Saving the ‘wood of the gods’

Seventy-three kilograms of agarwood chips were confiscated at the Port of Davao on December 24, 2020, the Bureau of Customs reported.  

The confiscated forest products, estimated to be worth P62 million, were scheduled to be shipped to Vietnam through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.

Seeds of an Aquaria tree.

‘Wood of the gods’

Sought for its fragrant dark resinous heartwood, agarwood, locally known as “lapnisan,” is used in making incense and perfume products. It is often used in church or religious practices—getting the tag “wood of the gods”—and for medicinal purposes.

It is the most expensive forest product and rarest in the world, with a kilogram fetches up to $100,000.

Its high demand is rendering agarwood threatened with global extinction because of tree poaching that cut down every tree from genus Aquilaria in search of agarwood. Aquilaria  has 15  species of trees in the family  Thymelaeaceae.

Rare product

Agarwood is naturally produced in the wild when an Aquilaria tree is injured and a type of mold grows in it and infects the wood to produce the unusually fragrant scent.

As not all Aquilaria trees in the wild produce agarwood and the only way to find out is to cut down the tree and chop it into pieces, it is like a “hit and miss” for agarwood poachers, who journey to search for this forest product.

Aquilaria trees are very rare and are found only in the deepest parts of the jungles in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.

Endangered species

Due to its high value, hunting for this dark, brown agarwood in every Aquilaria tree in the wild has led to its status as endangered species.

This occurs even as trading of an Aquilaria tree, its products and byproducts, are highly regulated for trade to deter poaching.

Despite the campaign against illegal wildlife trade, including agarwood, poaching of the tree has been ongoing, with some Filipinos harvesting seeds and seedlings from the wild to grow them in their own backyard, in the hope of producing a small fortune in producing agarwood.

According to Benjamin Mead, founder and CEO of Iba Botanicals Inc., around 80 percent of agarwood has reportedly been cut.

“We went through the process and secured the necessary permits to establish a legal and sustainable agarwood industry in the Philippines. This was designed to support the population of agarwood, promoting a new high-value sustainable agricultural industry.  We focused on indigenous species of Aquilaria trees,” he said.

Commercialization

As a strategy to curb the illegal wildlife trade of the precious forest product and save the Aquilaria trees from extinction, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), through its Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), is now promoting the commercialization of agarwood.

Theresa Tenazas, DENR-BMB OIC division chief of the Wildlife Resources Unit, told the BusinessMirror that of the 12 wildlife culture permits issued by the DENR, half are for agarwood.

The DENR started issuing wildlife culture permits for agarwood in the last quarter of 2021.

No harvesting in the wild

According to Tenazas, harvesting wild Aquilaria trees is prohibited without permits.

Harvesting in the wild, she added, requires a special permit, which is different from an import permit and permit to operate a tree plantation for commercial production.

Since it is listed in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the trading of Aquilaria trees, seeds, seedlings, or its byproducts, require a CITES permit, she said.

  “Those who wish to start agarwood production need to secure all permits, otherwise, selling will not be allowed,” Tenazas said in a May 4 telephone interview.

Birth of an industry

The high-value agarwood industry requires a certified legal source. Being a pioneer, Iba Botanicals may be the first and the only legal source of agarwood seedlings in the Philippines.

Iba Botanicals, a company based in Iba, Zambales, was the first to secure a wildlife culture permit from the DENR as well as from the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry to import seedlings, grow, propagate and sell them within the Philippines.

The permit issued by the DENR-BMB to Iba Botanicals on September 23, 2021, allowed the company to operate an  Aquilaria malaccensis  plantation in Zambales, where the company can also practice inoculation to induce the production of the high-value agarwood from the trees.

“There’s a lot of online selling of agarwood seedlings going on. But only Iba Botanicals has the legal permit to sell them,” Mead told the BusinessMirror via Zoom on May 4.

Mead said the company is spearheading the move to establish the Agarwood Association of the Philippines, with private individuals, the academe and various stakeholders, to promote the best practice in the production of agarwood.

10-year process

Producing agarwood on an agroforestry plantation or on one’s backyard takes at least 10 years from cultivation, to nurturing the trees, to inoculation and have the agarwood ready for harvest.

Fortunately, the Philippines is known to host a number of Aquilaria trees, including the Aquilaria malleccensis species, which produces the most aromatic, making it the most profitable agarwood.

“It takes about seven years to grow  Aquilaria trees  and another three years of waiting after inoculation to harvest,” he said.

  After 10 years, a single Aquilaria tree can earn the tree farmer or plantation owner at least P1.2 million a tree. 

According to Mead, the cultivation of Aquilaria trees is not new. Some countries in Asia are successfully producing agarwood. This makes the illegal wildlife trade in the Philippines, which threatens to drive the species to extinction, a big issue.

Tree seedling importer

As an importer of Aquilaria tree seedlings, Iba Botanicals has started selling seedlings, and has been helping buyers to secure permits from concerned government agencies.

The company has established a partnership with Gourmet Farms to promote and distribute Agarwood seedlings from its nursery in Tagaytay, but larger volumes are also available for commercial-scale plantations.

Iba Botanicals and Gourmet Farms have also started giving seminars to address requirements and techniques needed to successfully cultivate Aquilaria trees, from propagation to harvesting, licensing, permitting and marketing.

In its web site, Goumet Farms indicated that a tree seedling of Aquilaria costs P1,000.

According to Mead, it was through an engagement with DENR-BMB that Iba Botanicals has began to understand the significant pressure of agarwood poaching on the Philippines.  

“Agarwood is IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] red-listed so its trade is severely restricted,” he said. 

So far, Iba Botanicals and Gourmet Farms are holding at least twice a week training seminars.

It is also, for this reason, Mead said, that Iba Botanicals is reaching out to interested parties to secure the necessary permits from government agencies if they intend to propagate Aquilaria malaccensis  trees, or produce agarwood for commercialization.

  According to Mead, around 80 percent of Aquilera trees had been reportedly cut in the Philippines in 2018.

“We went through the process and secured the necessary permits to establish a legal and sustainable agarwood industry in the Philippines. This is really designed to support the population of agarwood and to promote a new high-value sustainable agricultural industry.  We focused on indigenous species of  Aquilaria  trees,” he said.

Exciting development

According to Mead, consistent with Iba Botanical’s approach to creating a sustainable industry, the company is offering technical support and training, including seed and seedling supply. 

While there are a lot of uncertainties or lack of clarity around some of the legalities around agarwood, he said close coordination with concerned government agencies will help address the problems.

“We also educate people about the importance of wildlife culture permit and on the legal source of materials,” he said.

He added that for now the company is importing seeds, but will soon be doing the selling.

Mead said the initial target is to expand in Mindanao, with 1,000 hectares of sustainable agroforestry of mixed species, including Aquilaria trees.  

Image credits: Iba Botanicals Inc./agarwoodph.com, Shutterstock