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Agar Plantation, A Hope For Rural Economy

The charismatic Agar oil which sometimes is called “Wood of the Gods” was discovered long ago and used to be a passion for the Sultans and erstwhile Sheikhs. Since those days to today, agarwood oil is widely acclaimed and treated as a precious medicinal and cosmetic product. It is even valued more than red rubies and other rarely found germs. It is because of its fantabulous fragrance that can captivate anyone’s heart, mind and soul, unlike other perfumes, it is cent per cent natural. Agarwood or Agar is dark resinous heartwood found from the Aquilaria tree which is native to the South East Asia from the foothills of the Himalayas to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. Aquilaria tree is a large evergreen and fast-growing with medium sized broad leaf species of family Thymelaeceae. In the wild, they can grow from 15 – 30 meters tall and 60 cm in diameter. The tree grows in natural forests at an altitude of a few meters above sea level to about 1000 meters, and it grows best around 500 meters. It can grow on a wide range of soils, including poor sandy soil. Seedlings need a lot of shade and water. Trees grow very fast, and start producing flowers and seeds as early as four years old. At least fifteen species in the genus Aquilaria trees are known and eight of them are confirmed to produce agarwood. In South Asia Aquilaria agallocha is found, particularly in India, Aquilaria malaccensis which is the primary producer is mostly found in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Aquilaria crassna principally grows in Indochina. A number of other species are known such as Aquilaria grandfolia, Aquilaria chinesis etc. These species are very much suited and native to our State Manipur also. Agar is also produced in a closely related genus called Gyrinops tree.

The odor of the agarwood is complex and pleasing, with few or no similar analogues. As a result, agarwood and its essential oil gained great cultural and religious significance in the ancient civilizations all over the world. In the Xuanzang’s travelogues and Harsha Charita, written by Bana Bhat in 652 AD mentioned about the use of volumes of fine writing in leaves made from agarwood bark and black agarwood oil occupied a very prominent place. The tradition of making writing-materials from agarwood bark still exists in Assam. Once Sri Sankardeva said, Agra and Chandana are the two divine trees capable of fulfilling human desires.

Formation of Agarwood

Formation of Agarwood occurs in the truck and roots of the tree that have been infected by a parasitic ascomycetous mold known as Phaeoacremonium parasitica, a dematiaceous (dark walled) fungus. Prior to infection, the heartwood is relatively light and pale in color. As a response to defend the fungal attack, the tree produces a resin which is highly volatile organic compounds called sesquiterpenes and chromones. By the process of tylosis, this resin aids in suppressing or retarding the fungal growth. While the unaffected wood of the tree which is relatively light in color, the resin dramatically increases the mass and density of the affected wood, changing its color from pale beige to dark brown or black. In natural Forests, only 7% of the trees are affected by the fungus. In India, as per the report from the Rain Forest Research Institute, Jorhat, the Agarwood gains the commercial value after it is affected by a fungus, on the tunnel bored by the larvae of the Zeuzera conferta Walker, a stem borer. The name of the fungus is yet to be disclosed due to want of patent allotment. The stem borer larvae make vertical tunnels which are the initial sites for the infection. From these, the infection gradually spreads up and oleoresins are accumulated in the infected areas. The infection process takes time and the highest concentration of agar upto 2.5 kg to 5.0 kg is usually found in the trees around 50 years of age. According to Rajib Kumar Borah of RFRI, Jorhat, Professor Robart Blanchett of the University of Minnesota in US had got a patent for the fungus, but when it was brought by the Assam Company Ltd in Dibrugarh and tried there by inoculating into the trees, it did not produce the desired effect. The fungus found indigenously in Assam is different from the one found there.

Demand for Agarwood

Agarwood though it is native to the South East Asia, its demand spreads all over the world. Prices range from a few dollars per kilo for the lowest quality to over thirty thousand US dollars for top quality oil and resinous wood. In fifteen century, one pound of Calambac (Agarwood) for 15 taels in Hoi in Vietnam could cost 600 taels in Nagasaki in Japan. The products have the biggest demand in the oil rich Middle East. One liter of agar oil fetches as much as Rs 5,00,000 to Rs 7,00,000 in the International Market.

Application for Agarwood

The natural effect of agarwood is hot. The perfumed oil obtained by carbon dioxide extraction from agar-wood retains the odor of the true agarwood. High quality resin of agarwood comes from a tree’s natural immune response to the fungal attack. Such agar wood oil is commonly called as first class agarwood. An inferior resin is created using a forced methods where aquilaria trees are deliberately wounded, leaving them more susceptible to a fungal attack. This is commonly called second class agarwood. Pure agar oil freezes at 22.0°C and it becomes oil at 40.0°C. The oil is best for medicinal and cosmetics. In the Middle East countries, the oil is mostly used as perfumes. It is very good for skin. Agar wood oil nature is hot, so also use in increasing the sexual power. The agarwood oil is also useful in rheumatoid arthritis, cough, asthma, bronchitis, skin diseases and foul ulcers. The external application of agar oil is very useful in vomiting in children, pectoralgia due to pneumonia and cepalagia. Agarwood was also used by the ancient Egyptians for embalming the dead bodies.

The Challenges to Agar Tree

Overharvesting and habitat loss threatened the population of agarwood species. One of the reasons for the relative rarity and high cost of agarwood and agarwood extracts is the depletion of the number of plants in the wild resources. It is very difficult to understand which tree has the oil and which has not, and therefore the trees are being indiscriminately cut to find the oil with only a sparse growth are left in the wild. Destructive and unsustainable harvesting has lead to endangering Aquilaria throughout its range, resulting in calls for strict trade controls and outright bans. Therefore, concern over the impact of the global demand for agarwood has thus led to the inclusion of the main taxa on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITIES lists in Appendix II, which requires that International trade in agarwood is subject to control designed to ensure that harvest and export are to the detriment of the survival of the species in the wild. An endangered species will be preserved by cultivation at plantations, innovative marketing and commercialization. The main objective of the project is to establish economic and environmentally sustainable Agarwood production, to prevent extinction of forest trees, and to support socio-economic development by improving rural people’s income; to build a socio-economic and agro-forestry development model that can be applied worldwide. Nature conservation can only be truly successful when local’s inhabitant is closely involved in the planning and implementation of such projects. This can alone be done when conservation efforts are combined with socio-economic development.

How to Uplift the Rural Economy

Most of the species of Agarwood are native to South East Asia and hence are also very much suited for the entire North Eastern States including Manipur. In Assam, the trade in agarwood oil is said to be the largest unorganized industry. Almost every household in rural Upper Assam is engaged in extraction of the oil which then is sold to middlemen @ Rs 50,000 to Rs 70,000 per kg then taken to Mumbai for onwards transportation to Gulf. The oil extracted from the agar trees in Assam is especially in great demand in the West Asia as it lends a rich and strong fragrance. Now-a-days, tea estates of Assam have also taken up agar plantation on fallow land and as shade trees. In our State Manipur also, the Agar trees are very much suited with our soil and climatic condition and hence large scale agar tree plantation can be taken up on our unused community and private barren land. As the intense researches in this field are going on, by planting as much as agar trees, one day we will be able to get 100% agarwood from our whole agar plantation and we will be able to earn a huge income from this Multi Million International Market of the incense and perfumes. In recent years, modern techniques and research have been able to induce the production of resinous wood by inoculating the tree with proprietary inoculants. This method of inoculation has turned the farming of agarwood into a very lucrative industry. In addition, efforts have been organized for the replanting of Agarwood trees in the wild with the dual purpose of replenishing its dwindling numbers as well as providing an alternative cash crop for the local farmers. Seeing the present day demand, for marketing, Agarwood will never be a problem in future. Therefore every one of us should support each other for mass plantation of Agar tree over all the abundant land in the entire State for a green and blooming future economy of Manipur.

*The article is written by N Munal Meitei

*The writer is a Range Forest Officer from Kakching and he can be reached at nmunall@yahoo.in

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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