12 April 2012
Mission Borneo: Progress Report
I. Eating Agarwood Dust
Singapore. It's here where we first heard the news that the agarwood world as we know it is at its end. Six months later, en route to Borneo, we stopped over in Singapore to find out what has come to pass since our last visit.
Courtesy of a long-time friend, we were given a peak at the private collections of the local wood tycoons. We got to see the most incredible pieces of Kyara from Vietnam and sinking-grade wood from Hainan, Burma, Borneo, Malaysia, and Papua. After more than two years, we even got to chew some Vietnamese Kinam again (that left our mouths numb for a good half an hour). They had everything, even a little bag with some Filipino wood. Everything except Thai, Cambodian, and Indian. 'Take a good look,' he said as he opened boxes containing nothing but Vietnamese Kyara, 'this is the only place you'll get to see this'.
Later that night, we went to his house where he showed us some of the things he keeps for himself. We were expecting to see more agarwood, the kind he sends off to China – but guess what? Instead of some crazy stash of Kyara or black sinking wood, he showed us his bead collections, his carvings and artifacts, bracelets and miniatures.
Not a single piece of raw wood! The same man who sold his wood off to China is buying back what they buy it for. We now understood that the reason the trade is so big in China– 'lucky wood' fever – is no joke. Our friend, Chinese himself, doesn't just have one or two bracelets he keeps as mementos. He has cupboards full of ornaments carved from 'lucky wood'. But it doesn't end with luck. He brought over a small pouch with some more Vietnamese Kyara powder for us to chew on. He didn't even want to hear about selling the pouch. He was keeping it as medicine for the most uncommon health conditions.
Bidding him farewell, the whole matter seemed more real than before. We heard much of the same story, only with a more gripping sense of urgency. One thing that had changed since our last visit was that some of those with the very rarest pieces of wood were now not even selling them to China anymore. In fact, nothing's going anywhere. Aside from personal collections like beads and bracelets, traders are now holding on to the uncarved wood as well.
'There's nothing left, this is the end … we're keeping these for later years,' our friend remarked as he showed us his partners' wood collection. He was flying out to Papua the next morning to meet the only person he still deals with in the region, to pick up the last of what he has. Thinking of it now, the same man had told us almost three years ago that this industry would not last for longer than another five years. He seems to have gotten it right on the dot.
II. Vintage Malaysian Aloeswood
In order to raise funds for upcoming organic distillations, we brought our entire supply of an incredible vintage Malaysian aloeswood oil. We were hoping to release the oil publicly, but we knew that we'd most likely get it sold to the Taiwanese in one shot. And that's exactly what happened. Not even 30 minutes went by after we arrived at the brokers' before the whole batch was sold. I can still see Ensar's painful grimace upon getting the news. His vintage Malaysian oud now belonged to someone in Taiwan. But there was no other way. We have a costly trip ahead of us.
While the greater Chinese market is almost exclusively for raw aloeswood, Taiwan is after vintage oils as well. Our retired Taiwanese distiller (the man behind ouds like Borneo Kinam and Kalbar 3000) is held in high esteem, for which reason the Singapore brokers are all too eager for us to offer them our other vintage aloeswood oils. They'd have them all sold to Taiwanese collectors before the day was over.
III. From Oud Oil to Crude Oil
Since our arrival in Borneo, we've met the government official who since 2005 has maintained contact with all the established hunters and distillers in western Borneo. From the time of the original survey on agarwood trade in the region, conducted in 2005, out of the 62 names only 10 have any kind of activity happening today.
Accompanying the official was a former big-wheel in the trade, with whom we discussed how far things have come. To sum up just how lucrative the trade has been for most in recent years… The man has completely retired from the oud business and is now in the gas and crude oil sector. And it's not just him. Another of the original 62 with whom we met is into construction. Another into birds' nests. Others into palm oil. Others into rubber. Others into fruit trees. The list goes on.
IV. Sulphur and Mercury
From the 10 people still in business, we were brought to the man with the highest level of activity. The only thing this person cared about could be summed up into two syllables: China. He has no oud oil operation. The only thing he does is buy any and all agarwood he can get his hands on from every corner of the island so he can sell it directly to China. We sat with him and spent hours talking about the trade, at the end of which he apologized for not being able to help us with any oil extraction ventures as his agarwood only had one destination written on it, and that destination was China.
Even so, upon examining his wood, we found specimens of Papuan gyrinops, Sumatran, West Borneo, East Borneo – basically all agarwood he could lay his hands on was piled into a single batch, from where it was subsequently divided according to their grading system, irrespective of origin. He repeatedly made it clear that 99% of the people he deals with don't care about the details, so long as the general grade of the various species matches up. We were the 1% to whom it mattered.
When he's not busy stock-piling what's left in the wild, he takes part in a team of chemists and other scientists experimenting with inoculation methods. In this regard, we heard some rather disturbing things about certain chemicals (sulphur and mercury, to name only two) being used in plantations. We're seeing an increased emphasis on haste and quantity, regardless of the side effects. Sustainable cultivation and human health are not top priorities.
V. Abandoned Distilleries
So far as distillation is concerned, the largest facility (owned by a major Gulf corporation) has not been run a single time since 2005 and has been on sale ever since, offering 10 large-capacity boilers. Still no takers. Reason: No wood.
When asked why abandoned distilleries are nothing strange in these parts, we were told that 'the problem is not just the wood, it's also the price.' Because the China market emerged out of nowhere in no time, the demand for agarwood has become very one-dimensional. One thing that came from this is that the reality of agarwood's scarcity was laid bare – overnight the trees vanished.
Consequently, many jumped at the void in the market by starting plantations. However, as we all know, agarwood cultivation isn't a short-term game. To do things right, you need many years, many decades. Newcomers to the market, however, can't afford to wait that long. A sense of urgency and excitement has given birth to a spur of scientific studies related to enhancing the growth of agarwood. So, even though there are concerted efforts to push cultivation efforts in the right direction, many are unable to comply with long-term goals and ideals. The result is a two-edged sword: quick fixes and illegal poaching.
VI. What the Newspapers Say
'Efforts to conserve the state's forests are stronger than ever,' reads the latest government report on forestry and sustainable development. In our previous post, 'The End of Oud, Continued,' we noted Christopher Hoeth's words:
'Borneo is the last place where any wood remains,' Christopher said. 'But within the last six months alone I've seen over two thousand Vietnamese go there. Within six months, I assure you, not one single wild tree will be left standing in Borneo. They will clean out the entire island, just like they did Cambodia and Laos. And that will be that.'
What do we read in the newspapers today?
'A 23-year-old Vietnamese man was sentenced to six years in jail for felling agarwood trees…'
'Six Vietnamese were arrested when the state Anti-Smuggling Unit seized 51kg of agarwood during a raid on an apartment…'
'Two Vietnamese nationals and a Thai have been arrested for the alleged smuggling of agarwood…'
Whether it'll be Vietnamese poachers doing it, or if it'll be at the hands of the locals themselves, we don't see an alternative ending to this story.