Resource: Even as it is commercially viable, plantation of Agarwood (acquilaria agallocha), which began in 1980s in Panbang, Zhemgang has not picked up.

Agarwood is known for its fragrance. It is one of the most expensive woods in the world.

“Agarwood from Bhutan is considered best in international markets,” said Norbu Gyaltshen, former senior research assistant of Bhur Research and Development Centre (RDC).

Bhutan had around 23,098 Agarwood trees as of 2010, 2,443 were found in private lands across southern Bhutan such as Panbang and Samdrupjongkhar.

Agarwood is commercially viable because of its uses in medicines, incense and production of oil.

“In South -East Asia, Agarwood is artificially inoculated with fungal or bacterial infection to stimulate resin in the heartwood because of slimmer chances of forming naturally,” Norbu Gyeltshen said.

Agarwood can mature between 15 and 20 years. Formation of valued fragrant resin takes at least 20 years.

Though Agarwood grow in wild in Panbang, late Dasho Nishioka introduced the villagers to its cultivation only in 1970s.

“In 1970s, Japan Sahib (Dasho Nishioka) made the villagers collect saplings from the forests, which he bought at Nu 3 per sapling and was raised in a nursery,” said Ngangla gup, Rinchen Wangdi, adding that the saplings were later distributed back to the people for plantations in private lands.

Today, over 200 Agarwood trees planted by Nishioka are still thriving in Agar Camp at the left bank of Drangmechhu where he stayed while in Panbang.

Today, only around 20 villagers from Sonamthang, Marangdhuth, Yumnang and Laling own over 40-50 Agarwood trees.

“The villagers aren’t interested in Agarwood because they can’t market freely because of hassles in getting permits to harvest,” Rinchen Wangdi said.

Lack of scientific and technical knowledge to grow Agarwood in large scale also impeded plantation.

“Agarwood plantation isn’t easy because only handful of saplings survive defoliation,” Lekey Jambay from Marangdhuth said, adding that lack of saplings and idea on favourable soil conditions were other factors impeding commercial plantations.

While sale of Agarwood within the country is allowed with permit from the forestry offices, embargo on export is shrinking the marketing scope.

“With export banned, the only market in the country is traditional medicines, which also buys only in financially insignificant quantities,” Lekey Jambay said.

The growers also don’t find selling in the domestic market lucrative.

“The traditional medicines pays only about Nu 70 per kilogram of Agarwood, much lower for strenuous labour involved in processing the wood,” Dorji from Panbang said.

Nevertheless, gewog forestry extension agent, Lekey Tsedup, said permits to harvest Agarwood from private land are given except for those trees from sokshing and tsamdro.

“The permits were turned down for applicants whose Agarwood cultivation fell in the government reserve forests during the cadastral land survey,” Lekey Tshedup said.

Norbu Gyeltshen attributed lack of interest among farmers to technical and expertise constraints.

“The research centre hasn’t succeeded in coming up with artificial inoculation method to produce artificially,” Norbu Gyeltshen said, adding that Bhutan couldn’t borrow the artificial inoculation from South-East Asian countries.

Export of Agarwood would be allowed only when the research has credible proof on its commercial viability.

Policy also restricts export of Agarwood as it is listed in schedule I of forest and nature conservation. Because of rapid depletion in the wild, convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora listed Agarwoods like aquilaria, gonystylus and gyrinops as potentially threatened species.

“While trade within the country is allowed, Department of Forests and Parks Services will need to seek export permit from CITES for international trade,” Norbu Gyeltshen said.

Tempa Wangdi