By Milan Lu
The Department of Forest Conservation of Sri Lanka recognises any part of a tree growing in a forest, not necessarily indigenous or endangered, to be forest produce. This forest produce cannot be removed from forests without a proper permit. Gyrinops walla, commonly known as Walla Patta in Sinhala, grows freely in Sri Lanka, with a small population also growing in India. Recently, it came to light that this tree produces a resinous substance called agarwood, once infected by fungi. Agarwood fetches a high price in other countries as it is used in the production of perfumes.
Gyrinops walla was traditionally used for medicinal purposes. People would make use of the bark when casting broken bones, hence, its common name of Walla Patta. According to Dr. Samantha S. Fernando, who has done some studies into the tree species, this subcanopy tree mainly grows in forests and in some home gardens of the lowland and intermediate wet zone areas.
Agarwood is produced within the bark of the tree. The process takes place when the tree is injured in some way and a fungus attacks it. This sweet-smelling resin then accumulates over time and deforms the tree. Once extracted, agarwood is burnt as incense and used in the manufacture of non-alcoholic perfumes. Jagath Gunewardana states that Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) lists the Gyrinops species as a producer of agarwood. Limited permits are allowed for agarwood-producing tree products by the origin country to ensure that it is not endangered by trade. As other species of agarwood that is commercially used already fetches a very high price in the international market, Gyrinops walla may be seen as a substitute.
About three years ago, a team of researchers arrived from India to conduct a survey and to learn more on the tree’s properties. Once protests were made and they were stopped from entering the forest to collect samples, they approached the villagers to give them samples of the trees growing in their home gardens in exchange for a high price. A few months ago, a few Indian nationals were stopped while transporting Gyrinops walla. The leader of the group escaped and the others were remanded. No permit had been issued by the Forest Department for the cutting and removal of Gyrinops walla from the forests.
According to Dr. Fernando, once these Indian nationals were remanded and the story broke out in the news, local villagers began cutting down any Gyrinops walla tree in their gardens, hoping they will be able to make an income out of it. They did this without knowing about its agarwood properties or the process in which agarwood is produced. After some intervention by authorities, the villages discontinued this.
Research and protection
Deputy General of Department Forest Conservation, Anura Hathurusingha, said although the trees belong to the same family as the commercially acknowledged Gyrinops species, research is still being carried out on Gyrinops walla to see if it does produce agarwood, the process in which it produces and the quality of this product. He also went on to say how the illegal cutting and smuggling of Gyrinops needs to be stopped immediately. “We see an opportunity to fetch a high income from this tree. Research and development is still being carried out to investigate propagation and what conditions are needed to get the resinous substance,” he added. “As we were unaware of the tree’s agarwood properties, research need be done from scratch and the legal aspect too needs to be amended to stop the tree’s product being smuggled out of the country.” Hathurusingha also went on to state that a report and proposal is being drafted for presentation to the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, Sri Lanka.
According to Samantha Gunesekara, Officer of Sri Lanka Customs, the export of any Gryrinops walla tree originating from home gardens cannot be stopped by the current laws as they are not a part of the forest. He also stated that officials have not done much to control the situation of exporting Gyrinops walla trees grown in home gardens, or given the issue much focus after the incident of remanding Indian citizens.
Although research is still being carried out, the protection of Gyrinops walla or Walla Patta needs to be done individually by the people who may have it in their home gardens. If the quality of the agarwood it produces is of some value in the international market, then Sri Lanka may be able to receive another income source once all regulations and propagation methods are figured out and approved of.