Gaharu, Eaglewood, Aloeswood,
Agarwood... It's All The Same
Leo Sunari (middle) explainingtechniques for identificationof gaharuphoto: WWF/PNG
The Sepik River is Papua New Guinea's answer to Brazil's Amazon or the mighty Congo River of Central Africa. As part of the largest uncontaminated freshwater system in the Asia-Pacific region, the Sepik is considered the soul of the country. The river's pristine state is due to the fact that there are no large cities or developments, and therefore few human-induced impacts in the Sepik region. But there are threats from mining, logging, invasive species and unsustainable fishing and agriculture practices, so it's no surprise that one of WWF's priorities is to work with the local communities to help them avoid selling off the resources that have sustained them for generations for short-term benefit. The area is home to some of PNG's rarest plants and some 55 percent of the region's plant life are endemic to the area. 120 of PNG's 200 mammal species are found here, along with 387 of PNG's 725 bird species.
Today we continue our journeys in the Forests of New Guinea, and will explore a highly valuable tree known in New Guinea as gaharu, although it has many names including: eaglewood, aloeswood or agarwood. Our guide, Leo Sunari, head of the WWF Gaharu project, has graciously offered to share his insights on WWF's work with gaharu in some of the most beautiful forests in Papua New Guinea. Leo informs us that it is believed that only those trees which are older than 25 years can produce high-grade gaharu, a valuable, dark brown- or black-colored heartwood with a very strong smell. He offers me the sample that he carries with him on community visits and with a quick sniff my nostrils fill with a musky, hearty scent similar to incense. It is found in special trees where they have been damaged and forms because the body of the tree produces a resin (like oil) in response to an injury or infection.
Gaharu is known throughout many Asian countries and there are at least 15 species of trees that naturally produce it. The valuable wood has been traded for thousands of years throughout the Asian world; it used to be commonly found in many tropical countries, from India to Indonesia. From Asia to the Middle East, agarwood is used for religious purposes, for the good smell, for cultural ceremonies and for medicine. However, in Papua New Guinea, gaharu is newly discovered and interest in the harvest and trade is still rising. Currently, different parts of PNG are going through a harvest boom, mainly in the East Sepik and Sandaun Provinces. Pukapuki Village in East Sepik Province is a place where gaharu harvesting is really taking off. We join WWF and TRAFFIC staff, who are conducting research, promoting community education and training local villagers to better manage this valuable resource. They tell us about the importance of conducting sustainable management practices for the gaharu. Both institutions believe that if carefully managed, income generated from gaharu will provide a significant improvement to the livelihoods of many rural villagers.
Participants at the Pukapuki workshopphoto: WWF/PNG
Through a series of workshops, local landowners learn more about the tree's management needs, the types and grades of gaharu, and the current market value of the resource. When it comes to preferences and trading, the grades of gaharu are usually separated into Super, A-grade, B-grade, C-grade, D-grade and E-grade, with prices dropping down with each grade. Grading is a complicated process, because many characteristics need to be considered, and traders can easily cheat rural villagers, who are just learning about the ins and outs of the resource. Not only the color of the wood is important, but also the size of the piece, its smell, its weight and how easily the wood burns. When asked why he was attending the workshop, one Pukapuki villager emphatically states, "I want to learn more from WWF so that I can make sure I get a fair price when trading the gaharu."
Gaharu is disappearing all over the world, and that Papua New Guinea is believed to have the world's last remaining stocks of mature trees in the wild. From India to Indonesia, market demand for this forest product is very strong and far greater than the supply. This is why foreign traders have been coming to remote and difficult-to-access areas like the Sepik region for the past five years. "Sustainable gaharu trade could provide many previously unattainable benefits for many rural communities across New Guinea," Leo says, "but if they don't learn how to manage it and protect it, the trees will be gone before they know it." "Once we learn what we are looking for, we do not need to cut down the entire tree," says a local man. "In order to obtain gaharu, especially young trees of 25-30 years, we just make small cuts with our bush knives where the tree has previously been injured." In this way they can quickly assess whether or not gaharu is present without killing the tree. These surveys were conducted at different periods with assistance from various communities, organizations and government departments. The information collected and lessons learned from research and workshops will enable well-informed decisions to be made about how to work together with the communities. The idea is to work alongside communities in developing well-organized, management systems for gaharu production in the clan groups.