The government has undertaken a project of about Tk 68 crore to increase the production of high quality agarwood and generate more revenue through its export.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change initiated the project titled “Innovation of Agar Resin Collection Technology at High Quality in Whole Trees”, recognising agarwood and its essential oil as being some of the most expensive raw materials in the world.
The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) on June 22 this year approved the project, which would be implemented by the Bangladesh Forest Research Institute (BFRI).
According to the BFRI, the international market for agarwood is currently worth about $12 billion. Only 35 per cent of the demand can be met. And the bulk of it comes from natural forests.
Bangladesh exported some Tk 275 crore-worth of agarwood in fiscal 2018-19 and of Tk 169 crore the following year.
Agarwood comes from the Aquilaria malaccensis tree. If it comes to suffer an external damage, a fungal infection grows inside called Phialophora parasitica. This prompts the tree to produce an aromatic resin, which coagulates over time to create agarwood. Since the frequency of natural infections is extremely low, the artificial practice for triggering the resin secretion is hammering iron nails into the tree.
Dr Mohammad Jakir Hossain, an official of the BFRI’s Department of Forest and Biomaterials Science, who prepared the project, said agarwood was produced both artificially and naturally in Bangladesh.
Only 5-10 per cent of a tree’s volume materialised in the form of resin in the current iron nail method, he said, adding that the agarwood produced using iron nails was of substandard quality.
He said they were trying out other ways of triggering the resin’s secretion, one of which was a “transfusion or saline method”.
“So far, we have had the most success with this method in trials. Hopefully, we will be able to generate 80 per cent of agarwood from a tree through the method,” Hossain said. Out of all the methods, the one that turns out to be the most fruitful will be adopted, he said.
Businesspeople of the agarwood industry said the traditional iron nail method has been in use around the world, including Bangladesh, since ancient times.
They, however, said they were open to new ideas, provided it was organic.
Abdul Kabir, an entrepreneur of the industry and a resident of Sujanagar union of Moulvibazar’s Barlekha upazila, said they have been in this business for a few generations.
“I own an agar garden and processing plants,” he said.
He sees the project as a government support for the industry. “If the government can collect agar resin without using chemicals, they, the entrepreneurs of this industry, will welcome it,” he said.
“But the entrepreneurs will not appreciate it if they take any initiative to collect the substance by using any artificial or non-traditional means,” he added.
Ansarul Haque, president of the Bangladesh Agar and Perfume Manufacturers and Importers Association, labelled the project to be a futile effort.
“The project the government is initiating would not be beneficial for us. It will only waste the government’s money by doing the research,” he said.
However, he said, if the proposed methods turned out to be beneficial for producing agarwood, then they would adopt it.
“Our overarching aim is to reach an annual export revenue of $1,000 crore by 2025 through this project,” said Dr Jakir Hossain.
Bangladesh exports agarwood mainly to Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Qatar, Riyadh, Bahrain, China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
Agarwood is also produced in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and some other countries.
According to the BFRI, there are currently about six crore Aquilaria trees in Bangladesh.
At present, private forestries of Aquilaria trees are managed in Sylhet, Chattogram, Chattogram Hill Tracts, Cumilla, greater Mymensingh and Gazipur.
The project encompasses areas including Chattogram, Moulvibazar, Sylhet, Khagrachhari, Rangamati and Mymensingh.
Its implementation period is estimated to be five years spanning from January 2021 to December 2025.
A project official informed that they were looking to conduct some research on issues, including artificial storage, oil extraction and quality determination, engaging in partnerships with universities or institutes of Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan.
Over 300 agarwood oil refineries are present in different parts of the country. This industry has directly or indirectly created employment opportunities for about 20,000 people.
BFRI Director Dr Masudur Rahman said if the project was implemented properly, agarwood production would increase several fold.
“And if we can capture the international market, we will be able to play a greater role in the country’s economy,” said Rahman.
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