Wallapatta plant (Gyrinops walla)

Walla patta is a household name today, having been a contraband until about a year ago and still smuggled out of the country through illegal channels. Today it’s a ‘restricted export’. Although a much-sought-after-ingredient in the French perfume industry lately, the agarwood produced by Walla patta had been widely used for centuries in Arab countries as a house and clothes fragrance. Walla patta chips are used as incense known as Agarbhati and is also known for its clinical properties. For skin and lung disease and digestive problems, Walla patta is a remedy.

Dr. Upul Subasinghe
Dr. Upul Subasinghe

Value of Agarwood
Scientifically known as Gyrinops walla, the resin (oil) found in the tree is derived from the substance known as agarwood which is highly valued in the perfume industry. There are eight species of Gyrinops found in the region and a very few of them produce agarwood. What is locally found is the species Gyrinops walla.

The fibrous nature of the Walla patta bark was made use of by our villagers as a binding material in the past and its commercial importance was not known till recently. What caused this ‘hype’ about Wallapatta? Nation spoke to Senior Lecturer, Forestry and Environmental Science Department, University of Jayewardenepura, Dr. Upul Subasinghe to unravel the mystery. “There is a high demand for natural agarwood in the world and their price is much higher than the agarwood formed using artificial methods. Malaysia was the leader in natural agarwood and their resource declined due to illegal activities. There are some agarwood producing  Gyrinops species growing in Indonesia and may be some desperate persons searched for Gyrinops in other countries. Since there are botany-related publications on internet that Sri Lanka has Gyrinops walla or Walla patta, it may have kindled interest.”

The research findings on agarwood of Walla patta by Dr. Subasinghe and his team reveal that it is chemically similar to that of commercial species of Aquilaria. They are now looking for walla patta trees to test them at commercial scale. “Luckily a few people are ready to ‘lend’ their trees on the promise of letting them have the product. This year is going to be very fruitful in this aspect.”

Wallapatta (6)Illegal harvesting
Walla patta naturally grows as an ‘under-story tree’ in wet zone natural forests. It also grows naturally in home gardens and abandoned lands. It is mostly found in the low country wet zone where the rainfall is above 2,500 mm per annum and the elevation is below 1,000 m from sea level. A very small percentage is found in the intermediate zone as well. The tree is also grown in some home gardens in these areas as a live fence.
Although agarwood is formed naturally in the locally found species of Gyrinops walla or Walla patta, the substance does not distribute along the entire stem and very often the natural agarwood formation is very low explains Dr. Subasinghe who laments that, ignorant of this, many wallapatta trees are destroyed to find no agarwood in them at all. “This is a very alarming situation because people cut trees where there is no or very low formation of agarwood hoping to get a high price. The species is becoming increasingly vulnerable.”

Need for policy
Until 2012, Walla patta was categorized as a ‘least concerned species’ in the Red Data Book because ‘nobody had any interest’, as Dr. Subasinghe asserts. “Due to illegal harvesting of the tree, it was categorized as ‘Vulnerable’ in December 2012 and today the export of the plant should be made under the approval of the Government.” Despite the government lifting the ban in exporting Walla patta plant products and making it a ‘restricted’ export, there is no clear policy on the export procedure, says the researcher. He urges policy or legislation encouraging interested private sector parties to cultivate this highly economically viable tree at plantation level which could yield extraction (resin or oil) in the next eight to 10 years. He maintains that the government must encourage plantations among private sector such as Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs), as without proper policy in place, entrepreneurs are not willing to take a risk. “All RPCs are desperate for crops other than tea and rubber due to low prices and high labour wages. As a solution they are looking for oil palm which is environmentally not suitable. Walla patta can be one of the best candidates.”

The procedure of obtaining the approval for the export of Walla patta products including the resin, must be made available because the exporters must prove their products are coming out of the trees grown in non-forest areas and the trees are privately owned, points out Dr. Subasinghe who adds that there should be a proper monitoring procedure from the harvest to product export.

Going global
“There was a fear among certain national bodies about exposing the Sri Lankan gene pool to developed countries so that they can synthesise this valuable resin. This will not happen because there are over 250 chemical constituents in Walla patta resin which is almost impossible to manufacture separately and blend. Even if it is experimented and found, the process of synthesising is far more expensive than purchasing oil from growing countries. This is what’s happening in the Southeast Asian region. They have similar trees and they extract the chips or resin and export under the permits.”

The researcher also maintains that it is timely to market our own brand of agarwood as ‘Sri Lankan Agarwood’. He is positive that this could be another ‘Ceylon Tea’ one day if correct policy is in place. “The chemical properties of all teas across the world may be the same but Ceylon Tea has no parallels, so why not agarwood?”

• The total Walla patta products smuggled in 2015 amounted to
80.73 kgs.
• On January 17 this year, a stock of 23.4 kgs of Walla patta
was seized, valued Rs. 9.36 million.
• The smuggled Walla patta are predominantly Middle East bound.
Source: Sri Lanka Customs

Wallapatta (1)
Walla patta chips
Wallapatta (4)
Illegal harvest of Walla patta in Sri Pada Reservation of Maliboda, Deraniyagala
Wallapatta (5)
A small quantity of resin found