KUCHING: Five indigenous communities in Sarawak stand to benefit from the commercialisation of an essential oil derived from a tree they have traditionally used for generations.
The Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC) has entered into access and benefit sharing agreements with the Bidayuhs of Kampung Kiding in Padawan near here, the Lun Bawangs of Long Telingan and Long Kerabangan in Lawas district and the Kelabits of Pa'Ukat and Pa'Lungan in Bario on the sustainable use of their resource.
SBC has been working with the communities since 2005 on the essential oil from the fruit and leaves of the Litsea Cubeba tree, which is known as "pahkak" in Bidayuh and "tenem" in Lun Bawang and Kelabit.
"The communities will plant the trees and harvest the fruits and the leaves to extract the oil. They will send the oil to SBC and we will investigate its quality and buy it from them," SBC CEO Dr Yeo Tiong Chia said after the signing ceremony here on Wednesday (March 20).
He said SBC had now developed the oil, which has been trademarked LitSara, into a range of products such as soap, shampoo, air freshener and essential oil for aromatherapy as it was found to have good anti-microbial and insect repellent properties.
Under the benefit sharing agreements, part of the proceeds from the sale of the products will go back to the community.
"The other thing that they benefit from us is capacity building. We share with them how to propagate the plant and do sustainable harvesting.
"With the assistance of UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), we built an extraction shed in the communities and put in the extraction equipment for them.
"And in the agreement they promise to supply us with a certain amount of the oil," Yeo said.
With the signing ceremony, SBC becomes the first organisation in Malaysia to implement the Nagoya Protocol on access and benefit sharing with indigenous communities on using their traditional knowledge and biodiversity.
Yeo said it was also in line with the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre Ordinance, which was amended in 2014 to include an access and benefit sharing component.
"Now we are bringing the products into the market, so the benefit should go back to the communities.
"This is an access and benefit sharing project because the communities are the ones who provide us with the information and they are the ones who are propagating the plant," he said.
He added that LitSara products are currently available online through SBC's website.
Kampung Kiding community leader Bakas Daneu said the LitSara project had helped improve the villagers' livelihood over the years.
He said last year the community supplied 40 litres of the essential oil to SBC.
"It takes 130kg of leaves to produce one litre of oil, whereas for the fruit, it takes 30kg for one litre of oil," he said.
According to Bakas, the Bidayuh traditionally cooked the fruit as flavouring for meat and vegetable dishes but it was also used as medication for stomach ache.
"Before this, we did not know how to make other products from this tree. We're thankful to SBC and UNDP for working with us on this project and sharing their experience with us," he said.