Agar wood mafia, lack of options force villagers to risk death

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The youngest son of 80-year-old Tran Nho (left, seen here with her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren) in Quang Binh Province, was shot dead during a hunt organized by "agar wood kings," but received no compensation. Photo courtesy of Saigon Tiep Thi

The brutal murder of five local loggers hunting rare wood in the central province of Quang Binh on March 23 has not prevented many people from returning to the hunt because they have few other livelihood options. 

Residents of Minh Tien Village in the province's Quang Trach District are still talking about the murder. Three people in the commune were among the five victims.

Earlier this month, police arrested two Vietnamese men and a Lao man suspected to have battered the five men to death. The gang admitted to have captured seven loggers in a forest along the border, demanding a ransom of VND15 million (US$713.83) each. They allowed one of them to return home to get the money. 

But later that day, when the person failed to return, they decided to kill the rest, although one logger managed to escape as the others were being killed. 

The loggers had gone into the forest to look for calambac the dark resinous heartwood that forms in agar wood trees when they become infected with a type of mold. Calambac fetches premium prices because it is believed to bring good luck and have the capacity to cure some otherwise incurable diseases.

Hoang Minh Hieu, head of the village, said most residents are likely to continue taking life-threatening risks in hunting the luxury wood because they see it as their only way of making a living, the Saigon Tiep Thi reported.

"The village does not have a lot of paddy land, but a lot of people 1,504 in 297 families and water sources are mostly saline. Children grow up and follow their fathers into the jungle," Hieu said, noting that he himself has to go hunting for the wood to get some money to feed his family.

"People are fearful after the death of the five people, but some of them have returned to the woods, because of the need to eat."

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A calambac hunter who wanted to be identified only as D., said, "I know it is very dangerous, but it is the only way to make ends meet that I know of."

He said he has tried going to busier places in the province to find manual work at shops or factories, but those environments left him "confused."

Chay village in the district, home to the other two victims, is also caught in the same situation of limited livelihood options, its mountainous terrain not conducive for rice farming.

Many of the village's young men returned to hunting for agar wood just four days after the two villagers' bodies were found and brought back home.

Hoang Minh Thuan, chairman of Quang Minh Commune in which the village is located, said local authorities cannot stop the residents because they have no alternative means of livelihood to offer.

Thuan said dozens of people leave for the jungle at a time, and spend one to several months on each expedition.

"˜Agar wood kings'

Nearly 100 kilometers away in Truc Ly village of Quang Ninh District, some people are killed every year for different reasons related to hunting agar wood, but residents still persist with the pursuit.

The villagers used to rely on fishing in a local river and nearby swamps, but failed to escape poverty. They switched to agar wood hunting in the 1980s, making the village the agar wood capital of the country.

A logger said the business in the village is run by four people who are known as "agar wood kings." The logger said he does not want to be named for fear of retribution from the "kings" for talking too much.

"The four kings are very rich. They have more than 300 loggers, organized into teams of 10 or 15, sometimes 20, under a foreman.

"Money, medicine and food is provided by the kings via the foreman, who keeps the "˜kings' informed of any discovery.

"The kings keep more than 50 percent of the money earned and loggers get very little of the rest after other fees including bribes to officials, payments to middlemen and stuff," the hunter said.

He said some loggers who have served a long time or are family members of the kings receive better shares and are richer than their peers.

"Those loggers can afford vehicles and well-built houses, which is a way to promote the business and lure more people into working for the kings, borrowing from them to get started." (The "kings" do not provide the men with equipment like boots, gloves and hoes.. they lend the money to loggers at high interest rates.)   

There are people who never manage to return the loans which just keep rising as the interest rates are high and the hunters do not always get a good share.

"Just like that, loggers are stuck in the loop and have to serve the kings."

Most loggers at Truc Ly village are now crossing over the border into forests in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and most recently, Malaysia.

A logger named L. said local agar wood kings collude with some dealers in Malaysia who help them get tourism visas for the loggers. The loggers arrive in the country by air and then slip into local forests.

Illegal work far from home puts the loggers even in greater danger.

Le Thanh Hai, chairman of Vo Ninh Commune, said, "Many people have died but the rest have no other job options, so they continue taking risks."

Official statistics show that 50 people from the village have died during agar wood hunts in the past two decades, including four shot in Thailand last year.

Hai said many loggers have been jailed in Thailand and Malaysia.

The "kings" always assume no responsibility and the victims' families cannot afford to lodge an official complaint because the activity is illegal, he said.

The youngest son of 80-year-old Tran Nho, was shot dead by strangers  during a hunt organized by local "kings," but she received no compensation. "His boss only came to burn some incense sticks at the funeral, and went away like nothing has happened," she said. The son is survived by his wife and two children.

A woman, only identified by her last name Pham, and her daughter are living a hard life, collecting scrap to sell and repay loans that their husbands had taken from the "kings" before they went to Thailand and got arrested.

Another local woman, whose last name is Tran, is now a widow with three children, her husband having been killed in an attack.

"It's been just blood and tears since my husband followed this agar wood. We were the ones who made him go, so we have to bear all the consequences, there's no one we can complain to."

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