism that strives to increase commodification, but these groups also worried about its ecological sustainability. Pickers and dealers had known that many of the matsutake were harvested quite young, at a stage referred to as "buttons." Matsutake only grow in very particular settings, and are not evenly dispersed, and so pickers tend to congregate in these settings. As many pickers walk over the same area, they would pick the small ones, because they knew that others would do the same. In the late 1990s, the button harvest attracted the attention of NGO staff and local officials who were increasingly concerned about the mushroom's economic and ecological sustainability.

Conservationists expressed concern about harvesting the buttons in terms of biological conservation-they worried that harvest levels might be decreasing the available stock, and that if picked immature there would be no spores to germinate for subsequent crops. Officials and pickers mainly saw this as a problem of lost revenue, as these small mushrooms might weigh only one fifth as much as a mature specimen. Japanese didn't want buttons, and so dealers started building a domestic market for them, but only offered a low price. As the mushrooms were sold by weight, so those left to grow in the ground could generate more wealth, providing they were picked before the became overly mature. Whereas in the initial harvests, there were less pickers in the forest so that more mushrooms would mature, by the late 1990s increasing numbers of pickers meant that some pickers, dealers, officials, and conservationists began to invoke the concept made famous by Garret Hardin-the "tragedy of the commons" (1968). Many others disagreed with this concept, however, but the "matsutake wars" (Yeh 2000) stimulated new interests and claims around property and property rights in places where the matsutake grew abundantly.

Thus, as a boundary object, matsutake gained attention as one of the key examples through which to confront problems of ecological sustainability, economic development, and social equity in northern Yunnan. Matsutake elicited the attention of foreign and domestic social scientists, such as Brian Robinson, a rural economy PhD candidate from the University of Madison at Wisconsin, who came to Yunnan to conduct field research on matsutake as an example of a common property resource (2012). He worked with a group of Yunnan-based social scientists that travelled throughout Yunnan to document tenure arrangements built around matsutake, and to evaluate how these arrangements influenced total income generation and social equity (Yang et al. 2009). The social scientists could not necessarily impose their favoured arrangement on existing social groups (which mainly consisted of people from one to three villages), but their findings were sent to other experts who worked with village groups, in part through a promotional DVD that described these arrangements. Thus, matsutake is coming to play a key role as a boundary object that is opening up discussions and debates, as well as social changes in terms of land tenure, social equity, and more recently, nature conservation.

Matsutake as an endangered species

At the same time, several Chinese scientists and officials created another overarching form of governance; in a surprising move, China declared the matsutake an endangered species in 2008, making it one of the world's first mushrooms listed as endangered. This designation is part of a broader trend in environmental governance throughout Asia and the world. In the last 20 years, many wild plants-especially those like the matsutake that are intensively gathered for global markets as medicines and food (Larsen and Olsen 2007)-have been subjected to new environmental attention, with a proliferation of studies, organisations, and policies aimed at their conservation. Yet few of these plants have gained as much attention as the matsutake. The endangered designation linked matsutake to a set of international regulations outlined in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which was signed by China and more than 100 other countries that agree to control the global trade of endangered plants and animals. It is important to note that the Chinese government created this designation-it was not imposed on China by the CITES committee. China's pro-active role was particularly surprising given that only 6 years earlier, in 2002, China, along with Japan, had rejected a proposal by other countries to include any species of fungus on the list of endangered species (Thomas 2005). At that time, China and Japan argued that fungus cannot be threatened by human harvest, or at least such threats could not be conclusively substantiated. Japan's 2002 argument to reject fungus as potentially endangered was not surprising, for although they signed the CITES convention, Japanese officials have long reacted defensively against international criticism of Japan's consumption of elephant ivory and whale meat, two prominent examples of CITES-designated endangered species (Fisher 2004; Sky 2009; Blok 2011).

According to David Favre (1993), a scholar of CITES regulations, national delegates debate what species should be added or removed from the list of globally tradable species, and over time the burden of evidence has shifted. Previously, CITES committees demanded conclusive evidence that a species was threatened by trade; more recently, however, there is more emphasis is on showing that a species is not threatened by trade. Delegates have also demanded more reliable information on the existing species population and annual levels of trade-statistics that are often less than reliable.

Creating reliable statistics has proven even more difficult for mushrooms than plants or animals-specifically in terms of tracking their population levels and rates of reproduction. In some circumstances, the underground part of the fungus, the mycelium, can survive for decades, growing year to year until some sequence of events triggers its fruiting, which renders it visible to humans and others that seek it out, such as deer, wild pigs, and insects. 5 The matsutake's life history, wherein the vast majority of living fungus components exist as either underground, invisible mycelia or as not-easily-detected spores that are carried by the winds, renders it quite difficult to get a firm grasp of population estimates. Some researchers challenge China's designation of matsutake as endangered, suggesting that there is insufficient evidence (Arora 2008; Menzies and Li 2010). David Arora (2008)-a prominent American mycologist who was part of a group that fought against listing the matsutake as endangered in the USA and who conducts research on matsutake in China-argues that there is little evidence in either country to support claims that the species is threatened (Pencall 2000).

Nonetheless, China succeeded in listing the matsutake as endangered, and this status, in turn, served to further stimulate governmental and scientific interest in ever-expanding networks of those who study, monitor, and manage this mushroom (Yang et al. 2008; Yang et al. 2009). Contrary to common understanding, when a species is listed as endangered, it is not necessarily excluded from trade. In fact for some species, such listing increases their value as they become more difficult to acquire through legal channels. In the case of matsutake, instead of reducing its export, the endangered status pulled it into new realms of bureaucracy that increasingly monitor and manage its trade. 6 Yet in contrast to some assertions by Foucauldian-inspired scholarship, we should not assume that such regulations are always enforced or such sensibilities internalised (Cepek 2011). Even if the state attempts to regulate and enhance the flows of matsutake, officials face strong limits to what is possible, especially in terms of the domestic market, where the trade is widely dispersed and informal.

One of several CITES-based rulings that affect the flow of matsutake trade has been a rule about the minimum size of the mushroom required for export. As evident in Kunming's markets, however, these smaller buttons are still gathered, but they are part of the domestic market, which is not regulated by CITES. Dealers, in connection with restaurant owners and chefs, have actively promoted expanding domestic interest in the matsutake, which until recently were only rarely traded. Due to their efforts, demand is actively growing in Chinese cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. Some dealers described how they were working to create new culinary practices linked to certain holidays, such as the Chinese New Year. One dealer showed me a packaged bag of small frozen matsutake for use in hot pots, a relatively new style of eating from Taiwan that has become associated with festive occasions in mainland China. Freezing the small mushrooms is an innovation, but has few potential markets in Japan; it represents a response to pickers' actions as well as dealers' efforts to negotiate the precarity of Japanese markets.

Matsutake as a potential source of contamination

Even though China's domestic market is increasing, it is still very small compared to the export market, almost exclusively for Japan, which is haunted by a fear that the mushrooms may be contaminated by toxins. In 2002, Japanese customs officials discovered pesticides on Chinese matsutake and banned them for the rest of the year. Pickers and especially dealers were left with thousands of pounds of mushrooms that rotted, and they lost millions of dollars. These groups now fear that this could happen again, with consequences that might be even more severe-Japan could permanently ban Chinese matsutake since it now receives the mushrooms from numerous other countries.

In turn, such events foster greater scrutiny, not only in terms of stricter standards, but also the creation of new forms of knowledge and fears around food purity. Food is now tested at not just one but several points along the commodity chain. Previously, toxin detection was only conducted at Japan ports of entry. Yet recently, Chinese export companies hope to eliminate contaminated batches before they leave China, as any such batches will likely trigger an embargo if they reach Japan. Chinese companies have purchased their own machines. At first, these were simple metal detectors to find small iron spikes inserted in the matsutake by pickers and dealers to increase the weight. The spiked mushrooms could be reliably detected and either destroyed or removed. The machines to detect pesticide contamination, however, are quite expensive and difficult to operate, requiring trained technicians. Only a relatively small amount of each shipment is sampled, as the process is time-consuming. As Japan changes its standards in Kyoto and Tokyo, Chinese companies must also recalibrate their machines to meet Japan's standards.

Scholars have looked at how standards, often embodied as deceitfully simple numbers, play a substantial yet often unacknowledged role in structuring the social relations of production and distribution (Dunn 2008; Timmermans and Epstein 2010). In the case of the matsutake, standards refer to acceptable levels of contamination, measured in parts per million. Some Chinese dealers, challenge these standards in two ways even though they have to abide by them. First, they argue that because matsutake is classified as a wild product, a forest-dwelling organism that should be pure, this results in standards that are too demanding. 7 They point out that standards for many cultivated crops, such as fresh green onions, are much looser, and say that matsutake should be considered agricultural, not wild. Some dealers suggest that China's particular legacy of land use makes it harder for their matsutake to be so pure. They point that matsutake forests in Japan, Canada, or the USA tend to be large and contiguous areas, relatively isolated from crops, so it is easy for these places to be safe from chemical sprays. The pattern of land use, however, means that Chinese matsutake forests exist in a complex mosaic with agricultural fields. Thus there is a greater chance of cross-contamination in China, as sprays from nearby fields may enter forest patches.

Secondly, and I think more persuasively, Chinese dealers say that Japanese standards are not really standard. The notion of standards implies a sense of universality and consistency, and yet Japan has created higher standards of purity for China than for other countries, even for the same product. Japanese suspicion of Chinese contamination, they say, leads Japan to create the ironic dilemma of crafting nationally specific numbers for a standard that is ostensibly universal. Japanese importers both agree and disagree. They agree that there is more scrutiny of Chinese produce, but suggest that because China is the source of much of the contamination, it makes sense to hold it to higher standards. In one highly publicised event, known in Japan as the "poison dumpling case" of 2008, Chinese dumplings seriously sickened ten Japanese consumers, triggering a decrease in food imports from China. Japanese regulators refer to this incident to support their position that standards should be created nationally based on historical precedent, and not set universally. Ty# Thus, the global matsutake trade is not only structured by differential qualities and pricing, but also shaped by specific social configurations that emerged from particular histories.

In this case, historical relations between China and Japan could be described as "intimate antagonism." For decades during the Mao era, Japan was China's most important trading partner, and in the 2000s, Japan was China's most important partner and China is Japan's second most important (Yoshimatsu 2002). Such links were especially important during the 1950s and 1960s when much of the world abided by a trade embargo against China, sponsored by the United Nations and USA, so Japanese trade was especially valued. Thus, China really relied on Japanese trade for some time to gain access to foreign currency and goods that were otherwise difficult to obtain. Japan was also the largest provider of international aid to China into the 1980s. Yet such intimate connections were not widely known by the general populace, as such information was largely kept within elite political circles, in part because of China's nationalistic pride in its capacity for self-sufficiency and in part because of its history of antagonism towards Japan (Muldavin 2000). The memory of Japan's invasion of China during the 1930s is widely held and strongly felt in the contemporary period. In particular, Japan's "Rape of Nanjing" starting in 1937 is frequently referred to and seen as evidence that the Japanese were especially harsh and violent towards the Chinese, as compared to other nationalities (Coble 2007).

Such feelings of lingering antagonism emerge in several ways when Chinese pickers and dealers talk about Japan. Some dealers are suspicious of Japan's claims that some of China's mushrooms were contaminated, arguing that because Japan can purchase matsutake from so many countries, they may claim contamination as a way to manipulate global markets, as they are not required to produce evidence for their claims. Some pickers say that they feel differently about the mushrooms they collect because they know they will be eaten by Japanese. Exporting agents worry that pickers' antagonism against Japanese might have led pickers to increase efforts to adulterate matsutake, such as the use of iron slivers to increase the weight; but they have not seen this as maliciously intended, more as a way to increase profit. Regardless of their own theories of Japan's intentions and practices, these Yunnan-based exporting companies have formed an association, which are now trying even harder to abide by Japan's rules. They are currently working to restore Yunnan's reputation, in relationship to other areas of China and other countries, as a mark of purity.

The matsutake association has pursued several strategies. The group is trying to encourage more people to pick matsutake and find ways that might increase the yields. One recent workshop, facilitated by the consortium, was organised mainly to host the world's most influential matsutake populariser, Dr. Fumihiko Yoshimura, a charismatic Japanese scientist. Previously, the consortium had translated, from Japanese to Chinese, one of Yoshimura's books on creating what he calls "matsutake orchards"-based on his own methods of promoting the growth of matsutake. In contrast to the belief of most forest scientists in the USA and China that matsutake is a wild species, and only really harmed by human actions, Yoshimura draws on the larger Japanese belief that abundant matsutake mountains are fostered through human actions, such as removing forest duff (i.e., leaves and pine needles) and thinning deciduous trees from the forest. The matsutake association printed hundreds of copies of Yoshimura's translated book, and sent them to the province's top matsutake producing areas, with the hopes that officials, extension agents, and villagers would start to enhance matsutake production. They have also been working on trying to increase awareness about the dangers of contamination. Towards this aim, the association designed and produced thousands of special matsutake picking bags. Their notion was that if they could get pickers to use special bags only for collecting matsutake, and not for vegetables or agricultural chemicals, they could keep the matsutake pure. Pickers welcomed the bags as a gift, but found they quickly wore out, as the material and sewing was not nearly as strong as their bags fashioned from chemical fertiliser sacks or stout cloth, so the organisation has not been able to enforce the bag mandate. In part, such actions are regarded with scepticism by many rural citizens, who are well familiar with a long history of quickly changing laws and sporadic, often fleeting enforcement. In response, the provincial matsutake organisation has been funding more work on other means of creating traceability, looking into the possibility of using DNA to be able to create more accountability and trace the source of the contaminated mushrooms. Despite many efforts in both China and Japan to discover such means of creating a system of "DNA fingerprinting"-linking a mushroom to a particular place of origin, it remains a daunting challenge, as often dozens or even hundreds of pickers gather in the same location. As Tania Li argues, attempts at rule and improvement are constantly undermined by compromise and failure, nonetheless they continue (Li 2007).


The matsutake economy has been shaped by, and is shaping, a number of forms of environmental governance. Its existence as a highly valued commodity means that it has gained more attention and more forms of intervention than any other species of mushroom in China. This is true even though wild mushrooms are quite popular in China and domestic sales of wild mushrooms other than matsutake are still much bigger than China's matsutake exports (Stark et al. 2008). As an internationally circulating object, but one that travels almost exclusively to Japan, the matsutake is shaped in multiple ways by differing groups with differing goals. Japan is attempting to enforce new forms of governance in the form of standards. In the current configuration, any batch of matsutake from Yunnan could result in a total ban from the entire province-what Chinese and Japanese dealers see as an overly general response. Instead, they are working together and with scientists to come up with ways to trace the commodity chain in more specific ways. For example, if Japanese and Chinese scientists are successful in creating DNA-based tracers that will allow them to track a shipment to its place of origin, it might help create different regimes of responsibility, so that a whole province is not banned because of one incident in one locality. DNA testing could make blame and consequences more localised. At present, the 600,000 people who make up the matsutake industry in Yunnan rely quite heavily on Japan for their market. While Japan doesn't rely exclusively on China, it now receives the bulk of its mushrooms from China, with the vast majority of these coming from Yunnan (Menzies and Li 2010). There are thus uneven relations of dependence and connections.

Through scientists' efforts, as well as great commercial interest, matsutake is becoming an increasingly important boundary object, as conservationists, scientists, pickers, dealers, and others engage in multiple and sometimes conflicting attempts at governance. We are not seeing the extension of a clear and unitary form of environmental governance that is producing the same kinds of neoliberal outcomes, such as a uniform increase in the commodification of nature. Rather, based on a range of concerns including purity, endangeredness, and sustainability, we can see how the communities of practice that are organised around the mushroom are growing and that modalities aimed at managing it are proliferating with uneven and unpredictable consequences.


For a thoughtful study that distinguishes these two concepts through a study of efforts to privatise water, see Bakker (2003).This belief, called the "commodification thesis" (Williams 2004) or "commodification hypothesis" (Hoeyer 2007), is widespread. Williams (2004) quotes a number of scholars, including Byrne et al. (1998); Rifkin (2000); Carruthers and Babb (2000); Gough (2000); Thrift (2000); Ciscel and Heath (2001); Gudeman (2001); and Slater and Tonkiss (2001), among others. For example, Williams quotes Watts' declaration that "commodification is not complete… the reality of capitalism is that ever more of social life is mediated through and by the market" (1999: 312). The scholar of biomedicine Hoeyer (2007), finds the concept of commodification frequently invoked, and almost never challenged, as does a scholar of sport (Moor 2007). For a fuller discussion of the debate see Carvalho and Rodrigues (2008) and Seale et al. (2006).For example, such a nature-as-resource perspective dominates two influential anthologies, Privatization: property and the remaking of nature-society relations (Mansfield 2009) and Neoliberal environments (Heynen et al. 2007), with several exceptions, such as a chapter by Paul Robbins and April Luginbuhl (2007).It should be noted, however, that locally the ban might have increased the amount of "black market" logging, but overall the ban did result in much less logging within the prescribed area. Nationally, this ban did not decrease the amount of lumber China used, but it shifted its imports from other places, mainly from abroad (Pomfret 2001).This hints at the ways that questions of both multispecies relationships (thus opening up the notion of boundary objects to include more non-human actors), and nonhuman agency might also lead to a richer sense of matsutake's place in the world. For example, unlike seed trees, which may create fairly heavy seed clusters-pine cones, for example, can only travel for short distances by wind and gravity-mushroom release spores, which are somewhat different than seeds. Spores can travel vast distances by wind, much farther than most plant seeds. Living spores have been found under extreme conditions, including over 30,000 feet in height in and above the jet stream, where it is estimated that they could travel over 8,000 miles in one week, landing in another hemisphere ( Accessed March 3, 2013). Thus, it is not the agency of the spores in and of themselves that makes them fly, but the presence of air, a particular degree of gravity, and the vagaries of winds that helps them spread around the world.Some scientists in Kunming interpreted the move to list matsutake as an endangered species as part of a struggle among different levels of the government to tax and manage these profitable markets. CITES is controlled by the national level agencies, though there may be a notable level of discretion available to officials at the regional center in Kunming. Provincial authorities are able to tax the trade, mainly by controlling its export at the airports (and particularly for those mushrooms sent to Japan, as international shipping is more closely monitored and regulated). At township and county levels, officials are both trying to tax the matsutake, mainly through the creation of regional marketplaces, but they are also trying to encourage its expansion, as this may now play a significant role in its local economy, whereas at the provincial and national level, matsutake incomes make up a very small contribution. There is a burgeoning market for organic produce (especially tea and vegetables) in China, mainly for export but also for domestic sales (Klein 2009). Yet, in most cases wild products like matsutake have not been pulled into this distinction of "conventional" and "organic." I assume that if matsutake is cultivated, it will quickly be divided into these two categories. Conventional agriculture implies the deliberate use of pesticides, whereas the idea of wild foods is that they should never have contact with any human-based pesticides or chemical fertilisers (Stark et al. 2008). For cultivated mushrooms, some Chinese dealers have attained organic status from organisations such as Institute for Marketecology, based in Switzerland, but they have not done so for wild mushrooms. In Japan, I have never seen organic matsutake advertised, the assumption is that they are all organic, and this is regulated by the national standards, not by each company, as compared to cultivated vegetables. Thus if such a division is used in Japan, any matsutake labeled as "conventional" would be likely rejected, or at least heavily stigmatised. Japanese dealers believe that the pesticide problem is mainly a Chinese issue, and because many countries export matsutake, it would likely create a particular challenge for the China-Japan link, giving other countries a comparative advantage[86].


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