Los­ing the scent

The fu­ture of the an­cient trade in aro­matic wood is un­cer­tain.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT -

MALAYSIA has be­come the world’s lead­ing source of agar­wood, with half of the global sup­plies of the per­fumed wood orig­i­nat­ing here. This has put seven of the 18 agar­wood tree species grow­ing here at risk of ex­tinc­tion. Two re­ports launched last week by TRAF­FIC, the wildlife trade mon­i­tor­ing body, showed that ris­ing de­mand for agar­wood, prob­lems in mon­i­tor­ing har­vests and a per­sis­tent il­le­gal trade threaten the fu­ture of the highly-prized fra­grant wood. The re­ports, re­leased in Nagoya, Ja­pan, dur­ing the 10th Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties to the Con­ven­tion on Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity, said grow­ing af­flu­ence has led to a soar in de­mand for agar­wood from con­sumers in Ja­pan, Tai­wan, Saudi Ara­bia, and the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE) over the past 30 years. This has led to rapidly di­min­ish­ing stocks in the wild, ris­ing prices and con­cerns over fu­ture sup­plies. Agar­wood is the com­mon name for the dark aro­matic de­posits pro­duced in the heart­wood of Aquilaria trees (large ever­greens na­tive to sev­eral coun­tries from north-east In­dia east­wards through South-East Asia and south­ern China). This valu­able prod­uct is known by a va­ri­ety of names in­clud­ing ga­haru in Malaysia and In­done­sia, oudh in the Mid­dle East, and as ea­gle­wood and aloeswood. It has been used for cen­turies as highly-prized per­fume, in­cense and tra­di­tional medicine across Asia and the Mid­dle East.

Hun­dreds of tonnes of agar­wood are traded each year, in­volv­ing at least 18 coun­tries. Half of the de­clared vol­ume in in­ter­na­tional trade in 2005 orig­i­nated from Malaysia. The trade is reg­u­lated through a sys­tem of per­mits by the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Agar­wood is found only in a few Asian tree species which pro­duce resin-im­preg­nated heart­wood as a re­sponse to wound­ing or in­fec­tion by a mould. Whole trees are nor­mally felled to find the valu­able resin de­posits but with just 10% of trees nat­u­rally in­fected this is a very in­ef­fi­cient process. Over-ex­ploita­tion of old-growth trees has led to a re­duc­tion in the qual­ity and quan­tity of agar­wood avail­able. “All too of­ten pro­tected ar­eas are be­ing stripped of their agar­wood-bear­ing trees and the op­por­tu­nity for a well-man­aged har­vest to pro­vide a sus­tain­able in­come for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties is lost,” said James Comp­ton, TRAF­FIC’s se­nior pro­gramme di­rec­tor for Asia.

“Bet­ter en­force­ment of pro­tec­tion laws and a move to cre­at­ing cul­ti­vated agar­wood to sup­ply the trade are two mea­sures pro­ducer coun­tries should ur­gently con­sider to help con­serve their ir­re­place­able bio­di­ver­sity.”

Ga­haru poach­ing

The re­port Wood For The Trees: A Re­view Of The Agar­wood Trade In Malaysia re­veals that il­le­gal har­vest­ing and a lack of ef­fec­tive man­age­ment of much of the le­gal har­vest are ma­jor causes for con­cern. For­eign col­lec­tors en­ter­ing Malaysia il­le­gally to har­vest agar­wood, of­ten from pro­tected ar­eas, com­pound the prob­lem. De­spite al­most 200 ar­rests be­tween 1992 and 2005, there ap­pears to have been no de­cline in the level of il­le­gal har­vest in Malaysia. Seven of the 18 agar­wood-pro­duc­ing tree species found in Malaysia are at risk of global ex­tinc­tion.

“Very of­ten the high mar­ket value of agar­wood re­sults in or­gan­ised groups of il­le­gal har­vesters spend­ing long pe­ri­ods in pro­tected for­est ar­eas,” said Noorainie Awang Anak, co-author of the Malaysian re­port. “While in the for­est they poach wild an­i­mals for food and col­lect other high-value species for added in­come.” Dis­crep­an­cies in trade records have also deep­ened con­cerns. Be­tween 1995 and 2002, less than half of the agar­wood ex­ported from Malaysia had the nec­es­sary CITES per­mits. Penin­su­lar Malaysia’s CITES ex­port quo­tas for 2010 is set at 200 tonnes of pow­der and wood chips per year, from wild sources. Malaysia and In­done­sia are the largest ex­porters of agar­wood to the UAE, one of the world’s largest agar­wood mar­kets. Be­tween 2004 and 2007, re­ported im­ports of agar­wood chips to the UAE rose from 56 to 162 tonnes, an in­crease of al­most 300%. Anal­y­sis of re­ported CITES trade data also showed that large ship­ments of agar­wood sent from Singapore and In­dia to the UAE listed Malaysia or In­done­sia as the ori­gin. The UAE’s role as an im­por­tant global con­sumer mar­ket, as well as the ma­jor re-ex­porter of agar­wood to the Mid­dle East is the sub­ject of a sec­ond re­port, The Trade And Use Of Agar­wood (Oudh) In The United Arab Emi­rates.

The re­port iden­ti­fies steps taken by the UAE au­thor­i­ties to monitor the trade, in­clud­ing the reg­is­ter­ing of traders. How­ever, it also points to dif­fi­cul­ties in con­trol­ling trade in var­i­ous forms of agar­wood, par­tic­u­larly agar­wood oil, com­monly trans­ported in per­sonal lug­gage. Most agar­wood seized at Dubai Air­port be­cause of a lack of the rel­e­vant CITES doc­u­men­ta­tion was found in the per­sonal lug­gage of pas­sen­gers ar­riv­ing from In­dia. TRAF­FIC rec­om­mends mon­i­tor­ing of per­sonal lug­gage car­ried into the UAE and the set­ting of a limit for per­sonal ef­fects ex­emp­tions and fur­ther urges pro­ducer and con­sumer coun­tries to step up on­go­ing co­op­er­a­tion in man­ag­ing the global trade. “Fur­ther work by the UAE au­thor­i­ties to en­gage key trad­ing part­ners, such as Malaysia, Singapore, In­done­sia and In­dia di­rectly, would as­sist in ad­dress­ing is­sues in reg­u­la­tion and en­force­ment” said Comp­ton, a joint author of the UAE re­port. The agar­wood trade was a prom­i­nent agenda item at the CITES meet­ing in Doha, Qatar, last March, where com­mit­ments were made to stream­line trade con­trols, im­prove sus­tain­abil­ity as­sess­ments, and in­crease net­work­ing be­tween trad­ing coun­tries. – TRAF­FIC

Agar­wood oil is used in a va­ri­ety of per­fume blends that are pop­u­lar in the Mid­dle East.

Pre­cious com­mod­ity: Traders in Kuala Lumpur are do­ing brisk sales in ga­haru wood.

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