Safeguarding the trade
GAHARU poachers are not only chopping down agarwood trees from our forests but wiping out the wildlife too. Accounts of poachers carrying tiger claws, bear paws, porcupines and even rhino horns alongside sacks of gaharu hint at the impact of opportunistic hunting. Locals have also been known to participate in illegal harvesting activities but they are no match for the work of international crime rings.
“Foreigners take everything. They specifically go in for gaharu but set up traps for food and high-value species for the wildlife trade,” says Taman Negara Pahang superintendent, Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim.
“Most of the locals harvest the gaharu in small quantities and sell it to middlemen.”
President of the Association of Bumiputra Gaharu Entrepreneurs (Pengharum) Datuk Dahlan Taha sees the poachers as a hindrance to Malaysia’s efforts to establish itself as an international trading centre. “Illegal gaharu collection eats into the share of licensed gaharu traders and deprives the Malaysian public of a large amount of tax on the commodity.”
Tackling the issue is a challenge, however. The Forestry Department has declined to give the number of arrests related to gaharu poaching. In any case, convictions rates might only reveal a small portion of the theft as most arrests result in immigration charges relating to visa overstays or illegal entry into the country or forest reserve. Illegal removal of produce from permanent reserved forests or stateland forests carries a jail sentence of up to 20 years and a fine not exceeding RM500,000 under Section 15 of the Forestry Act 1984 but it appears that incentives for the crime outweigh the potential costs.
Two Thai poachers arrested in Kelantan in 2005 revealed to researcher Noorainie Awang Anak (who co-authored the CITES report Wood For The Trees: A Review Of The Agarwood (Gaharu) Trade In Malaysia) that they would consider repeating the offence. The men’s families were supported by syndicates which employed them and they said that if caught, life in prison would be less strenuous than spending months searching for gaharu in the jungle. The men, aged 17 and 28, said they would not dare venture the same thing back home as harsher methods were used in dealing with such crimes.
With promises of lucrative profits from the “liquid gold”, many are investing in gaharu plantations. Also, there is a scuffle to come up with the best and most costeffective inoculation technique to induce karas trees to produce gaharu. Worries that smallholders might fall victim to the empty promises of fly-by-night investment schemes prompted the formation of Pengharum.
Dahlan says commercial gaharu plantations are largely still in their infancy but it is important that Malaysia nurtures this growing industry as relying on wild gaharu collections is unsustainable.
The former Forestry Department deputy director-general says inoculation techniques might not produce the same kind of high-grade gaharu found in the forest but they can be used to cater to certain market demands or specification.
He says some Pengharum members are developing the method called SGT3 (Serapan Gubal Teras 3) which allows the harvesting of different types and grades of wood from live trees, a step forward from most current methods which require the felling of the entire tree.
There are three variations of the SGT3 method. The first produces Kayu C gaharu, currently sold to Taiwan and Dubai for US$7 to US$10 (RM21 to RM31) per kg, where it is distilled into oil or used as incense. This method requires an application of a liquid formula over the bark. An outer layer of bark is then harvested after six months, after which the process can be repeated.
Harvesting wood chips after one to three years produces Kaler Gazi which is sold to Vietnam and India for US$7 to US$100 per kg (RM21 to RM310). A slightly modified technique whereby harvesting occurs after three to six years produces Gubal. Sold locally and to India, this type is mainly used as incense and priced between US$800 and US$1,200 (RM2,480 and RM3,720) per kg.
Dahlan thinks that in the future, there will be a market for even lower grade gaharu as the younger generation prefers perfumes that use the oil as a component; the oil can be distilled from lower grades of gaharu.
“It would also be helpful to see a more streamlined policy for gaharu, which falls under both the purview of the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry (karas trees) and the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry (gaharu and plantations).” –Natalie heng
an agarwood estate. Growing gaharu on a commercial basis is still in its infancy.