The wild wood isn’t gone, but the wild oil is. I stayed a little while in Lao to see what I could about the state of agarwood today. First thing is that, yes, there (still) are a lot of agarwood farms. I have been receiving offers to buy trees, acreage, entire plantations, by people who realized they made a mistake by investing in this business. And now we see why.
The trees have to be inoculated. Otherwise you don’t get the resin, no essential oil, nothing at all except soft white wood. It can occur naturally, but not always, and you can’t guess when. The trees will make agarwood when injured in any way, but the infection will be very localized. To make a real resin production you’ve got to not only injure the tree, but also infect it properly. How to do this would be problem number 1.
I can’t even begin to imagine how many different ways there are to infect these trees, but I know of a few and it gives a little indication of the variety possible. Most farmers seem to use their own creations, mixing ingredient “a” with ingredient “b” and a dash of something else….Some smart people have come up with “patented” processes and then sell (or attempt to sell) them to other farmers, of course. Some governments, such as Malaysia’s, to encourage this agarwood farming, will provide the entire kits, but the quality of any of this is pretty unknown. I think most people think or at least say, that they have the answer, the best and quickest fungi, the one that will produce good resinous wood and plenty of it, but the results of this are just starting to come in. Some people, the ones who jumped in blind, without any feeling or previous knowledge of agarwood, are often just trying to get out of the business, at this point, with as much of their considerable investments recouped as possible.
Often the farmed and manipulated trees will comply and produce the infected wood, and it will technically smell nice. But there is something odd about it. Very thin pieces, like skin. Very little smoke. This wood would probably be ok making incense sticks for Europe and North America but not at these prices. For the Middle Eastern market these rolled thin smokeless strips of wood are just weird. They do smell good, I don’t mean to say they do not, but contrary to the US, where “smokeless” incense is something that people actually want, here it’s the more smoke the better. And it has to feel substantial too.
This seems to be where we are now, in terms of quality, in Laos. I think the story might be different in India, but that will have to wait until 2010 for me.
There is still some harvesting going on in the forest, though, and wood is coming in, but there is no oil. The reason this is simple economics. The prices of low quality oil, i.e. farmed oil, which is usually hard oil, has dropped, thanks to the glut of farms. (problem number 2.) This oil can be any quality scent-wise but will usually become hard at a cool temperature. But it mixes well with other oils, both agarwood and other things, and can be made into “Oudh Cambodi” no problem. And there’s a whole lot of it. And even more theoretically existing, by which I mean just waiting to be harvested and distilled.
Meanwhile you’ve got people still looking for wild. You’ve got to pay these guys, remember, for their weeks in the forest. Whatever they bring out is going to have to be carried on their own backs. No donkeys or camels here in Laos. If you are not paying them, if they are freelancing, then it’s the same story. You’re going to roast and sweat and hunt and gather, and chop every step with your machete, and risk uxo, and malaria, and all this, for the price a load of white wood is going to get you? I think not.
So they are bringing out the best wood they can, and only this. Much of it goes straight out to people who have ordered in advance. And there are some very nice pieces indeed! There is also some low but still decent quality wood coming from Vietnam. But this is the quality which is used to make incense in the middle east, not to use as incense by itself.
So in general, the farmed oil is what you find, most of it adulterated of course, generally to make “Oudh Cambodi” and what exactly makes up the little tiny bit that makes it to the US is anyone’s guess. But the wild wood is still the one that matters. I know people will scream at me for saying that. But I think it’s true. The farmed wood is marketed to Americans I know, as this great sustainable, ecological, renewable green option. I think it’s debatable.
Generally, if wood costs more than 2000 Baht/kilo (in Laos,) it’s not going to be distilled. That’s about $60.
I’ve written before about the forests in Laos disappearing. Years ago I wrote about Chinese and Japanese timber contracts that still had years to go, and how the forests were being cut in spite of, not because of, agarwood. This is still true except the Chinese are more entrenched than ever. Those old 10 year timber contracts are quaint in comparison. Now it’s 75 year contracts ‘for farming.” 75 years with an option to renew for 25 more. The Chinese basically own Laos, like they do Sudan. The north of Lao is now ribboned with their roads, all leading back to China of course. They can take farming contracts, and first they have to clear the land for it, so that’s one thing, the timber. Then there are minerals too. Lao has plenty. Finally there is the farming. Rubber is the trendy crop of choice now. Most of the teak plantations are gone. And to add insult to injury, the Chinese even import their own workers! The benefits for Lao are well hidden. In exchange for being allowed to dam a river and own the contract to the power rights for the usual absurd amount of time, Lao got……a stadium. They are hosting the Asian Games next year. Like in Sudan, and probably many other countries, securing your place in government provides many fine financial opportunities. And the Chinese are seemingly always ready and eager to help one realize one’s full potential in this way. They are always in the market for natural resources. Timber, minerals, farmland; they need it all, and will bring their own people in to work it. Much more efficient that way I guess. If the foreman speaks Mandarin, I guess it’s easier for the workers to as well.
In a country where, according to Al Jazeera, half the children suffer from malnutrition, you’d think the government would be able to manage this better. Link included at end for this short video clip.
I did get to spend a couple of days with my distiller’s partners, and this was very nice. I came over and saw some of the newest pieces just out of the forest, and tried a sample of oils, both from infected wood, and mixed with a little of the last wild. There is still some good quality oil, but it’s from the infected trees, and production has not quite begun commercially. Took a lot of samples of different things, and now I’m back in Oman, waiting to see what people think.