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Agarwood - the sweet smell of success

Agarwood is prized for its distinctive scent (WRENmedia)
Agarwood is prized for its distinctive scent

"The most amazing thing about agarwood is the fragrance itself. It smells like incense, with an underlying hint of musk and a lingering sweetness after that. It is a beautiful fragrance." So enthuses Bian Tan, Programme Coordinator in Southeast Asia for Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). Also known as aloeswood, eaglewood, gaharu and oudh, this fragrant resinous heartwood has been used for over two thousand years as an important component in traditional Tibetan and Far Eastern medicine, as incense in Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic ceremonies, and as perfume in the Middle East.

Agarwood is most commonly formed in trees of the genera Aquilaria under very specific conditions, as a defence mechanism against attack by fungi. However, with no obvious external signs that a tree contains agarwood, indiscriminate felling of trees has occurred. In a bid to conserve what remains, most Southeast Asian countries have made it illegal to cut and harvest agarwood-producing species. But, with a price tag of over US$30,000 per kilogramme for the best quality, wild tree species are still threatened. However, The Rainforest Project (TRP) and BGCI hope to succeed where others have failed, by artificially inducing agarwood: offering a profitable and sustainable alternative to natural exploitation.

Saving the "wood of the gods"

By treating plantation grown Aquilaria trees, agarwood can now be artificially produced. (Dr. Robert Blanchette, University of Minnesota)
By treating plantation grown Aquilaria trees, agarwood can now be artificially produced.
Dr. Robert Blanchette, University of Minnesota

In the wild, only ten per cent of Aquilaria trees generally contain agarwood, and most are old growth trees that are between 100 and 150 years old. In partnership with TRP, Dr Robert Blanchette, a wood microbiologist at the University of Minnesota, has been researching the formation of agarwood for 12 years. He has discovered that by wounding a tree and applying treatments, the natural responses of the tree can be enhanced, making it possible to produce agarwood in young plantation trees. "Being able to scientifically understand the process, and with some basic research on the microbiology of these trees, we can now produce high quality agarwood in under two years," Blanchette explains. Now, through Cultivated Agarwood Ltd, TRP has been able to provide this technology in an easy-to-use cultivation kit.

Since the beginning of the project in 1995, nurseries have been established to provide an abundant supply of high quality native seedlings to farmers across Southern Vietnam, enabling the cultivation of Aquilaria in locally-owned plantations and homegardens. Hundreds of thousands of seeds have been distributed to small villages, and farmers have been trained in techniques to plant, manage and induce resin. In addition to selling the raw product, some communities have diversified into making incense and other agarwood-based products, providing a new economy to thousands of people.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of a number of Southeast Asian countries where similar projects are underway. PNG is known as the "Last Frontier" for agarwood production because it is one of the last places where large numbers of old growth Aquilaria can still be found. As a result, Blanchette believes that natural harvesting can be sustainable if older trees are left as seed trees and replanting occurs. Currently, local villagers are receiving training in order to cultivate agarwood and conserve the native species.

Propagating profits

Cambodian villagers are expected to benefit financially from the introduction of Aquilaria trees (Bian Tan)
Cambodian villagers are expected to benefit financially from the introduction of Aquilaria trees
Bian Tan

In Cambodia, BGCI is introducing economically valuable trees into a Community Protected Area (CPA) near Bokor National Park, in order to rehabilitate degraded forest and diversify the incomes of local people. Villagers rely heavily on bamboo and rattan to make woven baskets, but a hydro-electric dam has threatened the supply of cane. Nurseries containing native Aquilaria trees, bamboo and rattan have now been established to provide a plentiful supply of seedlings in order to rehabilitate the forest and, in the process, conserve local germplasm.

In time, villagers will be able to harvest selected trees that are not part of the conservation area, including agarwood. Tan explains that once the forest is rehabilitated and becomes more diversified, "there will be medicinal plants and honey to harvest, providing additional benefits on top of that provided by bamboo, rattan and Aquilaria."

A recipe for success

BGCI is currently waiting on the results of agarwood trials being conducted by the Research Institute in Laos, before they begin to artificially infect the trees. Meanwhile, Blanchette believes that the most important achievement has been solving the mystery of how resin is formed, revealing the secrets of how agarwood could be induced artificially. As a result TRP has been able to offer a profitable and sustainable alternative to the natural exploitation of agarwood. "You can't just protect a tree and not find people an alternative means of livelihood because they still rely on the forest and its products," Tan explains. "However, if you link conservation to improved livelihoods then there is a huge incentive to preserve and value the natural environment for the long-term."

Date published: July 2009


Have your say

I am from Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. I am interested in aga... (posted by: Dr Dominic Rinyum PhD)

Brian. The article focuses on profitable and sustainable alt... (posted by: producers of the New Agriculturist)

no mention of other species of plant or wildlife which co-ex... (posted by: brian turner)


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