Gentle method: Andak demonstrating how they carve out parts of the trunk of a karas tree to check for agarwood.
GERIK: Traditionally, orang asli only used the soft bark of karas trees to weave items such as clothes and bags but in the 1980s, they discovered a new source of income – harvesting agarwood.
Deep in the forest reserves here, the karas trees stand tall with large chunks of their trunks gouged out by orang asli checking to see if the agarwood resin has grown in the heartwood inside.
If the heartwood remains a pure yellowish-tan, they would leave the tree to grow but if the coveted deep brown wood is found, they have hit pay dirt and will harvest the agarwood by hacking it into woodchips.
Andak Lembut, a 54-year-old from the Temiar tribe, said the community would only harvest the agarwood they needed for their daily living expenses.
Unless it was a mature tree with high quality agarwood, he said they were careful not to kill the tree, adding that the forest was their main – if not only – source of income.
“We take care of the forest, including the gaharu trees, because it is our source of sustenance. For the orang asli, the forest is our bank ... we only take what we need,” he said.
However, the orang asli community is facing a problem as they compete with poachers for their livelihood.
According to forest researcher Lim Teck Wyn, the orang asli have been sustainably harvesting agarwood for many years without harming the karas tree population.
“They have a system of harvesting where they only take a little bit of agarwood at a time. They only take the dead wood.
“The problem is when foreigners come in and they cut down the whole tree,” he said.
The Vietnamese and Cambodian poachers, said Andak, would log even young karas trees that had not developed any agarwood.
“This is because the agarwood cartels want to increase the price of farmed agarwood by reducing the availability of agarwood in the wild,” he claimed.
The orang asli, Andak admitted, were also supplying agarwood to the black market as the law currently did not allow them to legally collect and trade forest produce.
According to residents here, it is common to see orang asli coming to town and deal discreetly with buyers, some of whom come from as far as Malacca.
“The authorities say we need a permit to harvest and sell agarwood but when we apply, they do not approve our applications,” claimed Andak.
In the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia’s books, orang asli are only allowed to harvest forest produce for personal use.
“It is not fair to charge them to obtain the removal pass (harvesting permit) because they are using this for their own consumption.
“However, lately urban folk are taking advantage of their aboriginal privileges by hiring them to collect agarwood in big amounts for commercial purposes,” said Forestry Department director-general Datuk Akhirmuddin Mahmud.
“The department will not compromise with this syndicated extraction of agarwood from the Permanent Reserved Forest areas as it is against the National Forestry Act 1984.”
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