Why conventionally produced incense is anti-environment!
The strain on the Himalayan eco-region through overharvesting of aroma and medicinal herbs is obvious. This development began with the Indian economic boom when the over 300 million Indians of the new middle class began to increase their demand for Ayurvedic healthcare products, as well as incense from forest regions of the Himalayas that have fallen victim to rigorous overharvesting. The harvesting of these raw materials in the forests of the northern Himalayas, mainly of Nepal and Tibet, is done without supervision.
Local traders organize whole village communities to gather herbs in their forests, and pay very low prices. They then bring the herbs to trading junctions, like Nepalganj, where many truck loads of herbs make their way to India daily and are sold for huge profits.
The exploitation of the village communities supports the exploitation of the forest resources since the villagers radically harvest the sought after herbs. In most cases there is nothing left for regeneration. Plants are picked without tools and trees are cut down needlessly and recklessly. The desperation of the uneducated poor of the villages in the Himalayan region is so used as a means for destroying the ecosystems of the mountains and the diversity of plant life there. Exactly because of this unmonitored wild harvesting, many of the most precious and sought after herbs have wound up on the list of endangered plants. Many of these plants are used solely for the production of incense and are now on the list of endangered plants: the Convention of International Trade List (CITES) of the UNEP.
International trade of plants on the CITES list between member states is illegal and is punished by law. However, the trade of finished products, such as incense, made from these raw materials continues to be allowed and is practiced without supervision. Without question, you could find these rare and endangered plants in the local asia-shop or esoteric store, you might even have a chance in finding them in the local organic store.
Some of these herbs are as follows: Agar wood, Nardostachys jatamansi, yellow sandalwood, red sandalwood, and the highly sought after binding agent from the bark of the Macchilus dutheii named Macco.
A few individual cases:
1. Agar wood (Aquilaria)
This is a valuable component of Nepalese incense and has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. This tree grows in the shade of woods, and attains its unique aromatic character from fermentation due to the dampness of the woods. The tree is close to extinction within India, but is still in high demand from Japanese and Nepalese incense producers. This is a serious case of eradication for business purposes, and there is no known form of reforestation underway. This wood is listed on the CITES list.
2. Nard (Nardostachys jatamansi)
Nard has its home in woods at around 3000-5000m. A valuable essential oil is extracted from the root, and is a component of 26 different Ayurvedic medicines. It grows mainly in Nepal, but probably not for much longer. The Nepalese government has banned the export of the roots as a raw material, but wild harvesting of as much of the plant as possible continues, so that finished products such as incense and essential oils containing nard maybe be exported. This is an urgent case of eradication that must be put to an end.
3. Red Sandalwood (Pterocarpus)
Red sandalwood is one of the most important components of Tibetan incense and grows in the forests of northern India and Nepal. In the mean time it can no longer be found in the woods of Nepal, but the streets are full of it every night as tons of it is smuggled through the country. Yes, there are a few villages that survive on the tolls they charge the smugglers. Red sandalwood from India is smuggled through Nepal to Tibet. Every month tons valuing millions of US$ are confiscated by the Nepalese authorities.
The eradication and smuggling continues at a great rate, and the chance of finding red sandalwood as an ingredient in the Tibetan incense sold at your local esoteric store is still very high. Red sandalwood is also on the CITES list.
4. Yellow Sandalwood (Santalum album)
This most important aromatic component of Ayurvedic recipes is also close to bidding this world farewell. It originally grew around Mysore in southern India, but there most has been used up. Together with agar wood, yellow sandalwood is the most sought after ingredient for the production of incense. It can be found all over India and the Indian government is trying to limit the felling and use of sandalwood, but is quite helpless.
Smuggling has raised the prices enormously; however the demand has risen, especially in India. The eradication is spreading towards Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Burma, where lower quality sandalwood is found. This development shall accelerate depending on the growing wealth of the Indian middle class.
5. Macco (Bark of Macchillus dutheii)
Macco is considered the best binding agent for incense etc. worldwide since the bark has very good glue qualities, yet has no scent of its own. Macco was used traditionally as a binding agent in candies etc, and so can also be used in foods.
Originally the Macchillus dutheii tree of Nepal’s forests grew over wide stretches of the country; however its quantity has been quickly reduced since the country opened up to the west. Generally speaking it is a slow growing tree, and no reforestation is taking place. Commercial harvesters take the easy rout and fell the trees completely, and then peel the bark. Because of this method of harvesting the total number of trees has been drastically reduced. It is no longer used in food production and has become scarce.
However it is still heavily used by the incense industry, where it makes up 40% of an individual stick of incense. This tree must come under protection as fast as possible before it appears upon the CITES list.