The Sweet Smell of Benzoin
Posted on 14/11/2019
Mountainous Van Ban in Lao Cai Province is home to significant plantation of bode trees, or more correctly Styrax tonkinensis. The tree has often been exploited by local people for its timber but there are more sustainable uses. The tree produces benzoin, a fragrant resin, that is used internationally in medicines perfumes and incense. There is increasing demand for benzoin from European countries such as France and Germany. Over a ten-year period, Vietnam’s neighbour Laos has exported approximately 60 tons per year, accounting for 70% of total export volumes of benzoin to Europe.
As the current supply of benzoin is not filling market demand, there is a good opportunity to increase production in Vietnam. The bode tree is also found in North America and South America, however the largest concentration of the tree is in South East Asia. In Vietnam, there is approximately 20,000 ha of bode in the northwest of the country with more than 4,000 ha in Lao Cai Province alone.
To extract benzoin, instead of cutting down the whole tree, the tree is tapped to obtain the resin. After two months, the resin is dried and hardened and ready to be exported after semi-processing. The income from benzoin is much higher than from timber and is much more environmentally sustainable. However, it takes time for farmers to get accustomed to the practice and to be trained with the techniques of growing, tending and collecting from the tree. Women are actively engaged in benzoin production including tending trees and semi-processing the benzoin.
With the support from Australian Government, GREAT is partnering with Duc Phu Agriculture Forestry Company and the Forest Protection Department of Lao Cai and Van Ban to support the upscaling of benzoin production to 300ha. Duc Phu has agreements in place to supply benzoin to two companies in France as well as a Myanmarese firm. Farmers are being trained to apply sustainable farming practices to meet international organic and Union for Ethical BioTrade standards. The company has also introduced intercropping with ginger and turmeric to provide short term income for women in new plantation areas.
The project is expected to benefit 600 Tay, Dao and Hmong women as well as help protect forests from over exploitation of timber.