Future of ancient trade in aromatic wood uncertain

The Middle East trade in Agarwood - aromatic deposits produced by Aquilaria trees in response to infection by a mould - is at risk because of over-harvesting in Asia

Rising demand for agarwood, problems in monitoring harvests and a persistent illegal trade threaten the future of the highly prized fragrant wood say two reports launched today by TRAFFIC.

Agarwood is found only in a few Asian tree species which produce resin-impregnated heartwood as a response to wounding or infection. It has been used for centuries as highly-prized perfume, incense and traditional medicine across Asia and the Middle East.

Today, 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. International trade in agarwood is regulated through a system of permits by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Growth in the population and affluence of consuming markets in Japan, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has seen demand soar over the past 30 years leading to rapidly diminishing stocks in the wild, rising prices and concerns over future supplies.

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. Today, seven of the 18 agarwood-producing tree species found in Malaysia are at risk of global extinction.

“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 and a joint author of the UAE report.

“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.”

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.

“Very often the high market value of agarwood results in organized groups of illegal harvesters spending long periods in protected forest areas,” said TRAFFIC’s 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 are currently (2010) 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 per cent. 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 (PDF, 710 KB).

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 co-operation 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.

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.

The reports were released in Nagoya, Japan, during the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Recommendations to ensure sustainable and legal trade in agarwood, and combating illegal and destructive harvesting practices are a means to strengthen the Convention’s Global Strategy on Plant Conservation.


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