Agar Tree the farmers Gold Mine

VK Bahuguna

November 18, 2022, 11:03:12   

Agar Tree the farmers Gold Mine

(The author is former Director-General in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change)


Resource management is a fine art which India’s policy makers need to consolidate to solve the problems of increasing the income of farmers from our rich bio-diversity. Forest management for over more than hundred and fifty years has been timber oriented to meet primarily the needs of colonial interests as well as promotion of Railways in India as also to meet the needs of Agriculture and water security while setting up of forest administration in India. Today one of the problems farmers are facing is regular disruptions in agriculture productivity due to climatic factors and irregular rains which is further creating low yields due to constant year after year fragmentation of agriculture land holding. More than 86 % farmers are small and marginal owning only less than 1 ha of land according to Agriculture census 2015-16 with 70 % households depending on agriculture. Under such conditions diversification is the only way to step up the farmers' income. The government of India has been promoting through several steps to increase the income but some of the good steps taken like three Farm Acts enacted during 2020 were embroiled in big controversy and had to be repealed by the government when the farmers’ agitation turned ugly and anti-national elements entered it. 


Agar Tree the farmers Gold Mine Under these conditions the role of agro-forestry assumes importance so that tree growing complements the agriculture for enhancing the income from farming. The synergy between forestry trees and agriculture has received big boost during past 40 years as major supply (0f more than 85 %) of wood both industrial as well as domestic is met in the country from private agricultural fields and also from imports. Two most valuable trees growing in India are Agar wood and Red sanders.  These trees are a few species of Trees which need to be specially taken for management like Tea, Coffee, Rubber and other cash crops in the country. Agar wood trees are nothing less than a Gold mine considering its oil and chip's value in the international market. It is also known as ‘the wood of Gods'. In this article the author after visiting farmers' field in Tripura recently discusses the importance of Agar Tree so that a policy framework can be adopted at the national level. Red sanders need to be discussed separately.


Agar Tree the farmers Gold MineThe capital of Tripura Agartala is named after the Agar wood tree as it used to be present profusely in and around the Agartala city and all over Tripura’s forests. But its detrimental exploitation made it a rare species and is now is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Agar wood tree is an evergreen species scientifically known as Aquilaria malaccensis previously known as Aquilaria agalocha. It is grown naturally in India and other South Asian and South- East Asian countries. In India it is found growing up to an elevation of 3000 feet to 3500 feet in West-Bengal and all the North-Eastern states and Sikkim. It is most valuable and easy growing tree and can be cultivated on farmers’ fields in tropical humid climatic conditions. Agar tree becomes valuable only after it is naturally infected by the fungus after it is attacked by the insects. It has also already been planted by the farmers in Orissa, Kerala and Karnataka. The Agar oil and agar wood chips are in high demand in Middle East countries like Saudi Arab, UAE etc. for preparations of perfumes, medicines and other valuable products; in Korea it is used to prepare wine and in China for ornamental functions. The cost of one kg Agar oil is around Rs 25 lakh and of one kg Agar chips is Rs one lakh. In natural conditions it is infected by fungi which is the cause of production of resin in Agar  tree. The chips are burnt for incense and oil is used in perfume making. In India Assam and Tripura are the centre of international trade in agar wood.


Agar Tree the farmers Gold Mine Though some rough estimates of agar wood trees have been made by the Forest Survey of India but of late the Tripura Forest department under JICA project with the help of specially recruited Van Mitra (friends of forests who are paid monthly honorarium for assisting the forest department) and proper sampling techniques have assessed that more around 54 lakh trees of Agar are growing in the state. During last few years under JICA more than 7 lakh trees were planted in farmers’ field. With a rotation of 20 years 5 lakh trees are available for harvest each year but resin impregnated percentage is generally 20 to 22 %. However, the artificial infections also are quite successful and the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education has standardized the artificial inoculation which can be adopted by the farmers in a big way.


Agar Tree the farmers Gold Mine The export quota fixed by the CITES for India is 75,000 kg of chips and 1500 kg of oil but so far the legal way of export is not taking place due to impractical and too much bureaucratic red tapes in export policy of 2021. In countries like Vietnam the Chambers of commerce’s certificates are sufficient documents for export and CITES issues permit. In India the State forest departments’ certificate should be sufficient to export and CITES should have uniform procedure for all countries. Here in our country everything is considered suspicious unless proved otherwise. While proving the correctness the officers’ insensitivity kills the enterprise and enthusiasm with convoluted guidelines with the result that other countries are reaping the benefits or the trade is done clandestinely. The guidelines need to be simplified. We also need to take up diplomatically anti-India cartel in CITES where even the Shisham tree has been put under CITES which is extensively grown on farm lands all over India.


The government of India must take must immediate steps to promote species like Agar wood by launching special schemes to help farmers plant Agar wood wherever feasible climatically. A ‘National Agar wood board of India’ with regional centres in other states should be established in one of the Agar growing state and preferably in Tripura which is promoting it among the farmers in a big way with infrastructure with a well-defined ‘Agar wood Policy”. We must take a lesson from the Kautilya’s “Arthshastra” which vividly describes the use of Agar wood in commercial perfume business and help our farmers to enrich themselves.