TUMBY BAY - In 2012 I was trekking through the hills north of Amau in the Central Province carrying out a social mapping study.
I overnighted in several small villages and hamlets staying in local houses and enjoying the hospitality of the owners. Sitting around a fire in the evening is a great way to collect social mapping data.
A popular topic of conversation at the time was garahu or eaglewood. This was something completely new to me and I pricked up my ears.
Over the following days I was shown outcrops of the spindly tree in the forest. Back at Amau I was shown cultivated eaglewood growing in the village.
The eaglewood tree produces a fragrant resinous wood that is highly sought after in parts of Asia and the Middle East where it is used for religious and medicinal purposes.
High-quality gaharu resin can attract very high prices per kilogram but only a small percentage of eaglewood trees contain gaharu.
The resin is produced as a chemical defence following insect injury to a tree. The ability to recognise which individual trees contain gaharu is an acquired skill.
The main destination for gaharu from PNG is Singapore, with smaller amounts exported to Malaysia and Indonesia.
Eaglewood grows in most provinces in areas up to about 1,000 metres with an annual rainfall between 1,700 mm and 5,200 mm.
The natural distribution of eaglewood is associated with some of the poorest and remotest rural communities in PNG. It presents an opportunity to increase income levels in these communities.
There are five grades of garahu ranging from ‘A’ grade through to ‘D’ grade. A kilogram of raw ‘A’ grade resin back in 2012 was fetching up to US$600. By 2017 the refined oil was fetching up to US$30,000 a kilogram.
The grading of the resin can only take place after it has been extracted and is strongly biased in favour of the traders. As I discovered, the opportunities to cheat the sellers are manifold.
A trader can quite easily tell a seller that the garahu they have sold is only ‘D’ grade when, in fact, it might be ‘A’ grade.
The traders also have another reason to lie about the quality of the product.
The PNG government introduced a 10% export tax on garahu in 2002 but they have no way of knowing what sorts of grades are being exported.
Most traders claim to be exporting only ‘C’ and ‘D’ grade garahu to lower the tax they pay.
Both of these facts mean that sellers tend to over harvest eaglewood to increase their income and this impacts on the sustainability of the resource.
Added to that is the fact that the unreported and unlicensed trade in gaharu is thought to be much larger than the legal trade and is also a threat to the sustainable management of the timber.
Eaglewood, has been listed as an endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of World Flora and Fauna.
It was only when I began to research eaglewood for my report that I discovered how those friendly villagers were being ripped off and were inadvertently contributing to the unsustainability of the PNG species (Gyrinops ledermannii).
As I understand it the trade in eaglewood, particularly in the Sandaun, East Sepik and Madang provinces, is now quite considerable.
The killing of another goose that lays a golden egg in PNG is apparently proceeding apace.