As many of you know a lot of changes have started to become apparent in what raw materials can be used in incense. This has actually been going on for awhile but because some of the incense makers stock piles and reserves are running low, not to mention that the market price of most aromatic woods and materials has soared, many of the incenses that rely on Aloeswood or Sandalwood have gone up in price, been “reformulated” or in some cases discontinued.
In the world of incense materials the group known as CITES plays a big part in this, based in Europe, they have become an international monitoring body that also sets forth guidelines, in theory based on accurate studies and scientific findings, that have turned into laws governing the harvesting, shipment , use and sale of the above woods as well as quite a lot of other natural materials. This includes both animals and plants that are apparently being over harvested into possible extinction. Given my understanding of human nature and the seemingly never ending quest for more money, I can understand how this happens. People are well known to do many things that are extremely narrow minded, selfish, short sighted and, well, stupid to get an extra dollar (insert national currency of choice). So CITES came into being to put some controls on the wholesale destruction of many irreplaceable natural resources. Somehow oil, whales, dolphins and for that matter, human slavery do not seem to be included (go ahead, Google any of those, just make sure you have a large amount of your favorite anti depressant nearby). But that is another story
I recently have been reading the writings of Eric Hansen, who is listed as a travel writer, one who uses the immersion technique. His stories are amazing and very well documented as well as fun with a lot of very keen social and human insight. He has lived in the jungles of Borneo with the native peoples (I hate this term as it makes them seem less than they are, actually they are quite brilliant in their environment, which would kill most of us). He has also written a small article on the journey of Aloeswood from the jungle where it grew to the market places where it is sold. The real eye opener is his book Orchid Fever.
Orchid Fever is about the oh so crazed world of orchid plants, growers, buyers, scientists , smugglers and the assorted government agencies that attempt to control all this. It would seem to be a much more intense and downright insane, possibly corrupt and intrigue filled world then one (well, at least me) could imagine. CITES plays a big role in this story. Many orchids are considered to be rare and near extinction. This is based on some scientific study, but much of it seems very debatable. Oddly enough it’s a lot like the minimal studies done on Aloeswood production. Many of them are also being wiped out by the clear cutting of forests by the same governments that are saying it is illegal to harvest the orchids before they are destroyed. Guess what? The same thing is apparently happening to many Aloeswood trees as well as many other valuable woods and plants, not to mention the animals that live in those forests. It might have something to do with being run over by the bulldozer doing the clear cutting, go figure. The logic in all this is so very much that of the out of control governmental/organizational thinking that is seemingly running our world today. For some reason the Doors song “Strange Days” keeps running though my head every time I look into this, Pink Floyd’s “Money” could work just as well.
Trygve Harris, at her blog Absolute Trygve is another writer, like Eric Hansen, who actually goes to the places she writes about and talks to the people who are involved in the trade. In her case she is going into the Middle East, Asia and South America to find Essential Oils and materials for her store because she wants to sell things that she personally knows are of the best quality. She has done a number of pieces about Aloeswood in the past. Her recent articles(there are about 6 or so in the current group) from India and South East Asia on Aloeswood and Sandalwood production as well as many of the flowers necessary for the production of exotic oils are fascinating. Bit depressing also ( think climate change and the effects on flower growth). It’s not that the woods do not exist, but the out of control rules governing them make it very hard for anyone to “legally” sell them. It’s not that they did not get over harvested, they did(especially Sandalwood), but they can also be re-grown but that will take much cooperation. Once again CITES, as well as the local governments have played a big part here, seems to have been quite a lot of rather haphazard rules put in place. There are many people in these areas that could really benefit from well thought out policies and programs regarding the growing, harvesting and sale of Aloeswoods and Sandalwood as well as many other materials. But as to that actually happening, it might be pretty hard going. We are talking about agencies at many levels and people who are entrenched in the “way things are” that works very well for them, as it is. It’s not that I do not think something like CITES is necessary, I do. I also firmly believe it needs a major redo as do many of the policies that have been implemented.
So, the next time you notice your favorite incense just went way up in price or suddenly smells very different, or is just not obtainable anymore, think about this. I am pretyy sure that any number of policies and laws that we are now living with were rushed into being, it might take decades to sort them out. Oh yes, much of this also applies to your favorite perfumes and the materials necessary to make them, but that’s a different(also European) group and another piece. -Ross