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Agarwood-Is it Endangered?

I have just returned from three weeks in the Lao People's Democratic Republic. I was there for agarwood, my fixation, addiction and passion for the past 10 years. I am not a scientist but a sensualist and aromatic maven. I met an agarwood distiller friend in Laos, an unusual and also addicted person known locally for his expertise at extractions, quality discernment, and precise engineering capability.

Laos is a remote, landlocked, mountainous, rural country in Southeast Asia. It borders Vietnam, China, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. Laos is veined with a vast river system; the Mekong and her tributaries lattice the entire north. Laos is one of the least densely populated countries in Asia; there is not much industry, including agriculture, not many paved roads, and one of the lowest GNPs in the world. Laos is still covered by rapidly disappearing forest, which supports unknown populations of animals extinct elsewhere: tigers, leopards, fresh water dolphins, dhole, wild deer, and even the Mekong catfish. There are plenty of other ethnicities in Laos; almost 1/2 of the country is tribal and Lao is spoken as a second language or not at all.

Eighty percent of the population lives in the countryside, hunting and fishing. Most people prefer wild game to domesticated meat. The pace of life is slow and relaxed - in the cities of Luang Prabang and Vientaine, in the evenings, it seems the entire population sits overlooking the Mekong, drinking BeerLao and chatting, or playing badminton in the warm rosy dusk. There are no tall buildings, few cars, and seemingly, not too many laws.

Agarwood trees grow abundantly in Laos; they are found all over southeast Asia, with the highest quality of wood from the former countries of Indochina: Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. This area, Vietnam in particular, has several experimental stations working on tree infecting, and some Aquilaria plantations. Agarwood, and its oil, oud, are products of infected wood from species of several genera of tree: The most common being Aquilaria and Gyrinops. However, as Aquilaria is the tree found in Laos, it is the tree I will speak about. Of the 11 species of Aquilaria, it is thought perhaps 4-6 of them can produce the highly sought aromatic resin. And of these, Aquilaria crassna is the species native to Laos. This information is open to debate, as there are not many Latin-speaking botanists roaming the Lao jungle (in fact I think there is only one!) and it is possible that Aquilaria crassna is not the only resin-producing tree. The local people have other names, in Lao "mai" means "wood" and so mai-keydsanah means, simply, agarwood.

Agarwood resin forms in response to a still somewhat mysterious set of factors. In the past, it was thought to be an insect infestation. Recent experiments involve deliberate wounding of the tree, injecting it with an irritating substance, and preventing it from healing naturally. This is somewhat effective, producing some infected wood, but has not been so successful with oil as an oil produced from young and farmed trees is lower quality, hard and "greasy." The best agarwood, when an entire tree is infected with high quality, dense resin and oil, can occur only with plenty of time, and preferably in the forest or other non-contrived setting. This tree will also be dead or dying and sometimes partly buried. Agarwood resin can riddle a tree throughout its heartwood, and when there is a lot of resin, the pieces are individually cleaned and sold as chips, in various grades. Lesser quality wood, whitish in color, and containing less resin and essential oil is also used: graded, chopped, chopped finer, shredded, soaked, distilled, redistilled, removed and dried, and rolled into incense sticks. Uninfected wood has no aromatic use.

How many trees are under cultivation?

Ajmal perfumes estimates that there are 55 million trees planted in Assam, in anticipation of the worldwide shortage. Many of these were planted over 20 years ago. There is a nice plantation of 1.5 million on the Lao plain north of Vientaine, planted in 2000/2001 and now set to become a fishing resort for secondary income. These are mostly, if not all, Aquilaria crassna.There are 2 million Aquilaria trees planted near Bangkok, and more all over Thailand. One can also find in plenty of trees in Vietnam at the fragrant mountain experimental station in An Giang, not to mention other plantations. Those trees are Aquilaria crassna. And it seems everyone's planting them at home, in their yard.All over Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam at least, these trees grow. The world of agarwood does not exist in a separate universe where people have no concept of nature's limits. In fact, many people have noticed the incredibly high prices agarwood commands and are taking steps to integrate themselves in the future market. This is not an unusual concept. Far from the opinion I had some years ago when I thought the small plantation I would start in Hawaii would be the lone guardian against extinction - I now see that I was only one of many with this same idea. It seems a bit paternalistic to assume that without western guidance other cultures will simply take and take until there is no more (like us!) and that we have the obligation to appoint ourselves guardian and keeper. Somehow the people of Southeast Asia have managed to figure out that if they plant trees with an eye to the future, that investment will pay off, even if farmed trees produce low quality hard oil. In 5 years this hard oil, today considered an unacceptable low quality to the main Arab market, will become the agarwood oil standard. And in 5 years it's also possible that the oil quality itself will have improved.

Slash and Burn

Clearly with all these plantations, Aquilaria crassna is not headed for extinction in the immediate future. The question remains though: what about the wild? Proportionally there may be plenty of agarwood seedlings growing in the forest, but there is definitely less forest. Is agarwood endangered or is the wild itself endangered? Laos' forests are disappearing rapidly, and the main culprit is slash and burn. Destroy the forest and plant some rice. Or teak. Chain saws are illegal in Laos. A more potent and democratic weapon is fire. Fires burn almost constantly throughout the remnants of the Lao forest. By the late dry season, in March and April, the haze reaches a critical point, effectively blotting out the sun, irritating the eyes and lungs. The smoky haze is visible from your airplane seat. Relief is only given by the rains, which begin in late April. They not only put out the fires, but bring airborne particles down to earth, freshening the air. Once the vegetation is ashes and the land charred, clearing and planting becomes easier. Many of these slash and burn agriculturalists are sustenance farmers, growing what they need to live and a little extra to trade. Usually Agarwood has long since been harvested from most of these slash and burn areas but this is not always the case. There are quite a few stories of fantastic smelling fires, when it seemed as though forest spirits themselves were showering blessings on those fortunate enough to be near, with wild, gorgeous, intoxicating smoke.

And so the forests disappear, to be replaced by rice paddies, teak farms and agarwood plantations.

Most of Laos is remote - traversed by footpaths, steep jungle mountains. As I write this, in early 2004, there are a couple of small roads in the interior. Once these roads are built, logs can be removed. But without the roads, and sometimes even after they are built, felled trees linger on hillsides, superfluous, while the underbrush crackles in fire. But logging is important to note - prepaid contracts with Japanese and Chinese companies still have years left to run. There is a large export market for Lao timber, and what can be taken out, is. But most often the logs lie undisturbed on the mountainsides, waiting for transport that never comes. The rivers are not usually a transportation option either, due to cataracts, low dry season water levels and the narrow size of most tributaries.

The Lao Harvest

So we have slash and burn, and we have logging contracts to be fulfilled. Where does agarwood fit in with this? Take some gatherers, a small group of Lao, a larger group of foreigners, perhaps 30 Vietnamese "grasshoppers" who move through the forest voraciously, eating everything in sight. These gatherers will support themselves, hunting and fishing while they cut agarwood trees, and this can do some damage. Just how many of these gatherers are there? Larger scale gathering began about 10 years ago, when the Lao government started issuing permits to Lao, and not just to the Vietnamese army and friends of the Lao government. An estimate of the Lao harvest is between 600-1000 tons a year, but this number is not verifiable. A good judge of this amount is the stills. One can get an idea of the quantities taken from the forest by the amount of wood that comes to the still. Distillation quality wood will make its way to local stills, not distant ones. There is a total ban on the removal of unprocessed wood from Laos. And there is also the more practical question of how to smuggle it out? If you can walk it to a waiting truck, then you walk it to a still. The oil yield is simply not high enough, even in the best-case scenario, with well-made, modern stills, to justify driving a truckload of wood to another country, even if it were legal. Any money made would probably just cover your petrol costs. Very high quality wood can be smuggled out; but in small amounts as it's just not common enough to remove by the truckload.

This is hard work, this agarwood harvesting. Time spent in the northern forest before reaching a suitable tree can be many days. For someone to spend perhaps a month in the jungle, away from family, moving slowly through difficult terrain, up rugged mountains, down slippery hillsides, surviving from the forest's bounty, looking for appropriate trees, cutting them when located, then chopping into manageable chips, then carrying it out, 40, 50, 60 kilos perhaps, taking it to a buyer, to a still, walking it there. Then it's examined and bought for how much? Starting less than $1/kilo, this is not a great and lucrative living. The forest is large. And there are not millions of agarwood harvesters. Agarwood harvesting is an occasional, supplemental activity by local people and is widely seen as being illegal.

The IUCN red list

The IUCN red list included Aquilaria in 1998. The threat is spelled out thus: "Exploitation of the diseased wood for the perfume industry has resulted in population declines exceeding 80% over recent year. There is a strong indication that the same losses are occurring in the rest of Indo-China." (His survey was made in Vietnam.)

I wonder about this survey for a couple of reasons. First, it was made in Vietnam, I don't know where. What is the strong indication that the "same losses" are occurring in the rest of Indochina? Vietnam is a densely populated (55 million) rapidly industrializing country with coastal access its entire length and consisting of low wetlands in the Mekong delta area, with scattered hilly and mountainous regions sandwiched between the coast and Laos. The Vietnamese have a long history of animal husbandry and intensive agriculture. Laos has a low population density, no history of animal husbandry and little (comparatively) agriculture. Laos is more rural, more forest, less developed and has no seacoast. And if its only "diseased" wood being exploited, then why would that be detrimental anyway as this wood is dying and will not regenerate in any case? In short, Vietnam has a good transportation network; Lao PDR does not.

There simply has not and will never be enough study for these organizations. If an obsessed botanist has to rely on someone in the business end to organize a forest survey, if even he hasn't been able to complete a forest survey in all the years that he's lived in Laos, working exclusively on this project and speaking fluent Lao, then what chance does an outsider have? The only way to see anything is to be connected with the trade, and of course to care about agarwood in a deep, primal, obsessive way, not in a dispassionate one, however earnest and well-meaning.

According to the recent press release from James Compton, the South East Asian director for TRAFFIC, (a joint program of the WWF and IUCN-The World Conservation Union. It works closely with CITES): "As the global trade involves issues of economic, cultural and medicinal benefits, in addition to the management of the tree species, TRAFFIC is extremely supportive of efforts to bring producers and consumers together to ensure that the trade continues," Compton continued. "It is important to remember that CITES Appendix II is not a trade ban, but a management intervention that will help ensure legality, promote sustainability and enable more accurate monitoring of the agarwood trade."

This new classification for all species of Aquilaria reflects its vulnerability in the wild, certainly, but accepts and acknowledges agarwood's place in the cultural, religious, medical and esthetic needs of the world. The world and her resources are not so black and white as might be convenient.

Not a trade ban.

Calling for a total ban on the use of all wood derived essential oils, agarwood in particular, is not necessary. Appreciation of agarwood, and its use throughout the world, is a positive thing, as it's probably one of the only natural substances to really enjoy universal respect. How many other gifts from the earth are revered and adored so? There is still no mass production of agarwood.

Even though there is "little evidence of any range state instituting a management system specifically for agarwood producing species" it seems that this might not be as necessary as once thought, with so many private individuals and companies starting to grow trees. TRAFFIC correctly points out that a common characteristic for all agarwood range states is "shrinking habitat - human encroachment and land conversion impacting wild populations." They also cite the bigger time investment, larger effort to find agarwood in the forest, and increasing extraction from protected areas. It's important to remember that CITES Appendix II listing is not a ban on trade.

TRAFFIC has suggested in the past that all trade should be subject to the issuance of permits form the CITES bureaucracy. TRAFFIC also suggested that this trade should be backed up by "CITES non-detriment finding procedures to scientifically assess whether exports will have no negative effects on wild populations." It's unclear if they are still actively pursuing these policies following the updated classification.

Personally, I wonder about the wisdom about placing the whole of anything in the hands of a single entity, be it governmental or purely bureaucratic. What methods would CITES use to ensure this assessment, besides "scientific" ones? While I agree that long-term management needs to non-detrimental, I am not so confident of CITES ability to oversee this.

For all the talk about making sure the local people, the guardians of the land so to speak, benefit from any trade in natural resources, regulations imposed from outside is at odds with this idea, despite the stated benevolence of the outside authority. And how would CITES "foster consumer-producer links, including middlemen, to promote stewardship and management strategies?" As it is, the people involved in trade are the ones who are in the loop, not the organizations. "Positive Incentives for Good Management" is a fine slogan, but where will these positive incentives come from? Do CITES and other bureaucracies have the wherewithal to offer "positive incentives?" What better incentive could there be than agarwood itself?

Perhaps this is why TRAFFIC has seen some success with their regulatory efforts - they have managed to work within local communities, especially in Papua New Guinea, with their emphasis more on helping local people create a framework to better manage their local resources than imposing an alien order from above.

Today we have all species of agarwood, both Aquilaria and Gyrinops, listed in CITES appendix II, which is supposed to regulate and monitor the trade, so as to help it continue; Once again, it's not a trade ban. I think this is excellent. The previous habit of classifying by species (crassna, malaccensis, sinensis, etc,) is no longer active, as it was impossible to enforce. The trade is mostly in woodchips and oil and positive species identification is not possible.

In conclusion, the world of agarwood is not a world of easy, pat answers. For every seemingly conclusive piece of data flagged, others will pop up to challenge it. Are our forests burning? Are we destroying our world? Yes, and yes. Should agarwood be monitored, and protected? Yes, and yes. Can we still incorporate this lovely tree, this exquisite oil, this divine perfume, into our lives? Yes, oh yes.

Trygve Harris trygve@enfleurage.com

References-Thanks to

Christopher Hoeth - at large in SE Asia
Anders Jensen - PhD student, Royal Veterinary & Agriculture University, Copenhagen, Denmark
Dr. Art Tucker - Dept of Agriculture and Natural
Resources, Delaware State University USA
Dr. Robert Blanchette--Professor, Dept of Plant Pathology University of Minnesota USA
James Compton - Director, TRAFFIC SE Asia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia