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The World's Most Expensive Tree Is Being Poached in the Philippines

A kilo of the tree’s agarwood is worth P750,000. 
IMAGE David Riaño Cortés / PEXELS
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There is a gold rush happening in the jungles of the Philippines. The treasure is one of the rarest trees in the world: lapnisan or agarwood. It is also the world’s most expensive tree. A kilo of agarwood fetches as much as P750,000. A whole tree is worth tens of millions of pesos, which is why many people would kill for a piece of this rare tree.

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What is the use of agarwood and why is it so expensive? 

Lapnisan or agarwood is a non-timber type of wood that is used for its sap or resin, which is used in the perfume and scents industry. The tree is very rare and is found in the deepest parts of the jungles of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. 

Agarwood or Lapnisan

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
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The lapnisan tree itself is not quite valuable. It only becomes a sought-after material when it has become infected with a type of mold, which triggers a defensive reaction from the tree to produce a dark, fragrant substance. You can tell if a tree is infected by looking at the color of its wood. Darker wood likely means the tree has an infection and produces a fragrant scent. 

This oily substance or resin from infected agarwood is worth more than its weight in gold. Perfumers and incense makers are willing to pay millions of dollars for a liter of this “liquid gold.” In 2013, agarwood trade had a global value of $8 billion. 

Lapnisan or agarwood takes 20 years to mature before you can harvest its wood. It only grows in areas with high elevation and cool climate. The tree grows 10 to 12 feet only. It is hard to cultivate, which is why it remains a very rare species. 

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Selling agarwood or lapnisan is illegal

In the Philippines, lapnisan or agar is found only in the heart of the thickest jungles of Mindanao and the Visayas. Foreigners travel to the Philippines and hike to remote villages seeking help to find the rare tree.

Photo by Facebook.

But lapnisan is an endangered species and the government has it under its protection. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) says it is illegal to buy, sell, collect, or transport any part of agarwood or lapnisan

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The blanket ban on lapnisan does not prevent poachers and traders from removing them from the jungles. On social media platforms, there are illicit groups that were created specifically for the sole trade of agarwood. Traders keep their transactions secret by masquerading agarwood as gadgets. This way, authorities will have a harder time tracking them down. 

Below is an example of a post selling lapnisan online. Sellers hardly use the word agarwood or lapnisan in their dealings but would use codenames. 

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What does agarwood smell like? 

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Depending on the quality of the raw materials, agarwood emits different scents. It has notes of soft florals, but what makes its woody scent so unique are the accents of musk, vanilla, and bright fruits. It is a favorite scent of perfumers, incense makers, and candlemakers.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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