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What is Agarwood 

 
What is Agarwood?

Agarwood is a marvellous but pathological phenomenon. Traded as agarwood, it is commonly referred to as gaharu in Indonesia but is also known as eaglewood, aloes wood and agalocha. It forms as a reaction to fungal and/or bacterial attack and is found on certain species of Aquilaria - a fast growing, evergreen tree, that normally grows to 18 - 21 m but sometimes up to 40 m in height. Infected trees secrete a fragrant, protective oil into wounded areas (roots, branches or sections of the trunk), which gradually become harder and darker. Normally harvesters would cut only the infected parts in the hope that the tree would produce more of this resinous wood. Aquilaria species that produce agarwood are found throughout Asia. For example, Aquilaria malaccencis, which is traded the most, can be found from India to Indonesia. These trees are relatively easy to grow and experimental plantations exist in most producing countries. However, fungal introduction (or inoculation) still poses a major problem, making it difficult to produce agarwood on a significant scale. This is why it is still harvested from the wild. Agarwood has been used to make high quality incense since antiquity. The Chinese describe its smell as "a sweet, deep but balanced fragrance" and continue to use it in religious and festive celebrations, as do Arabians, Indian and Japanese people. Agarwood is also part of many traditional pharmacopoeias, dating back to medieval times and Chinese doctors still prescribe it for colds and disgestion problem. Oil extracted from agarwood is used in Arabic countries as a perfume as well. Unlike many industrial perfumes, it is suitable for hot climates as the longer you wear it, the better it smells! In spite of its unique qualities though, agarwood is rarely used in European perfumeries because of its cost, and good quality synthetic substitutes are yet to be created.

The moving frontiers of Agarwood

The Indian sub-continent was the main source of agarwood for many centuries but as trees became scarce in the middle of the twentieth century, extraction intensified in Indochina. However, conflicts in that region during the 1960s and 70s hindered collection. War destroyed part of the forests but paradoxically, since many trees were damaged by bombs, the started to produce agarwood. Activities shifted to Malaysia and Indonesia, where agarwood had long been extracted but never intensively. Around this time, demand for agarwood in the oil rich Arabic nations started to increase. Systematic prospecting and extraction commenced in Sumatra, Indonesia and then, in the mid-1980's, traders focused on Borneo, even hiring helicopters to drop harvesters into remote rainforests. These agarwood supplies lasted about 10 years, until new sources were discovered in West Papua. The latest 'El dorado' is Papua New Guinea - but for how long ? Kalimantan on west of Borneo island and Sumatra still produce agarwood but it's harder to get nowadays and the general quality has declined. In the past, when the Punan of Kalimantan found an Aquilaria tree, they would mark it, check for agarwood and cut only the most fragrant, darkest parts. This traditional management would generally allow the tree to persist in the forest and continue growing. In Indonesia, the agarwood trade involves many stakeholders, especially at the local level. You often find local middlemen exerting control over harvesters who are in debt to them and also exercising some bargaining power over bigger traders who need regular supplies. The agarwood passes through successive siftings and grading can be quite complicated, with intuitive judgement being more important than simple criteria (like origin, colour and density). Buyers choose agarwood according to its end use and consumer tastes. Arabian people like high and medium grade agarwood from Malaysia or Kalimantan (Borneo), while the Taiwanese prefer Sumatran agarwood for medicines and West Papuan chips for incense. Prices vary, depending on the origin and the relationship between demand and availability. Acting upon CITES' (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) recommendations, the Indonesian government established an export quota on Aquilaria malaccencis, as a conservation measure.

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