Sunday, December 22, 2013

Agarwood (and Sandalwood) in Assam

 This is a reprint of a 2010 AbsoluteTrygve post.

I am still in India but just left the North Eastern State of Assam, where I went to have a look at Agarwood and what’s up with it. I visited a few distillers, and spoke at great length with a couple of people, Mr. Tajul Islam Bakshi, who owns and operates a small distillery and Syed Abdul Quavi, who can be loosely defined as a spokesman for Assamese agarwood growers. I believe that despite good intentions, the West’s attempt to limit, ban or control the trade in agarwood from India has been less than beneficial for most of the people involved.

Actually, according to Syed Abdul Quavi, the whole attempt to control or ban the trade in this supposedly endangered species has been somewhat of a disaster.

Before I go on I should need to clarify a few things, if I can. Agarwood has the perception of being overharvested and endangered and I have argued against its inclusion on ICUN redlist or CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appx 2 based on what I have learned in Laos. The crux of that argument is that in Laos, it is the forests themselves which are endangered, not the agarwood trees, and in fact agarwood, along with rubber and teak make up the majority of trees planted on cleared forest land so they do not now appear to be disappearing from the wild as it is the wild itself that disappears, not the agarwood trees. The addition of agarwood to the international bureaucracy has only served to legalize trade for (usually western) growers who have jumped through the necessary hoops and done the correct paperwork to be awarded with the necessary “eco-friendly” stamp of approval. It goes without saying that the majority of these people are new to agarwood cultivation, recently lured by the promise of big and easy money. So, as usual, the people who have traditionally dealt in agarwood are marginalized, and forced to deal either with intermediaries who can supply the certifications deemed necessary by people who have no connection at all to agarwood.

The last time I was in Laos, last summer, I found that CITES certificates were fairly easy to obtain from a group of Australians now heavily invested in their agarwood project, but when I actually bought my wood and oil, from my usual supplier, we had to scramble to find one, and the one I got was for another company in another country. In other words, it was a fake one.

Here in India, according to Syed Abdul Quavi, the situation in Assam is equally bizarre and the CITES implementations that have been imposed do not reflect a logic for the situation on the ground. Perhaps it is that CITES, as most organizations, comes up with plans and solutions based on their hierarchical structure and goals, taking perhaps governmental reluctance into account but not other factors, like the sheer grinding bureaucracy of the governments, in particular the Indian government. If I may put it another way, the Government of India has made mincemeat out of much more formidable organizations than CITES. We had to actually call the person at TRAFFIC responsible for the whole matter, at his home, in another country, to find out what the regulations are for taking a few tolas of oil out. (We’re not allowed to.)

To quote Quavi again, “the actual procedure to export agarwood is a punishment for growing an endangered species in a private plantation. “

In 1995 Agarwood was placed in CITES appendix 2 severely restricting the movement and sale of raw material and products made from it.

In 2000 local Indian legislation (The Assam Wood Based Industries Rules 2000) compelled the agarwood industry, then, as now, a cottage industry, to shift all agarwood distillation away from farms and home distilleries to industrial areas in certain cities; so the industry does not technically exist anymore.

Why? Agarwood is expensive. If you must shift your operation to a place far away from your home, you will have to employ at least three people just to do what the family does normally; to watch the agarwood. Security and price become an immediate and insurmountable problem. It’s not feasible and perhaps one of those things that looks very good on paper, but doesn’t work practically, like communism. It was a typically heavy handed and ill-considered dictum that produced no results at all except to render the agarwood industry invisible, the opposite effect of what was intended.

Since there are no industrial Agarwood farms, there is, following the same logic, no agarwood. So the small growers, and particularly the people who have a few trees in their yards, as is common in Assam, don’t technically exist because they are not in designated industrial agarwood places. Therefore, since they cannot be registered growers, they cannot produce agarwood, so all agarwood produced is thereby assumed to be from the wild. And Cites does not issue permits for this “wild wood.”
Indian CITES says they “are working on it.”
For 10 years now. By way of support they offer this: ”Until the rules are framed by the government you are requested to close down your industry.”

The presence of a real indigenous agarwood industry does not legally exist.

Then how is there legal agarwood and oil exported from India? There are a few industrial distilleries located in export free zones (Mohammed Doud & Bros near Chennai for example) and a few people dealing in oil from places like Kannauj or Kanpur (one the India’s most polluted cites.) Since 1995, if you (legally) import SE Asian wood to India, you can also re-export it. So “Indian” agarwood, if it is legal, is always going to actually be SE Asian agarwood, processed in India. It’s like Sandalwood “from Kerala” that so many people think is really from Kerala. It’s processed in Kerala, but actually from Africa.

Sayed Abdul Quavi continues: “If cites is so good at banning trade in a particular area which can easily be cultivated and replenished in nature, then they should also be proactive in seeing that the passage of cultivated agarwood to the international market is made easy from the range states, for example India, from which not a kilo of agarwood has been exported since 1995 on CITES papers, since it is only a process of marking the paper with an A (artificially propagated) or W (Wild.)


What I found in Upper Assam was a plentitude of agarwood growing. You could say most homes had a few trees in the front yard. They are good insurance for a daughters wedding or a son going away to school. And they will sell, to someone who will render them into chips and distill the rest. I didn’t see any wild forest at all. I know it’s there, but we drove up from Guwahati, all the way to Jorhat, near the Nagaland border and after about midway, once we reached the “upper” part of the State, agarwood was everywhere I looked.

There were also quite a few small distillers, with 3-5 stills processing local (farmed) but illegal-by-default-technicality wood. And with the exception of what I saw in Nagaon, the distilleries I saw used rice paddy husks and already distilled agarwood chips as fuel for the stills, not firewood.

It seems like a pretty clean little industry to me, even when we get to the next part, which is how are these distillers going to sell their oil and to whom? This is where Ajmal comes in.

Whatever you may think of Ajmal, a large perfume/agarwood company based in Hojai, whose name means “Prettier” in Arabic, they clearly have a large presence in the agarwood world. Anyone familiar with the Arabic lands will know them immediately. We have three branches in Salalah! It’s a family business, of course, with its own local language, Sylleti.

I had the pleasure of popping in on them, for lunch, courtesy of Quavi, a close family friend.

While I didn’t get to see any distillation actually going on, I now understand that it’s mainly because whether or not they distill their own oil, they definitely buy it from people throughout the countryside. And then they deal with how to get it out into the world. Ajmal is probably well equipped for this, I have no idea how exactly they do it, but it’s a good thing they do because selling your oil to Ajmal gives you an income.

Assam has plenty of natural resources; it has gold. It has oil. It has agarwood. But this is not obvious when you are traveling through. Most people you see are walking. There are a few bicycles. The cars are all Marutis and smaller. I didn’t see a single Landcruiser, Mercedes or Lexus. Most homes are bamboo and thatch with possibly some brightly painted concrete blocks. No one had flashy cell phones, or expensive sunglasses. These are the normal indicators of money. The homes in general were delightful in appearance, with cleanly swept yards, and fruit (and agarwood) trees. But they were really simple. The towns were simple too. I did not see a lot of jewelry shops, of electronics stores, car dealerships, even petrol stations. There were not a lot of banks. The plowing is done with animals. Water was often brought via hand cranked pumps. Only some villages are electrified. All in all, not a place where there is a huge underground economy. It’s a sustenance economy, dependent on the weather and the crops. In this picture you see agarwood and sandalwood growing side by side. Sandalwood is a parasite and he needs someone to grow with, to feed him like the litle prince he is.

If some of these people cut down their own trees, sell them, cut them up and distill part of them, for a very costly oil that the Arabs love, then what is the problem? It’s necessary for the Western conservationists to come in and run things? But thanks to the helpfulness of the Indian government and organizations like CITES, we can be assured that this small world of agarwood will stay exactly as it is, with oil being smuggled out in small proportions and no more no less. In fact, it may be better this way, as, if CITES permits were actually issued for Indian oil, the government would probably take such a big bite of tax that people would smuggle it anyway.

So this is Upper Assam. All the wood I saw was supposedly farmed, domestically grown, wood. Sometimes it was a natural infection (very good) and sometimes it was infected (ok but inferior.) Yet Mr. Bakshi down in Nagaon said the wood I bought from him was wild from Nagaland. It’s hard to imagine that wood making the trip down through Upper Assam to where he is. Why would it? There is plenty of wood available between the two places. He had a lot of trees under cultivation. He said 30,000. And they were infecting themselves. I saw this. No need to muck about with an inoculation kit. Unlike Ajmals trees near Hojai, which don’t infect themselves at all, the trees both near Nagaon and in Upper Assam will do their own work.

Why would he tell me the wood was wild if it was farmed unless it was due to the perceived preference for wild wood? I don’t know and I don’t have an answer. But all the other wood I saw was supposedly farmed and I don’t know how you can tell for sure. When I saw logs for sale they sure looked like trees out of someone’s yard. They were small, some of them little more than saplings. All of them were infected with some resin. Some had been wounded and others carried the mark of an insect only. These trees were all only a few years old so it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that they were planted, grew and harvested.

I think what you look for in the case of Upper Assam trees, if you are not trying to infect them, are the insect bore marks. They are easy to spot, and so is the pile of dust at the bottom of the tree after they’ve been drilling through it.

So the whole thing about farm grown trees now has a common sense and logic that is unquestionable to me. But when people buy oil that is “certified” or something similar as Indian oil, they should be wary. It can’t exist, since there is no agarwood in India, remember?

I was wrong about something that I wrote about long ago. I thought that once the infections were done, and good wood extracted, and distilled, then the price of oudh oil would go down due to the vast amount of oil suddenly on the market. But this doesn’t look like it’s happening. It looks like good Oudh will always command a high price, since it will always be rare and with good oudh becoming rarer, the price going higher, now we can witness the birth of Boyah.

Boyah is fairly new to Agarwood, and it looks as though it’s here to stay. Boyah smells like agarwood (to Western noses,) and it’s distilled from agarwood trees, but it’s distilled from white wood. That’s uninfected wood. Or very minimally infected wood. Boyah is the one that gets hard at room temperature. Most of the agarwood oil you find in the US these days is hard like this. That’s because it’s Boyah. Boyah has a lot of uses: as an addictant in paan, as an agarwood adulterant, etc. Its uses seem to multiply quickly. Years ago there was no Boyah. There was no need as there was plenty of good agarwood. But this Boyah is a good backup. No matter what happens with your infection, you will always have Boyah.

So once again I find myself arguing against CITES and all this control. Although I do have the highest respect for what they, and TRAFFIC do in most cases, particularly when it pertains to animals, agarwood has been a fiasco. As, apparently, have orchids. For more information on that you can read Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever.

1 comment:

  1. There are so many chemical engineers, chemists, agricultural experts etc on this planet earth. If these people can not make cultivated Agarwood valuable to the market, I believe it is an ABSOLUTE disgrace to human beings. Let's chop down all the natural Agarwood and happy extinction.