Gaharu in the Apo Kayan plateau, Kalimantan
Apo Kayan is mostly inhabited by Kenyah people, a Dayak indigenous group. Their territory is still recognized as one customary land, or wilayah adat, under the leadership of the customary chief, or kepala adat besar, in the village of Long Nawang .
One of the activities still practised in the Apo Kayan area is the extraction of non-timber forest products.
Gaharu is one example. Also known as eaglewood or aloes wood, the fragrant resinous wood produced by a fungal infection in trees of the genus Aquilaria, it is an export product which is used in the manufacture of incense, perfume, and medicinals. There is no local use for gaharu in Apo Kayan.
A few guidelines for collectors
How does one obtain gaharu? First, the telling signs have to be identified, such as evidence of infection, specific colour of the leaves or the texture of the bark. Local people recognize that this method, while based on local ecological knowledge and experience, is not certain.
Moreover, there is no way to tell what part of the tree might contain the infected heartwood. Sometimes, gaharu collectors might decide to cut a tree with no apparent sign of infection, just to check if it has any.
From small trade beginnings…
In the past, gaharu was traded in small quantities from the Apo Kayan during expeditions to the lowlands. A small collecting boom took place in the 1970s, but it was limited in scope.
Collectors were mostly coming from neighbouring Kenyah villages to harvest high-grade aloes wood. The traders were also mostly Dayak entrepreneurs.
…to serious business
Then things suddenly changed. In early 1991, an increasing number of outside collectors organized in teams and sponsored by traders based in Samarinda, on the south coast of Kalimantan, started appearing. This first gaharu rush lasted until 1995.
After a brief lull, a surge in activities with involvement of outside middlemen and traders re-occurred in 1998, in the sub-district of Kayan Hilir.
Today, the trade is still ongoing. With some brief exceptions, the market value of gaharu has increased steadily or, at least, remained constant over the years. Prices rose dramatically right after the economic crisis hit the Southeast Asian countries in 1997-1998.