Tue, 21 Nov 2000

Ancient resin still supports North Sumatrans

By Diana Parsell

BOGOR, West Java (JP): Once described by Middle Eastern traders as the "frankincense of Sumatra", benzoin (kemenyan) from Indonesia has been sold for more than a thousand years in markets around the world.

The fragrant gum resin, produced by several species of Styrax trees, is used in incense, perfume and medicine and as a flavoring agent. Yet despite its long history, the world has known remarkably little about this interesting forest product.

Since 1996, researchers from several institutions have been investigating benzoin (ben-zoe-een) production in North Sumatra, where benzoin "gardens" have been cultivated for at least the past 200 years. The scientists had heard that benzoin agroforests could still be found in North Sumatra, but they were surprised by the extent of that activity.

"When we started exploring the region, we had no idea how important the production was," said French researcher Esther Katz. "We actually thought it was much smaller, and we were surprised to find out that about 100 villages were involved in it." The scientists believe about 18,000 families, totaling as many as 100,000 people, in North Sumatra currently benefit from benzoin income.

The Indonesian and international scientists are working at several research sites under two projects. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor is studying how people change their reliance on various forest products as an area becomes more developed or other opportunities arise. A project called FORRESASIA, funded by the European Union, is analyzing different ways in which farmers produce forest products and what local conditions -- economic, social and cultural -- lead them to follow a certain approach. The findings should be useful to development agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities who want to commercialize a forest product or expand markets to improve income for local people, but need to figure out the best strategy for cultivating the product.

Benzoin is an especially interesting case study for the scientists, said Genevihve Michon, leader of the FORRESASIA project, which is being managed by the Institute of Research for Development (formerly ORSTOM) in France.

"It's an outstanding example of true forest product domestication by farmers for a targeted production, for which information was really lacking before the project started," she said.

Most benzoin produced today comes from North Sumatra and Laos. Researchers Marina Goloubinoff and Mardan Saragih estimate that North Sumatra now produces 3,000 tons of benzoin annually; about 75 percent is processed through Java and the rest is exported via Singapore. Sumatran benzoin has suffered in world markets from a perception it is inferior to the benzoin from Laos. Traders often mix damar resin and other substances with benzoin, so the quality varies widely.

Although once brisk, trade in Sumatran benzoin -- which still closely follows old trading routes -- has been steady but limited in recent years. Falling prices have led to a considerable decline in output since the 1970s, which many farmers in North Sumatra recall as a "Golden Age". Prices and annual production were high, in part because Styrax trees that many people had planted to secure land claims during Indonesia's emerging independence 20 years earlier were then at their peak for harvesting.

Much of the domestic consumption of kemenyan was for incense and for benzoin-flavored cigarettes. The traditional cigarettes are no longer popular, but even industrially manufactured kretek clove cigarettes are thought to have benzoin as a minor ingredient.

Long history

Historical accounts indicate that benzoin from Sumatra was traded by the Chinese as far back as the eighth century. One of the earliest records of its production came from a European traveler to Sumatra in 1772, who saw benzoin gardens in the inland region where Batak people lived. More precise descriptions were given by Dutch foresters and administrators at the end of the 19th century. At that time, exotic gums and resins brought high prices in the international market. Some benzoin farmers around Palembang became so wealthy they could afford pilgrimages to Mecca.

In modern times as well, benzoin helped make North Sumatran farmers wealthier than other farmers. After Indonesia's independence, Batak families often used benzoin profits to fund the education of their children, many of whom became prominent public figures in the new nation. Income from benzoin is still an important source of money for school fees in many households.

Nonetheless, the researchers found that a growing number of farmers in North Sumatra are abandoning benzoin cultivation. Some are shifting to coffee, cinnamon and other more lucrative cash crops; others lament declining interest by young people.

"Many of the young people now see it as an old-fashioned, has- been activity," Katz noted.

Yet some families maintain their benzoin trees as a form of security against hard times or because of tradition. "Some farmers told us their families have grown benzoin for four or six or eight generations," said Carmen Garcia, a Ph.D. student at the University of Madrid who participated in the research.

Most benzoin gardens in North Sumatra today are in forests colonized by Styrax trees, which usually grow at elevations from 800 to 1,500 meters. Two species of the tree are dominant in the region. In the past, benzoin trees were often grown in rice field fallows that were later converted to agroforests.

Symbolic Harvesting

Tapping begins eight years after Styrax trees are planted, and the resin can be extracted for up to 60 years if done right. The harvesting is done by farmers -- generally men -- who camp out in the forest for days at a time, returning to their villages on weekends. Resin flows from tapped trees for several months each year and is collected two or three times. Harvesting methods are still linked with myths, the scientists discovered.

"They think of benzoin trees as women and the resin as her tears or milk," Katz explained. "Farmers believe they must treat their wives well before harvests and refrain from coarse language so the 'lady tree' will produce."

The largest markets today for benzoin are Java, India and Arabic countries, where it is used widely for religious and household rituals. In the West, benzoin is burnt in churches, and some manufacturers use it to fix the aroma of volatile perfumes or as an ingredient in medicine for respiratory ailments. Yet the lower cost of synthetic substitutes has led many industrial users to replace part or all of the natural resin -- posing a risk to the continued livelihood of thousands of growers and traders.

One encouraging factor is the trend of growing consumer interest in exotic incense and "natural" products, the scientists note.

More information about the benzoin industry, which has long been secretive, also might help widen markets, they suggest.

"Although profit margins are quite small, many people make a living, although not a fortune, out of this trade," Goloubinoff said. "Each shareholder has part of the knowledge of the industry, and more information between the different levels would help everyone."

The author is a consulting writer-editor at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, West Java.