Thursday, 7 August 2014

In the Service of the Fungus

In Sujjannagar there are two large factories and one thousand household distilleries.

Spikes added to an agarwood branch.

For centuries those of ambition not predestined to be born of royal lineage or to some stocky, loaded philanthropist have sought fortune and fame. It’s a matter of being noticed by the right people, of being talked about, written about. What’s needed is an attractive trait, a charming disposition – to move in the right circles. Then, ultimately, one becomes indispensible. Nobody cares about the origins of a prized companion.

In the villages of Sujannagar Union of Moulvibazar’s Barlekha it’s possible to observe that this age-old strategy is not exclusively pursued by humans but may be adopted by other life forms too. There, an upwardly mobile fungus, phaeoacremonium parasitica, has done rather well.

At the Noor Hazi Miah factory.

The air at the large Noor Miah Hazi factory in Shartika village is corky sweet. Village men are sitting along the veranda corridor each holding a lump of wood by their feet and chiselling. They’re focused on the dense heartwood patches and chiselling. They know the lighter, healthy parts of the wood are of little value. For 500 taka per day they’re working for the factory. In a way, they’re also working for the fungus...

Neither plant nor animal, fungi demand their own kingdom. They have always been special. This particular fungal species, phaeoacremonium parasitica, infects agar trees by habit. The autoimmune response of the trees is to produce a resin designed to stop further fungal growth. In the process the infected wood emits that exclusive, pungent smell known as agar-attar or oudh. 


It’s a scent that’s never been reproduced artificially. It’s a corky sweet scent so sought after that, at premium quality, agarwood has attracted prices abroad of up to $10,000 per kilogram. Agarwood is reputed to be the world’s most valuable living raw material. It’s the agar-attar scent, in the wood or when steam-distilled into oil – a small sacrifice – that has been the secret of phaeoacremonium parasitica’s success.

At work in Sujjannagar.

Because when they’re not chiselling, Sujjannagar’s villagers are busily maintaining plantations of the fungus’s favourite agar tree. Although it takes an agar tree a century to reach maturity, saplings can be harvested after ten years, encouraging many to dedicate lands to the species – and for the fungus that surely makes for a more civilised arrangement than a forest.

Phaeoacremonium parasitica keeps people busy in Barlekha.
While in the wild, only seven percent of trees will become infected with the fungus, Sujjannagar is organised to achieve a one hundred percent infection rate. 

While other fungi must rely on animals, wind or water to rather randomly disseminate their spores, phaeoacremonium parasitica has cajoled humans into that task too – not only do workers deliberately infect new trees, they even hammer nails up and down the trunks a few years prior to harvest to permit the fungus untroubled entry.

Indeed, with almost every family engaged in the agar-attar industry in several villages, a bright and secure future for the fungus is assured. All it requires is the sacrifice of some of its members to the fame-enhancing agar-attar scent industry. It’s certainly not a bad arrangement for a parasitic dark-walled mould to have.

Agarwood infected by phaeoacremonium parasitica.

New agarwood arrives at the factory.

Still, the social rise of phaeoacremonium parasitica hasn’t occurred overnight. From time immemorial Malaysian aboriginals, the Orang Asli, have harvested wild agar trees for the agar-attar that in Malaysia is called gaharu, using a slashing technique that reveals the infected heartwood without felling the tree. Thereby the Orang Asli can re-harvest from the same tree a few years later... and the fungal community continues to thrive.

The agarwood chips are first soaked.

The fungus’s future certainly received a boost through references to agar-attar in the Sanskritic Vedas. It also features in Chinese author Wa Zhen’s third century chronicle “Strange Things from the South,” which records the collecting of agarwood from the mountains of Rinan, now central Vietnam. The product is included as a medicinal product in several ancient texts, and in Xuanzuang’s travelogues of the seventh century agarwood products are recalled as being used for writing materials and oil in ancient Assam’s Kamarupa – traditions that persist.

Distilleries at the Ansarul Hoque agar-attar factory.

With the rise in renown of the agar-attar scent evidenced and furthered by these writings, phaeoacremonium parasitica has indirectly achieved an enhanced pedigree beyond its humble mouldy origins, which must’ve led to its later finding favour at the Mughal court. For centuries the wood-mould by-product has been quite at home at royal parties; dabbed here and there on the clothes and in the underarms of princes.

The humans put nail holes along the agar trunk to allow the fungus unhindered entry.

In Japan there has even developed a tradition of ‘listening’ to the agarwood, with a burning chip taking centre stage in a closed room while aficionados meditate in its scent. All of this has been good news, no doubt, for the fungus.

Agar-attar businessman Afjal Uddin.

In Sujjannagar the agar-attar industry dates from the 1940s when the harvest of wild agar trees began. These days there are two large factories and perhaps one thousand household distilleries in the area. There are middlemen such as Afjal Uddin, 40, of Gankul village, who sell to exporters, constantly renewing the scent’s acclaim around the world and in particular in today’s principal markets which include Mumbai, Singapore and especially the Middle East.

Agarwood chips in a steam distillery, Barlekha.
“The scent lasts for six months,” says Afjal in favour of the product, “It does not leave any spot or stain on the clothes.” In addition, agar-attar is popular in Muslim majority countries because unlike most western perfumes the scent is not alcohol-based. While according to Afjal agar-attar is not overly suited to the domestic market due to its being price inhibitive, export-oriented production has brought long-term prosperity to both phaeoacremonium parasitica and the villagers of Sujjannagar.

Md Yusup at the factory distilleries.

Md Yusup, 46, is a prime example. He has been working as supervisor at the Noor Miah Hazi factory for 17 years. He controls the distillation process that produces the oil. With three staff he is able to process up to one hundred trees per month; and it’s the agar-attar that’s brought him the income to send his daughter to college. The oil is most often exported to Dubai and Kuwait.

This agar tree is worth about $1200.
Bangladeshi agar-attar production competes with plantations in Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere in South Asia. Afjal says agarwood can sell for up to 80,000 taka per kilogram domestically, though its rate has recently reached a new market low of 20,000 taka. He is not sure of the reason for the fall but believes unscrupulous traders who inserted ball-bearings into the wood for extra weight before on-selling to Chinese importers may have damaged the reputation of the Bangladeshi product.
Agar-attar production has brought prosperity.

“One big tree can net its owner anywhere from 1.5 lacs taka to five lacs,” says Afjal.

In Sujjannagar, phaeoacremonium parasitica, on the back of the charming scent producing reaction of its host the agar tree, has created for itself an ideal environment in which to be valued and prosper. Having avoided the unceremonious anonymity of many other fungal species, which clearly made the evolutionary error of being either poisonous or otherwise dull, so as to preclude human cultivation, phaeoacremonium parasitica has joined the exclusive ranks of edible mushrooms, the fungi used in cheeses and yoghurts and of course the yeast that’s made its niche in bread.

Agarwood, the world's most valuable living raw material.

This fungus has mixed with royalty, enjoyed the enduring fame that arises from being written about through the centuries and continues to enjoy a privileged existence, not least in Sujjannagar where whole communities shall remain self-motivated and dedicated to its bright and enduring fungal future.

The steaming vats at the Ansarul Hoque factory.

In nature all things are connected – and in the pyramid of life, from phaeoacremonium parasitica’s perspective, the humans, the workers, take their rightful place at the lowest rung in the ladder.

Workers at the Ansarul Hoque attar factory, Sujjannagar.
Agar-attar oil.
Rows of new agar trees.

This article is published in The Star Magazine, here: In the Service of the Fungus

This bottle of agar-attar oil is worth about $800 locally and much more overseas.

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