Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Gaharu Mania Sweeps Across Irian Jaya

"Gaharu Mania Sweeps Across Irian Jaya" Byline: Alex Clear Date: October, 1997. Jakarta, Indonesia. (Unpublished)
They call it Gaharu, but to the Western world and Middle East it is known as sandalwood. It is found in luxury consumer goods like perfumes, soaps, and incense produced by popular cosmetic companies and sold in department stores. It is used in saunas to fragrance the air. Or even used in a clothes drawer to pleasantly scent the stored clothing. It has also the talk and excitement of Irian Jaya for the past couple of years.
Why is there a connection between Irian Jaya and this Western/Middle Eastern luxury? Simply because since 1996 large amounts of the world’s sandalwood, or gaharu, supplies have been collected and exported from Irian Jaya. Prior to 1996, no Indonesian policies in Irian Jaya to integrate, assimilate, or even out populate the Irianese had ever really worked; at least to scale that Gaharu Mania has swept across Irian Jaya.
Is the extraction of Gaharu a systematic Indonesian policy to create a dependency of the Irianese on the Javanese? Well, not strictly. Prior to 1996, gaharu was primarily extracted from the jungles of Borneo, including East Borneo or the Indonesian province of Kalimatan. But over the years the Indonesian traders had found the collection of gaharu increasingly difficult in Kalimatan due to dense mountainous jungle deep in the heart of Borneo and the depletion of supplies. In 1996, attention was turned to Irian Jaya where for the first time, there was not only the support of the government employees in the province, but more importantly the willingness of the Irianese themselves to participate in the collection of this precious wood.
But what has been the impact of gaharu mania in Irian Jaya? Agats was once a quite little town on stilts with two sleepy hotels that cater for the few tourists that vi sited each year. The Asmat Inn, upon my arrival was lively with the constant flow of visitors to the rooms. A couple of years earlier there was “no prostitution,” according to Missionary Tom Putman, who has been in Irian Jaya since 1982.
On one occasion an indigenous man from Senggo, approximately twelve-hours up river by motor boat, approached the Bishop to ask for help. “I want to go home,” he said.
The man was asked why it was that he had come so far to Agats. “I sold my gaharu here,” he replied.

“Well then,” responded the Bishop, “I am sure you have plenty of money.”
“But I have spent it,” replied the man.
“What did you buy?” inquired the Bishop, “Did you buy rice or did you buy noodles?”
Eventually the man owned up that he had spent his money on the women in Agats. Rumour has it that one session costs over $100 and “customers are queuing up,” added Putman.
It can not be argued that the indigenous people are not financially gaining from the extraction of gaharu from Irian Jaya. For once, the Irianese are able to get beyond their subsistence day to day living, but it will “probably fizzle out within five years” according to Putman.
About a day up river, the village of Awok was virtually empty. The village of Awok has a population of about three-hundred. In the evening a young man named Yakob returned to the jungle. He had spent the day searching for gaharu in the jungle. “Where is everyone from the village,” I asked.
“They are looking for gaharu,” Yakob replied, “men, women, children – everyone!”
In the morning Yakob took me into the jungle to search for gaharu. The word ‘sandalwood’ is a little misleading. Gaharu is actually a type of tumour that sometimes grows within a tree. An entire tree may only produce few grams of gaharu; it is more likely that a tree produces none.
Yakob explained that there were three grades. Grades one, two, and three are sold to traders for $90, $60, and $30 per kilogram respectively, and that it was Chinese-Indonesian and Javanese traders that travelled from jungle village to jungle village by speed boat to buy the gaharu. The traders then ship large quantities of the wood from key export centres like Agats with the assistance of local military and police who a profit from the buying and selling of gaharu. The gaharu is then sold to European, North American, and Middle Eastern buyers from warehouses in Jakarta where one kilogram can reach between $500 and $1,000.
“How do the traders in Irian pay for the gaharu,” I asked.
“They pay in cash,” replied Yakob, “we buy coffee, sugar, rice, and noodles … if we don’t collect gaharu we can not buy food … if we collect gaharu we can buy things.”
A couple of days further up river in the head waters of the Brazza and Becking Rivers the Irianese would wave bags of gaharu as I passed in my small motorized boat. I asked one man how much he was selling his bundle of gaharu for. “$10 per kilogram,” he replied. I told him how much gaharu was sold for in Agats, Jakarta, and Europe. He told me that if he asks for more money from the traders, then they will not buy from him as there are plenty of other people selling gaharu.
A few weeks later I flew back to Sentani from Yaniruma on a missionary flight. One missionary pilot had told me that MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) would not allow the use of missionary planes to transport gaharu. But luggage is not searched, and one of my fellow passengers was a man who called himself Alex and regularly takes trips from Boma with bags of gaharu. Alex claimed that he had ten-kilograms on this trip, with a Sentani export value of $2,800. In Sentani, Alex was met by a police officer who he introduced as his business partner.
Gaharu mania has to be the most invasive action in Irian Jaya since the spread of sweet-potatoes, but like the sweet-potatoes, gaharu mania only happened as quickly and thoroughly as it has because of the willingness of the Irianese to participate in the extraction and selling of the wood. “I have an idea,” said Putman, “it [gaharu mania] may only last a couple of years.”
“Without gaharu,” said Yakob, “we have no work … when the gaharu is gone, we again have no work.” But like Kalimatan, Irian Jaya’s gaharu will not last forever, and with it’s demise so will the opportunities and status of the indigenous people of Irian Jaya.

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