Winners and losers in tree domestication: the agarwood story
A forest tree is being domesticated that produces a substance as valuable as gold. But it’s not as simple as it might seem.
Domestication of forest products that are overharvested in the wild is expected to have two types of benefits: help with protection of the remaining wild resource; and provide income for local producers. Both claims are more easily stated than substantiated and may partially contradict each other.
It could happen that domestication lowers prices to such a level that destructive harvesting is no longer worth its while. But before that happens, the claimed benefits for local incomes will have evaporated.
If the forest-protection effect is to come from restrictions on the trade of the product, it is essential that domesticated sources be distinguished from wild ones. However, this may imply a lower quality and lower price. Further, the domesticated resource may benefit farmers who can fit it into their production systems, even if they were not the ones who collected it in the forest before.
Predicting the future development of prices after domestication has been a challenge, along with predicting who the winners and losers may be if there is technological progress. Recent developments with one of the most highly valued, per unit of weight, forest products in Southeast Asia provides some insights.
This product is agarwood. It is known as ‘gaharu’ in Indonesia; eagle-wood or ‘agilawood’ in Europe, presumably, because of the similarity in sound of ‘agila’ to ‘gaharu’; ‘aloes’ in Hong Kong; ‘mai krishna’ in Thai; ‘mai ketsana’ in Myanmar; ‘chann crassna’ in Cambodia; ‘agar’ in Hindi; and ‘chénxiāng’ in Chinese.
Its oil, used as a perfume, is sold for prices similar to gold, if it is of the highest quality. It is worth long trips into the forest in the hope of finding some, but the tree that is its source has become rare, threatened and protected by international agreements, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Harvesting has been a destructive activity, with many trees cut without yielding any agarwood because the valuable part is produced only in response to infections, mostly where branches break off from the tree. Among agarwood collectors in Indonesia, there are many rituals and stories about how to increase the probability that a tree actually contains the valued stuff.
The trees (several in the genus Aquilaria and a related genus) have been a target for domestication for a few decades now. The tree itself is easy to grow from seed but the amount and quality of the agarwood it produces is the critical step. Techniques for drilling holes in the bark and injecting a concoction of fungi, such as Fusarium, which could trigger the response of agarwood formation, have been gradually refined over the years. But so far this has not produced top-quality products.
In a way, this has helped because with chemical diagnostic methods that could distinguish the ‘domesticated’ agarwood from that collected in the wild, it was easier to accept it in international trade without conflict with the CITES rules for protecting the wild resource. However, it seems that with some further technological innovation in China, a much larger part of the tree can be infected (through the plant’s water-flow system), leading to a higher-quality product that cannot be distinguished from the original. It is not yet clear what this will mean for the CITES rules and for international trade.
Ten years ago, existing data on global demand and prices were combined with estimates of price elasticity (changes in price if more product becomes available) and technical coefficients of the infection process, plus the time it takes for the tree to reach a size at which it can be infected. Calculations suggested that between 2010 and 2020, domesticated sources could fully replace forest collection, with a fall in price by a factor of about two.
Early adopters among the rubber (and other) agroforest owners in the relevant agroecological domains are likely to benefit substantially while later adopters will still get a source competitive to rubber trees per unit space. Active spreading of knowledge of the agarwood biotechnology is in the interests of the managers of diverse rubber agroforests.
Nevertheless, the predicted rapid uptake of the technology has not yet been confirmed and progress may have been slower than expected as there has been very limited active promotion and extension.
So far, the technical issues of reconciling domestication with forest protection have received more attention than the social distinction between winners and losers, within and across the countries that historically have been the primary suppliers of agarwood, mostly to the Middle East, plus global perfume markets. Further efforts are needed to bring together the technical, biological, social and economic aspects to make progress.
Soeharto B, Budidarsono S, van Noordwijk M. 2016. Gaharu (eaglewood) domestication: biotechnology, markets and agroforestry options. Working paper no. 247. Bogor, Indonesia: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southeast Asia Regional Program. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5716/WP16163.PDF.
ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.