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Scorpion venom a lucrative weapon

By Satarupa Bhattacharjya | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-04-07 07:27

Residents of a rural pocket in southern China breed scorpions for venom prized in TCM

Amid the green vegetation on the outskirts of a small town in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, a dirt track leads to a village in a valley molded by karst geology.

The Yao ethnic group is the dominant population in Nongjing and a few neighboring villages, three hours or so by road from Nanning, the autonomous region's capital.

While much of southern China is associated with affluence, some of its rural pockets have yet to ascend the development graph. In Guangxi, 3.41 million people continue to live below the poverty line, which is drawn at an annual household income of 2,300 yuan ($334; 312 euros; 267).

 Scorpion venom a lucrative weapon

A view of Nongjing village, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. Photos by Zhang Li / China Daily

 Scorpion venom a lucrative weapon

Left: Tang Xiumei, who works at an orange orchard in Duyang town, says she finds watering plants easier than her previous factory work. Right: An employee of a Guangxi-based company at a drilling site.

Nationwide, under the current poverty standard, which was set in 2010, 43.35 million fall below the line.

But Nongjing has found a novel way to raise its standard of living - scorpion farming - mainly to supply venom for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

The village's scorpion farm, which was established in September with 1 million yuan in government funding, now employs 10 locals full-time and several others part-time, including four women, says Qiu Xiaojun, a 34-year-old civil servant. He has been assigned by the Guangxi government to oversee daily operations.

"Once trained, a person can earn between 2,000 and 3,000 yuan a month here," Qiu says. "We are providing the villagers with an income source as well as technical knowledge they can use to set up their own businesses in future."

More than 2,000 people live in 10 villages in the vicinity. The residents raise pigs or poultry and grow corn, all mostly for personal consumption, as the remote location limits access to outside markets. The karst topography limits farming. Groundwater is scarce.

In Nongjing, the Manchurian scorpion - Mesobuthus martensii - is one of the main varieties bred artificially. Found in China and other parts of East Asia, where moisture levels are sufficient, a full-grown arachnid can be 2 to 6 centimeters long and has sharp pincers and a deadly telson, or tail tip.

A female is usually larger than a male, and natural breeding can take two years. But the process is completed in only a few months at the Nongjing village farm.

Qiu says the farm expects to earn more than 1.5 million yuan from sales this year. The current market price for a kilogram of scorpions is 930 yuan. Nongjing is working to meet demand in Guangdong, Henan and Shangdong provinces, where the bulk of the arachnids will be sold for pharmaceutical purposes.

Scorpion toxins are used in traditional Chinese medicine to "smooth the flow of blood in the human body". The arachnid is also eaten as a snack.

"The community is working together on this project," says Lan Tianting, 25, whose one job is to segregate female and male scorpions. "We want to build a brand around it."

As China seeks, by 2020, to end the worst poverty nationwide, such projects are expected to help the poor, not only through short-term earnings but by building entrepreneurial skills for ongoing use.

In March, the central government's work report said 12.4 million had been lifted out of poverty last year. Financial aid for poverty reduction programs has exceeded 100 billion yuan.

Scorpion venom a lucrative weapon

Hu Angang, an influential economist from Tsinghua University, says China is meeting poverty reduction targets ahead of the schedule provided in its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20). He predicts that by the end of the decade, households in the country will be identified for assistance on the basis of their minimum insurance coverage.

Scorpion sex-identifier Lan says he returned in hope of improved local employment. Most of his peers work outside Dahua county, where the village is located. He attended college in Guilin, a tourism center in Guangxi.

Lan's 42-year-old colleague, Meng Zhiyao - despite coming from a different background -shares Lan's enthusiasm for the project. Meng, who spent much of his youth in poverty, says he has applied for a low-interest housing loan since he began working with scorpions. He has six children and an elderly mother to care for.

Huang Jing, a senior county official, says farms to raise cows and bamboo rats have also been built in two other villages where poverty alleviation efforts are focused. Last year, 15 million yuan was set aside by the local government to supplement livelihoods in at least six such villages.

Of the county's 460,000 people, some 80,000 live in poverty, according to another official.

Drilling wells

Snaking around a peak, a path brings the village into full view. Harvesting rainwater is an essential part of life in Nongjing, which has struggled with limited groundwater sources for decades.

The area is said to have water trapped in aquifers but extraction has proved difficult in the past. In addition, the mountain rocks often crumble like chalk.

After a failed attempt to drill a well, authorities have decided to dig deeper in the next attempt - at least 280 meters below the surface. A team of four engineers from a Liuzhou-based company in Guangxi pitched a tent in November and look to accomplish the mission of acquiring more water through rain and wind.

A road 11 kilometers long will be constructed to connect the area's villages, says Qiu, the official from the scorpion farm.

In Nongteng - a village of nearly 30 households situated downhill from Nongjing - the county government is encouraging tourism to boost incomes. A few cottages have been painted blue and red to draw city dwellers keen on experiencing the quiet countryside.

Results are mixed: Lan Fanglin, 33, says a room's rent at her hotel is 80 yuan a night and that the business is profitable. But Wei Yuguan, a 48-year-old former plastics factory worker in Nanning, who has managed a neighboring hotel since 2015, says her property gets few customers.

An orchard in the county's Duyang town offers an example of private-public partnership in poverty reduction in this part of Guangxi. Over the past three years, oranges from the joint venture have been sold to retailers in Beijing and Shenzhen and in Qinghai and Shangdong provinces.

Scorpion venom a lucrative weapon

"A casual worker can make 70 yuan or more a day," the town's mayor Luo Yuehua says, adding that dozens of families are involved in the orchard business.

Tang Xiumei, 50, finds watering orange trees easier than her previous job at a wood-products factory, where she earned 80 yuan a day. And, Huang - a 60-year-old woman who gave only one name - expects her annual income of 2,800 in 2016 to increase with her new job this year. Her daughter's death has left her to fend for two grandchildren. Her work profile is similar to Tang's at the orchard.

Guangxi spent 18.7 billion yuan on poverty reduction projects last year, with emphasis on activities ranging from industrial programs to trade enhancement with neighboring Vietnam, which lies to its west. Some patches of rural Guangxi have remained largely undeveloped, in part because of regional growth disparities.

"But the aim is to get there by 2020," says Zhu Youkui, the chief economist for the local government's poverty alleviation unit in Nanning.

Looking ahead

In the next three years, the central government is likely to focus on poverty reduction in the places having the greatest need, such as Guizhou, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu provinces.

Regional economic disparities peaked in 2004 and have declined since, because of the movement of people from villages to cities for work and the adoption of measures such as the Western Area Development program, according to Hu, the Tsinghua University economist, in a newspaper interview in Beijing.

Scorpion venom a lucrative weapon

Tsinghua's dean of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies, Hu describes himself as a "scholar of the era following Deng Xiaoping" in a book on China's rise.

"By 2020, China will abandon the concept of absolute poverty, and we will use low-income or minimum insurance to define it," he says. "This also implies that when China enters the high-income stage, the new standard will give us a better idea of how we can invest in human capital and help poor people improve their development ability."

Today, there are between 60 and 70 million people with minimum insurance in China, accounting for about five percent of the total population, he added.

The minimum rural and urban insurance sums vary from province to province but are required by law to cover basics such as medical or pension allowance. For Guangxi, which is on the lower side of this spectrum, the figures are 300 yuan per person per month in cities, and 140 yuan in villages. In 2015, Shanghai's minimum insurance was 790 yuan.

Zhang Li and Liu Yixi contributed to this story.

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(China Daily European Weekly 04/07/2017 page1)

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