Prospectors flood into Central forests in search of precious wood

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Hundreds of people have headed to the central highland province of Gia Lai seeking a rare aromatic lumber.


Early this month, police confirmed that a group of Vietnamese timber harvesters netted VND30 billion (US$1.54 million) from the sale of a few kilograms of Agarwood.


The increasingly rare commodity forms during a parasitic fungal attack on several sub-species of Aquilaria trees. The trees exudes an aromatic resin while fighting off the fungus. It may take years for Agarwood to form in an infected Aquilaria tree, making commercial cultivation extremely difficult.


According to a 2007 report issued by the Agroforestry Division of the Hanoi-based Secoin CO. LTD, "not all Aquilaria trees produce agarwood, only approximately 10 percent of wild mature Aquilaria trees (from the age of 20 years onwards and with above 40cm diamater at breast height) can naturally produce resin."


Nguyen Van Bac, chairman of Lo Ku Commune People's Committee, said over the past few days, nearly 300 people from central provinces like Quang Nam, Da Nang, and Phu Yen have come to the commune in search of agar.


Under current Vietnamese law, trade in natural wood is banned. Agarwood can be sold by private plantation owners.

Fortune hunters from all over Gia Lai have swarmed the commune, Bac said, adding that authorities called in reinforcements from the Kbang District to guarantee security and to protect the woods from destructive behavior.


Despite the efforts by the forest authorities, several prospectors did manage to make it into the woods. Authorities reported that many of these intrepid souls, wandered back hungry or addled with disease.


Nguyen Manh Hung, one of hunters from Quang Ngai province, said he headed to Lo Ku with four people nearly one week ago, but found nothing.


"As rains in the forest were so heavy, my group decided to come back," Hung said.


A sweep conducted by the Kbang District's forest rangers in cooperation with related agencies failed to turn up any trace of the precious wood in the forests.


Last week Nguyen Van Quy, deputy chief of Dai Nghia Commune's police in Quang Nam Province, confirmed that nine local men early this month found 13 kilograms of agar in a Gia Lai forest and earned over VND30 billion from selling them to a dealer.


Usually found in Aquilaria Agallochea trees in Vietnam, the fragrant resinous heartwood is a prized component of traditional medicine, and expensive cosmetic products.

Experts say that most agarwood is now poached from natural forests. The species is potentially threatened with extinction in many parts of the world thanks to habitat destruction and unsustainable harvests.  

A kilogram of wild agarwood is estimated to sell for more than $10,000.

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