Gaharu is being studied in Malaysia as a non-timber forest product that may facilitate sustainable economic development. Gaharu is a resinous compound formed in the inner wood of trees from Aquilaria and related species as a defense against disease (often fungi). It has been prized for millennia for the sublime aroma produced when Gaharu is burned or extracted into a perfume oil. Known around the world by various names – ood or oud in the Middle East, agarwood, aloes(wood) in the bible – this compound can command upwards of US$2,000 per kilogram in select markets such as Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Japan.
Spearheading research into cultivating Gaharu are Prof. Bob Blanchette and Joel Jurgens of the University of Minnesota Plant Pathology Department. Following a trip by Bob and Joel to Sabah in 2006, sponsored by the Alexander Abraham Foundation and facilitated by LEAP, a joint project in Gaharu cultivation technology was developed between the University of Minnesota and LEAP to train staff from MOSTI (Ministry of Science, Innovation and Technology) and FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia), in Peninsular Malaysia, and Sabah Forestry Department, with MOSTI funding the costs for a three-year programme.
Field trials using Gaharu induced technology started in March 2007, in three sites in Malaysia: Sabah’s Sook Plain Forest Reserve, along with FRIM’s research plantation and Agency Nuclear Malaysia trees located in an old rubber plantation, both in Peninsular Malaysia.
A year after the start of the trials, one tree was cut at each of the three sites and evaluated. Excitingly, all the trees harvested were found to have produced Gaharu in varying amounts and concentration. The remaining trees were treated again during this visit, to maximize the amount of Gaharu produced per tree.
LEAP then facilitated the second harvest in December 2008 when Bob and Joel returned to Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia on the final phase of the programme, to cut and evaluate several trees from each site.
Meanwhile, DNA profiles of Sabah’s Gaharu trees which were originally believed to be Aquilaria malaccensis were found to match more closely A. beccariana or A. macrocarpa, the former producing some of the highest grade Gaharu in the world. Further studies are being carried out to better understand all the Gaharu species growing in Sabah.
The final evaluations from the trees harvested confirm that Gaharu resin began to form after only 12 months and significant amounts were produced after 20 months. Trees with more treatment sites had greater quantities and higher quality of Gaharu and it appears that Gaharu production could be optimized by more treatment at the start, or further treatment of existing trees.
LEAP looks forward to extending the work with Bob and Joel including the interesting possibility of women from PWET (Project Women Empowerment Trees), who have planted Gaharu seedlings in their villages, visiting a successful microenterprise scheme in Vietnam where Gaharu is being cultivated and products marketed internationally.
The future hope is to use this innovative yet relatively simple technology to work with indigenous communities to create an alternative means of income generation from their land.