Agarwood habitat in Eastern Himalayas under threat, say experts

Guwahati: The habitat of Agarwood, a species highly valued for its aromatic wood and popularly called agar, could decline in the Eastern Himalayas due to anthropogenic activities.

The price of Agarwood can be as high as US$100,000 per kg based on the quality, while oleoresin costs US$30,000 per kg in the global market. The over-exploitation of the species leads to a severe impact on the species’ survivability. The species has been listed as a potentially threatened species in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and has been categorised as critically endangered by IUCN. 

A study on habitat suitability of the critically endangered Agarwood ( Aquilaria malaccensis) in the Indian East Himalayan region done by researchers from Assam University has found that the natural habitat of Agarwood is also drastically changing due to anthropogenic activities, and the tree is no longer in existence in the wild except in some intact forest patches. In the Indian East Himalayan region, Agarwood is planted in indigenous agroforestry and communal lands. 

The study says only 2282 sq km is currently highly suitable for Agarwood. However, there will be a tremendous loss of suitable habitats in future climate change scenarios. It is predicted to decline 34.28% by 2050 and 44.88% by 2070.

“However, there will be a tremendous loss of suitable habitats in future climate change scenarios. The study highlights that precipitation of the driest quarter, precipitation of the warmest quarter and mean temperature of the driest quarter were the most influential bioclimatic variables. In addition, sand, clay content and organic carbon density were critical predictors of the distribution of Agarwood,” the study says.

The study confirms that the potential habitat of Agarwood is confined in the Assam and Tripura states of the Indian East Himalayan region, which no longer exists in the wild except in some untouched forest patches.

Agarwood produces oleoresin, highly valued in aromatic fragrances and perfumery industries, incense making, ornamental display, and ethnomedicines. 

Besides, Agarwood and its derived oils are widely employed in preparing numerous cosmetic items and Unani and Ayurvedic treatments. The species’ bark was also utilised for writing religious scripts. 

Agarwood typically grows in lowland primary and secondary forests and well-drained slopes with a mean annual temperature and rainfall of 18–22°C and 500–6500 mm, respectively and up to an elevation of 1000 metres.

The study found that in Assam, Jorhat district of Assam had a high potential to hold Agarwood, followed by Golaghat, Karimganj, Sivasagar, Cachar and Hailakandi districts and North Tripura district of Tripura. However, the potential changes from current to future habitat suitability of Agarwood indicate a remarkable loss of suitable habitats in these districts. In contrast, the potentially suitable area for the species would increase in Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam. 

Interestingly, the highly suitable area in the Sivasagar district of Assam is predicted to increase under future climate change scenarios. 

“Therefore, it can be inferred that climate change severely impacts the ecology and population sizes of species, including by altering ranges that enable the species to exist in a new geophysical environment,” the study says.

Among the states in this region, the Government of Assam has introduced the Assam Agarwood Promotion Policy 2020. The policy aims to enhance the production of Agarwood and the conservation of the species. Similarly, the Government of Tripura also introduced a similar policy in 2021. 

The main objectives of these Agarwood policies are to provide sustainable utilisation of Agarwood, including cultivation, harvesting, processing, transit and trade.

Furthermore, the Government of Assam established the International Trade Centre at Dabidubi in Golaghat to provide an investment platform in Agarwood, which could boost the state’s economy.

“However, the complex chain of intermediaries in the Agarwood trade may significantly influence the effectiveness of these policies. Selling Agarwood is traditional, non-transparent and coercive; these intermediaries neither maintain documents nor issue receipts. Hence, the Agarwood market is more profitable for intermediaries because of poor transportation and communication systems, highly segregated markets, and unequal bargaining power between buyers and sellers” the study says.

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Researchers associated with the study argue for the support of the farming communities by the regional governments and policymakers and suggest the active participation of researchers, extension and NGO workers and buyers in knowledge sharing, training of farmers, and the distribution of planting materials among farmers to encourage agarwood cultivation. 

They also recommend the intensification of traditional Agarwood farming in the region, which can be a possible way to enhance the socioeconomic standard of the farmers and be a possible nature-based solution and thus help in achieving India’s long-term goal of reaching net-zero carbon emission by 2070.

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