Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Cultivating the world's most expensive incense

Cultivating the world's most expensive incenseWhen most people think of expensive natural resources, they think of gold, silver, or diamonds, not wood. People living in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Guinea, or Saudi Arabia for example, might add agarwood to that list. And a University of Minnesota professor has come up with a way to cultivate it sustainably.
Robert Blanchette with some of his graduate students.Agarwood is extremely rare and is the source of the world's most expensive incense. It's found only in the nearly extinct aquilaria trees growing in Southeast Asia and in certain parts of the world, it can be worth as much as $12,000 per pound or $20,000 per liter for the perfume extract in certain parts of the world. Agarwood is formed when aquilaria trees produce a resin as a defense mechanism against infection or injury causing its normally soft, white wood to become dark and hard. This resin-soaked wood is agarwood.Through research funded by the Rainforest Project Foundation, Professor Robert Blanchette developed a technique by which resin can be produced without permanently damaging a tree. This method of drilling holes in the trunks of aquilaria trees (hence, stimulating resin production around the wound) would allow countries to grow aquilaria trees as a sustainable agricultural commodity. "We hope to help save aquilaria trees from poaching in countries where people can make several year's salary from the agarwood found in just one tree," said Blanchette. "It's hard to imagine people in worse poverty than those in Vietnam. One of the goals is to give poor people in Southeast Asia a chance to raise agarwood as a crop, make a living through this renewable resource, and reduce the number of aquilaria trees taken from the wild," added Blanchette.
A local villager with aquilaria tree.Agarwood is highly valued in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures for its medicinal qualities, for its use in religious rituals, and as a perfume in countries like Japan, China, Yemen, and India. In Japan, many consider agarwood to be sacred and use it to anoint the dead. In the Buddhist religion, it is a key ingredient in many incense mixtures used to calm the spirit. Middle Eastern cultures see agarwood perfume as a status symbol. Local residents and Blanchette's group are planting 17,000 aquilaria trees in Vietnam this summer, and after three to four years they plan to harvest the agarwood. In the meantime, Blanchette continues to work on optimizing the ways agarwood is produced and harvested and plans to share what is learned in Vietnam with others. "We hope to take our techniques to other countries with aquilaria trees and help set up a cultivation process to try and save these trees there as well," said Blanchette.

No comments: