Gaharu: A migration story

A wood worth more than gold, and the changing face of a province and its forests


Indonesia – When the “gaharu rush” began, the migrants came in their hundreds. Suddenly, in the interior of North Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, there was money to be made.

Gaharu, or agarwood – the fragrant, resinous heartwood of Aquilaria trees that have been infected by a fungus – is in high demand for use in Middle Eastern perfumes and Chinese medicines. In 2018, agarwood chips sell for around USD 7,000 per kilogram in some countries – with the very best quality specimens fetching in the millions.

As the gaharu price rose through the 1990s, people flocked to the remote forests of the Apo Kayan – a sub-group of Kalimantan’s Dayak people – in the hope of making a buck. Not just outsiders, either – hundreds of former Dayak locals returned to their home villages, two decades after they’d moved to the lowlands to seek their fortune. They hadn’t found it, so they came back to search for gaharu themselves, or sell services to those undertaking expeditions.

At first, the returnees were welcomed, even though those who left a community traditionally gave up their rights to the land. Rules around who could collect gaharu were lax, found Christine Eghenter, who researched the dynamics of the gaharu rush in the early 2000s.

As more and more outside traders arrived, the customary councils began to debate what to do. Should collectors have to pay a fee to access traditional lands? Should there be a levy on the amount of wood collected? How could they monitor what was harvested deep in the forest? Should outsiders be prohibited from gathering gaharu altogether? Did return migrants count as insiders or outsiders?

No agreement was reached on these questions, and outside traders took advantage of the growing tension and division in the communities.


Often research on migration in the tropics strays into cliché: the simplistic idea that ‘migrants cause deforestation and environmental damage’, says Paul Thung, a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research. One study calculated that one hectare of forest will be lost for every eight migrants that move into the area.

The example of the Apo Kayan shows “how abstract those kinds of statements are when you look at the highly variable situations on the ground,” Thung says – and how much more complicated migration stories really are.

“There’s the problematic figure of the circular migrant, who’s in between a local and an outsider; there are also people that marry into the village; and then there are the clear outsiders.

“We need to acknowledge that a migrant isn’t just someone who appears, but that migration is driven by a whole range of intermediary factors – political, economic and social.

“Just the fact that people migrate doesn’t say so much about the impact on forests, if you don’t look at the economic and social context.”

Thung and another CIFOR researcher, Kartika Sari Juniwaty, have been combing through the existing research on migration in Indonesia for a new CIFOR Occasional Paper – from national surveys and censuses, to administrative records, to individual case studies like the gaharu story.

The data remains piecemeal, he says, with some significant gaps. Indonesia’s government doesn’t keep comprehensive records of remittances sent from abroad or within Indonesia, and there is very little quantitative data linking migration to land use.

“There’s a lot of work to be done to get a clear picture of migration on Indonesia,” Thung says.

The paper highlights the wide range of different migration patterns and trends in the country, and calls for researchers to assess the link between migration and forests in a more holistic way.

“The issue of migration is much larger than just people moving into forests,” Thung says.

“People move from forests abroad; they move to cities; or they move temporarily, and base their lives in multiple places at the same time, or within a single life.

“You need to not only think about the impact on the destination site, but also about how migration affects the places people come from, in terms of the remittances they send, or the resources they take with them – for example their labor power.”

CIFOR scientist Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, who manages a broader CIFOR investigation of forests and migration, says research needs to take a closer look at the ‘mitigating factors’ that shape the relationship between migration and land use change.

“Government policies, customary institutions, the local agricultural environment – these can all foster certain behavior among migrants, and certain types of land use change. You need to ask, what are the underlying conditions? Where are people coming from? What are their social networks like? What are their long-term visions?

“It’s this whole host of factors in the middle that explain your results – if you miss that middle part you’re not going to get much out of it apart from huge generalizations like ‘people come in and destroy the forest,’” she says.


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