VIETNAM – In the central province of Quang Binh, there are two villages where men often go to Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia to find aloeswood. The death of dozens of people overseas cannot prevent local men from purchasing the dream of changing their lives by aloes wood.
Gia Hung Village in Hung Trach commune of Bo Trach district, Quang Binh is named the village of aloes. There are only women, children and old people in the village, not young men. Mr. Nguyen Choang, 78 years old, explained that all men have gone to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar to hunt aloeswood.
According to the police chief of Hung Trach village, Mr. Hoang Van Men, Gia Hung village has more than 700 people going abroad to search for aloeswood. “They leave the village in groups and they only return home after several years,” said Men.
In other places, aloeswood hunters work very simply: going into the forest to hunt aloeswood to sell to the trader who offers high prices. But in Gia Hung, there are organized networks, with the “lord,” followed by “kings,” the “mandarins” and then “workers.”
To management their networks, the “lord” assigned each “king” to manage around 100 workers, who are divided into many teams, with 10-15 aloes hunters each. The team leader is call “cai” who is the close henchman of the ”lord”, the “king” or the “mandarin.”
Malaysia is the major destination of Gia Hung village’s aloe hunters. They go to Malaysia with travel visas. They are welcomed by subordinates of “lords” in Malaysia and are taken into the jungle to seek aloes. If they find the rare wood, it will be sold on the spot. Money will be transferred to the aloes workers via secret channels of the “lords.”
About 50 km south of Gia Hung village is Truc Ly village, in Vo Ninh commune, Quang Ninh district, Quang Binh. This used to be a fishing village but in the 80s, a number of fishermen began went into the forest to seek aloes.
Since then, the village of Truc Ly has considered aloe-seeking as the main job. At present, over 500 people in the village are aloe workers.
In recent years, Ly Truc villagers have flocked abroad to seek life-changing chances. Mr. Nguyen Viet Anh, Chairman of Quang Ninh district, said so far this year, nearly 200 people of Truc Ly village have acquired a passport to go abroad, mainly to seek aloes.
Like those in Gia Hung village, Truc Ly men also go to Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to seek aloes. They also operation in organized networks, with their own rules. Anyone that breaks the rule will be punished under the law set by the “lords.”
If anyone reveals the “lord,” he will be killed or chopped of his fingers. If an aloe worker is arrested, the villagers are absolutely not allowed to disclose the information to reporters. The aloe network will take care of him. However, an aloe worker said that in many cases, the network did not do anything for the arrestees and they were jailed.
Quang Ninh district’s chairman Nguyen Viet Anh said in 2012, seven men of Truc Ly village were shot dead in Thailand. In 2011, Ly Truc village also had nine people who were shot to death abroad.
One of the victims is the husband of Mrs. Nguyen Thi Luu, 28 years old, in Truc Ly village. Holding two sleeping children on her arms, Luu cried when referring to her husband. He was shot dead while holding a backpack of aloes running in a jungle in Thailand to escape from the pursuit of the local police.
Luu said after building their house worth VND300 million ($15,000), her husband went to Thailand to seek aloes in order to have money to pay debts. The man died in his first trip.
Another woman in Ly Truc village whose husband died abroad is Nguyen Thi Nhung.
Hung Trach commune police chief, Hoang Van Men, said in the last two years, there was nobody in the commune dieing abroad but previously, several people were shot down overseas each year.
Aloe workers were shot to dead because of illegally infiltrating into the forest of other countries or by bandits. In addition, according to Men, in 2012 there were 25 people of Gia Hung village were jailed in China, Malaysia and Thailand. “At present, there are seven people in jail,” Men said.
Meanwhile, Ly Truc village has 10 people arrested in Thailand. Mrs. Pham Thi Huyen and her daughter are working very hard to earn enough money to redeem her husband and son-in-law from Thailand. They were arrested by Thai police a few years ago.
Aloeswood is an aromatic, resinous heartwood that is found in trees from the aquilaria genus, an evergreen native to South East Asia. It is thought that aloeswood is created by a reaction from an injury to the tree, starting an infection and thus triggering the oleoresin to grow within the heartwood of the tree. It is this resin-impregnated heartwood, which is the actual aloeswood product and is extracted for use as raw wood chips and powder or processed into an oil.
Aloeswood has been highly valued in many societies and cultures for millennia and used for a variety of reasons from sacred, to medicinal, to olfactory. The wood chips and powder are used for incense and medicine while the oil extract is generally for perfume and aromatherapy purposes.
From a medicinal standpoint, it has been used in traditional Chinese (TCM), Tibetan, Ayurveda, and Unani (Graeco-Arabic) medicines, in many different applications from rubs to tinctures to teas. From a religious and sacred perspective, aloeswood is mentioned several times in both the Bible and Islamic Hadith (spoken traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), and is also used in a variety of religious ceremonies ranging from Islamic prayer and burial observances, to Buddhist rituals from Vietnam, Japan, China, and Taiwan. In Arab society, aloeswood is highly prized and burned for guests as a sign of respect and in Japan aloeswood is used in the ancient koh doh or “listening to incense” ceremony (Burfield, et. al., www.cropwatch.org). Aloeswood has also been used as an ingredient in many western perfumes for hundreds of years.
These varied uses across time and geographical local have secured its importance in trade and economy on an international level (Paoli et al., 1723), specifically throughout Asia and the Middle East, the two regions where it is used most. It is known in these different cultures by many names, including aloeswood, agarwood, agar, oud, gaharu, eagleswood and calembac.