Tree trunks and limbs left in the wild, gutted, severed, or sliced, like a disgusting scene in a nightmare film minus the flesh and blood. No signs of shame or scruple from the band of marauders who left their victims in such an abhorrent state of rot.
The mass slaughter of rare trees would have been kept hidden in the deep forest were it not for a team of researchers and civilian volunteer patrollers who climbed the highlands of northwestern Panay—ironically declared a protected area by the state—last December. The intruders were after the trees’ high-priced resin that multibillion-dollar industries need to produce luxurious perfume, scented incense and therapeutic medicines.
Environmentalists and wildlife scientists have called the latest discovery amid the foliage and clearings in Libertad, Antique, somewhere in the 12,000-hectare Northwest Panay Peninsula Natural Park (NPPNP), another grim episode in the search for the precious resin of the agarwood, locally called “lapnisan” or “laneti.”
The tree species (Aquilaria malaccensis) is listed as endangered in Appendix 2 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites). In the Philippines, the gathering of seeds and seedlings of agarwood in the wild and their derivatives for commercial or trade purposes is strictly prohibited under Republic Act No. 9147 (or the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act) and Presidential Decree No. 705 (or the Forestry Reform Code).
“Roughly 500 fallen trees were scattered in several places within an area of one hectare,” Raymundo Alejandro Jr. told CoverStory.ph in a phone interview last week. Alejandro, a graduate of nautical transportation, and his team of forest patrollers funded by the nonprofit Philippine Initiative for Environmental Conservation (PhilinCon) had just descended from the mountains of Libertad, the northernmost town of Antique, after revisiting the crime scene.
The agarwood, called the “wood of the gods” and the forest’s “liquid gold” because of its dark, aromatic resin, and the “$5,000-per-pound scent,” is one of the world’s most expensive oils. (Other similar perfume ingredients are the sandalwood, cedar, patchouli, vetiver, cypress, oud, gaiac and birch.) It is among the most highly sought trees by traffickers, who risk four to six years’ imprisonment and penalties of P50,000 to P500,000 to get a mere pittance for the products in terms of global market prices.
Top-grade or “very fragrant” agarwood commands a price of up to $100,000 (around P5.4 million) a kilo and the lower grades, from P500,000 to P1 million. In Antique, villagers in Barangay Bulanao, Libertad, at the foot of the NWPPNP are being offered P20,000-P60,000 for a kilo of agarwood they collect, a male informant reportedly told a staff member of the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB).
“[Traffickers’] thinking is simple: MONEY,” Rogelio Demelletes Jr., a senior ecosystems management specialist of the Biodiversity Management Bureau under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and a member of the DENR’s Environmental Protection and Enforcement Task Force, told CoverStory.ph by email last Feb. 1. The task force is leading the fight against wildlife traffickers.
Demelletes described agarwood tree cutting as a “hit-and-miss” activity. “Out of 100 trees, only 3% can have resin,” he said. And to produce a kilo of resin, he pointed out, “you’ll be lucky to recover at most 10% from the total log volume of a tree.”
How much a “field” kilo is bought depends on several factors, such as quality, size and tree source, he said. For example, BMB personnel who seized 15.3 kilos of agarwood being transported by a van driver in Quezon City in October 2019 estimated the cargo’s value in market price, forest charges, and environmental damage at P27.5 million, according to a report furnished CoverStory.ph.
The DENR does not have an inventory of agarwood trees because, according to Demelletes, it has “never engaged in planting” the species. Scientists have yet to estimate the tree population and describe in detail their physical condition, habitat structure, and ecological threats.
About 24 species of the genus Aquilaria (Thymelacaceae family) are found mainly in the Indo-Malaysian region. Eight species—A. apiculata, A. filarial, A. malaccensis, A. brachyantha, A. cumingiana, A. urdanetensis, A. citrinaecarpa, and A. parvifolia—are naturally occurring in the Philippines, according to a 2018 research study.
Early hunters were foreigners from Malaysia and Indonesia who came to Mindanao to hunt the trees, Demelletes said. “When Filipinos eventually learned its value, the locals engaged in the trading from hunters who then sold it to foreigners,” he said. “Buyers are scattered everywhere.”
Natural stocks in Leyte’s forests, for example, were being “largely depleted by overexploitation, and the demand for agarwood is higher,” a research team from the Leyte-based Visayas State University wrote in an article published in the International Journal of Environmental and Rural Development in 2021. They noted agarwood trading in “raw forms,” such as large sections of the trunk and finished products.
The team, composed of Lorraine Cristy E. Ceniza, Jimmy O. Pogosa, Suzette O. Lina and Marlito M. Bande, were told by community residents in June 2019 that “since it was difficult for them to identify the exact Aquilaria trees, they would randomly cut trees without properly distinguishing them and chopping them into pieces.”
Eventually, the team said, traders from China, Taiwan, Mindanao and Samar trained the local folk to identify the tree. A mature tree that “looks rotten or unhealthy has most likely agar in it, whereas those that look firm and healthy are not good,” the team said.
The residents “are more eager to search for agarwood than work as hired labor or harvest copra because of its immense value,” the team said, adding that “harvesting Aquilaria and selling agarwood enable them to triple their income.”
Panay natural park
At the NPPNP, which covers the towns of Nabas, Libertad, and Pandan in Antique and Buruanga and Malay in Aklan, PhilinCon reported that “many trees were cut down for sampling” late last year. It estimated that at least eight persons had been there based on their footprints, new trails and “huge” campsites.
The natural park is also home to endangered wildlife species like the Warden’s Hornbill, Negros Bleeding-Heart, Visayan Warty Pig, Tarictic Hornbill, and Philippine Spotted Deer.
Alejandro, PhilinCon’s forest patrol leader, said the toppled trees were gutted for their heartwood or duramen, “wounded” or punctured so that the inner portions darken for possible presence of resin, and dug out to retrieve their primary root, or radicle. The trunk is chopped and sold for P50,000 a kilo, and the branches and leaves spared, he said.
According to the Perfume Society, an online organization of perfume lovers worldwide, the agarwood “is a result of a reaction to a fungal attack, which turns this usually pale and light wood into a dark, resinous wood with a distinct fragrance—a process that takes hundreds of years.”
“From that ‘rotten’ wood, an oil is made—and then blended into perfume. The aroma of ‘natural’ oud [agarwood] is distinctively irresistible and attractive with bitter sweet and woody nuances: seriously earthy (and in small quantities, seriously sexy),” it added.
Demelletes said the “wrong concept” was driving agarwood forays into the natural forests. The knowledge and industry of agarwood, he said, “has been left out for generations in the Philippines.” The country was part of the Cites resolution signed in 1963 and which took effect in 1973.
“We never educated our people on its economic relevance but focused instead on regulating it,” he said. “Much as we didn’t initiate planting, all that thrive are naturally growing in the wild.”
So far, 12 persons suspected to belong to big-time international agarwood smugglers have been arrested by the National Bureau of Investigation in collaboration with the DENR and charged with violations of wildlife trafficking laws. No arrests have yet been made in the NPPNP.
In 2019, seedlings abundant in the wild were priced at P500 to P1,000 apiece. Scientists say the Aquilaria malaccensis produces seeds after 7-9 years, while some other species produce seeds only once in their life cycle.
Aside from “unsustainable” harvesting, the Leyte researchers documented as conservation and ecological threats to the agarwood trees the “massive collection of regenerant[s] and inflicting damage … by punching nails or drilling holes in the trunk of standing mature trees.”
Only few Aquilaria cumingiana regenerants have been propagated since, according to seedling growers; its seeds were worth P40,000 per kilo. None of the seeds survived, the researchers said, “due to insufficient knowledge on how to properly propagate Aquilaria seeds and the appropriate time of collecting the matured fruits.”
To curb rampant illegal cutting of agarwood trees, the DENR has approved the commercial propagation of resin-producing species. It has allowed the grant of wildlife culture permits to some companies for agarwood growing, but the collection of seeds in the wild is strictly prohibited.
“The DENR is always in the middle of balancing things, from protecting and conserving threatened flora and fauna, making sure that the resources can still be used for our economic development, especially during this crisis, but utilization in a sustainable manner,” then Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said in a statement in November 2021.
‘Drastically dwindling’ trade
But will controlled growing of agarwood really take off? Yes, Demelletes said, noting that “trading has been drastically dwindling due to the availability of supply.” He said that “globally, supply [has been] wanting for many decades.”
In Indonesia’s agarwood plantations, he said, a type of fungus is introduced to seedlings and is “responsible in infecting the tree, which then fights the infection by boosting its immunity and producing the oleo-resin.” He added: “As time goes by, this resin hardens in the heartwood and darkens, and the scent gets more significant.”
Scientists at the University of the Philippines Los Banos and the Forest and Wetland Research Development and Extension Center of Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau are studying the Aquilaria species to provide genetic data, including DNA barcodes, as part of conservation and mass propagation efforts.
In Panay, the PAMB met last December to approve the NPPNP Management Zone plan designating 9,050.93 hectares (or 75.37%) of the natural park under “strict protection” and 2,958.36 has (or 24.63%) for “multiple use.”
“If we can’t totally eliminate the illegal activities within NPPNP, at least we can lessen its number,” PAMB chair Livino B. Duran, who is also DENR regional director, said, according to a PhilinCon report.