Assam’s tea growers are battling many challenges – excessive manufacturing prices, low revenue margin, labour issues, and of late, coal scarcity. Amid all this, they’ve discovered a window of alternative, the critically endangered agarwood tree, that guarantees a symbiotic relationship during which they will each profit from one another.

Agarwood, or Aquilaria malaccensis, is native to Assam and elements of the North East. Though its use is assorted – as an fragrant, drugs and for non secular functions – Xasi, as it’s known as in Assamese, is most famed for the costly perfumes that it’s used for making. Such is its exclusivity and such is the demand, notably within the Arab international locations, that it’s usually termed as “liquid gold”. There may be, nonetheless, a catch. It is just an contaminated agarwood tree that produces the darkish resin that makes the fragrant oil.

So, it’s only when the Aquilaria tree is bodily injured, both by fungal an infection or by the borer insect known as Neurozerra conferta (Zeuzera conferta), does it produce the darkish resin as a defence mechanism. However indiscriminate chopping down of the mature tree for agarwood commerce has led to its mass depletion, a lot in order that it has been declared critically endangered by Worldwide Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Assam authorities, in an effort to salvage this native tree from additional disappearance, notified the Assam Agarwood Promotion Coverage 2020. As a part of this, it has provided incentives to farmers and others, together with the tea business, to lift agarwood plantations. For a lot of small tea growers, nonetheless, this means of multi cropping started a lot earlier than this formal notification.

Sustainable different

Imtaz Ali of Namti Chariali within the Sibsagar district, as an example, first planted agarwood saplings in his tea backyard nearly 10 years again. Like many different small tea growers, Ali mentioned that this was to complement his revenue. “Tea is just not as worthwhile a enterprise at this time because it was 10-20 years again,” Ali mentioned, “Agarwood bushes, alternatively, may be very worthwhile. Relying on the girth of a matured and contaminated tree, one can earn nearly Rs 8 lakh from it.”

Speaking concerning the points that small tea growers like him have been going through, Ali mentioned that ever since there was a spurt in bought-leaf factories in his neighborhood, they’ve been going through losses. “If I refuse to promote my tea at a cheaper price, they’d compromise on the standard and go for another person.” Purchased-leaf factories are models that purchase leaves from tea gardens not owned by them and convert them to processed tea. Small tea growers principally depend on these models for his or her enterprise.

In June this yr, the value of uncooked tea leaves in these models went down from round Rs 40 to nearly Rs 20 per kg. It led to an uproar and a minimal mounted fee was thereafter determined upon, with high quality being a yardstick.

Even then, tea growers are sceptical concerning the future and have determined that the “fragrance tree” may very well be a sustainable different.

“I’ve planted agarwood bushes as 10×10 hedge round my one hectare tea backyard,” Ali advised Mongabay-India. “Rising these bushes don’t want any funding. No manure, no irrigation. They develop on their very own, and the very best half is that the moth that infects this tree is discovered naturally on this area.”

4 districts, of which Sibsagar, Jorhat, and Golaghat are in higher Assam, alongside the northern financial institution of the Brahmaputra, whereas Hojai is in decrease Assam, account for 91% of the state’s agarwood bushes. Zeuzera conferta, the borer that infects the agarwood tree, can also be discovered extra generally in higher Assam.

Agarwood, native to Assam and elements of North East, is critically endangered. Photograph credit score: Hafizmuar/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Like Ali, Joon Das, additionally a tea grower within the Dibrugarh district, has planted agarwood saplings in his tea backyard and is now awaiting their maturity. “I don’t have the experience to distil the resin and extract the oil,” he mentioned. “I’ll promote the wooden as soon as it’s contaminated by the borer to merchants in Hojai.”

Agarwood tree saplings are additionally being planted by greater tea corporations, like Goodricke Group Restricted, in a few of their gardens, as a “pilot undertaking”. Abrar Haque Chowdhury, normal supervisor (operations) of Goodricke Group Restricted in Assam, mentioned that planting of agarwood of their tea gardens is a way of diversification, for added income, in view of rising manufacturing prices and decreasing revenue margin. “Oil palm cultivation is one other avenue that we’re exploring,” he advised Mongabay-India.

Sessa tea property within the Dibrugarh district is amongst these of the tea corporations which have began agarwood plantations after the Assam authorities gazette notification. Monirul Islam, supervisor of Sessa, mentioned that the saplings have been planted within the land that isn’t used for tea plantations. “Planting these bushes in between the tea bushes doesn’t make sense as a result of they aren’t cover bushes that will be capable to present shade,” he mentioned. It could nonetheless take a minimal of 5 to 10 years for turnover from these bushes.

Double-edged sword

Whereas agarwood has provided hope to the tea business in Assam – and in return reverse its critically endangered standing – Purabi Saikia of the Central College of Jharkhand is sceptical about intercropping one with the opposite.

Saikia, who has completed a research on rising agarwood in homestead gardens in Assam, mentioned that if planted collectively it may doubtlessly hurt tea plantations in the long term. “Agarwood is just not a legume. It extracts diet from the soil to develop. So whether it is planted with tea bushes, it should compromise the well being of the tea vegetation,” she advised Mongabay-India.

Saikia’s opinion has discovered proof on the sector. Imtaz Ali, as an example, has seen that these tea vegetation which might be nearer the agar bushes produce 100 gram much less leaves than these farther away. “We sometimes get 250 gram of tea leaves from a plant, however these close to the agar bushes produce much less,” he mentioned, “So sure, it has affected productiveness.” Even then, he isn’t keen to let go of the agar bushes.

“Proper now the agar bushes have extra potential of giving me a greater revenue margin,” he mentioned.


Monirul Islam, who can also be from Namti Chariali, added that so wealthy are the tree’s properties that even its chips are bought at a excessive worth to make incense sticks. Boya oil gel, extracted from non-infected bushes, is utilized in cosmetics, Ayurvedic drugs, in addition to in cooking.

Evaluating the typical income one can earn from tea versus agarwood plantation, Jehirul Islam, who holds the patent for the synthetic an infection means of agarwood bushes, mentioned, “One can earn between Rs 27-Rs 28 lakh from one hectare of tea plantation, however Rs. 2 crore-Rs 3 crore from agarwood plantation.”

Islam performed a key function within the state cupboard’s determination to accord industrial standing to agarwood-related actions and mentioned that the state has the potential to earn an “annual turnover of Rs 50,000 crore” from it. “I wish to flip agarwood-related actions right into a cottage business,” he added.

The state authorities, in its notification which got here into impact this January, has mentioned that farmers can be supplied an incentive of Rs 1,00,000 for planting 3,000 agarwood saplings alongside the boundary of their fields or tea gardens. Saplings will even be supplied to small tea growers freed from value. Merging the tea business with agarwood plantation, it added, will open “new vistas for the plantation-based economic system of the state”. However whether or not intertwining the 2 would really change their destiny is for the longer term to see.

This text first appeared on Mongabay.

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