BISLIG CITY, Surigao del Sur – Aquilaria (Thymelaeaceae) tree species in the area are now considered endangered due to illegal harvesting of the agarwood that they produce.
Agarwood, also known as the “liquid gold” of the forest, is a very dark and incredibly aromatic resin used as an ingredient in essential oils and medicinal compounds. This is formed in the heartwood of Aquilaria trees when they become infected with certain fungi. The dark resinous wood is a response to the bacterial and fungal infections. In the wild, production of this resin can take many years and as it gets older the resin becomes more valued. These qualities have made agarwood as the world’s most expensive resin used in incense and essential oil, hence, the name “liquid gold.” However, the trade of agarwood is largely unorganized, and often fake and adulterated wood is pushed into markets as cheaper agarwood based on reports. With the vulnerability of Aquilaria tree species, researchers from the College of Forestry and Natural Resources in the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB-CFNR) and the Forest and Wetland Research Development and Extension Center of Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (ERDB-FWRDEC) implemented a program to conserve this tree species. Under the leadership of Dr. Lerma SJ. Maldia of UPLB-CFNR, the program generally aims to provide baseline information on the location and distribution of Aquilaria tree species in Mindanao and develop soil index of Aquilaria species per province (project 1); and to provide genetic data to facilitate the development of effective measures to conserve the genetic resources of the agarwood-producing Aquilaria species in the Philippines (project 2). This involves getting samples from identified tree species, generating their DNA barcodes, and assessing the genetic diversity and structure of selected populations of agarwood-producing Aquilaria species. With funding from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), the research team from UPLB-CFNR and ERDB-FWRDEC already finished a year of program implementation. The monitoring agency, the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development under DOST (DOST-PCAARRD) recently visited the project sites in Surigao del Sur. The monitoring team led by For. Faustina Baradas, director of the Forestry and Environment Research Division (FERD), evaluated the status and accomplishments of the program.
According to For. Rustum A. Aguilos, project 1 leader from ERDB-FWRDEC, their team explored and assessed a total of 240 Aquilaria individual trees within the five protected areas and one experimental forest. They have already scouted and identified the mapping of Aquilaria species in selected project sites in Region 10 and 13, namely: Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park, Cabadbaran River Watershed Forest Reserve, Tinuy-an Falls Protected Landscape, and Bislig Experimental Forest. Their team has also established preliminary results from the soil assessment from each identified plot.
For the second project component, the UPLB research team has already developed initial barcode data from various species of Aquilaria, but additional DNA sequences and more variable genetic markers are still needed to confirm the identities of the species. Since not all Aquilaria species produce quality agarwood, DNA sequencing is needed to make sure that the right species will be mass propagated.
According to Dr. Maldia, accurate classification of Aquilaria species has yet to be achieved. As Aquilaria trees in the wild are rarely seen with fruits and flowers, conventional identification methods cannot be applied to identify agarwood at the species level.
With this R&D program, it is hoped that the outputs are directed towards the conservation of the Aquilaria species in the Philippines, the sustainable production of agarwood, and the increased utilization values of Aquilaria.