Conservation and Aromatherapy – Is there a problem?
Dr. Keith Shawe



1.      Species vulnerability as measured by its threatened status

·       Globally threatened in the wild & harvested from the wild

·       Globally threatened in the wild but produced in cultivation

·       Not Globally threatened but threatened in 1 or 2 countries

·       Not Globally Threatened but Commercially Threatened

2.     The biological impact of harvesting

3.     The ecological impact of harvesting

4.     Social Impacts

5.     Efficiency of production – a conservation issue!

6.     Conservation and the failure of legislation




In historical terms, there are many examples of the over-exploitation of commercially important wild species including a number of important essential oil producing species that are now only found in cultivation. The situation today has not much improved much for species that are not yet in cultivation. In general, very little research has been done on the biological and ecological impacts of harvesting commercially important species from wild populations including some of the world's most important timber species such as mahogany. What little information there is in the literature on the impacts of harvesting is often inaccessible. A number of general guidelines for germplasm collection/harvesting have been produced by organisations concerned with plant genetic resources such as FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organisation) and IPGRI (International Plant Genetic Resources Institute). Again, these guidelines are not widely available and are poorly understood by producers. Most local harvesters have no access to such guidelines or to appropriate training on how to harvest 'sustainably', a word which often has been deliberately misused for commercial benefit. Following efforts to certify organic products and sustainable forestry, the procedures for certifying wild produced are only now being worked out.

Many essential oil species are now produced in cultivation and so it is easy to assume that their wild populations are no longer threatened. Also some species are still produced entirely from wild populations, while others are being produced both in cultivation and by wild harvesting. In this case, it is not always easy to determine whether the oil was produced from cultivated plants or from wild-harvested material.

Where there is a conservation issue, this is generally based on data from existing botanical collections and Floras. This sort of data is highly dependent on the geographical coverage of collections, and the personal views of field botanists. Although this is better than nothing, such assessments often amount to our best guess about the level of threat for species that are already known to be significantly threatened. We actually have very little comprehensive data on individual wild species.

This paper describes four different categories of threat and sets out some of the biological, ecological and legal issues that might be considered when assessing the impact of commercial trade on a species. The reader is then left to draw their own conclusions on a case by case basis.


Today, the small island of Run, which is separated from the nearest landmass Australia, by more than 600 miles of ocean, fails to make it onto the map. It is not marked in the Times Atlas of the World and yet in the 17th century, it was perhaps the most talked about island in the world. It name was written in disproportionately large letters on all the maps of the period due to its fabulous wealth. It's El Dorado status was derived not from gold, but from a fringe of willowy trees that ringed the island and had an exquisite fragrance. These evergreen trees which are 20-35 ft tall with highly aromatic seeds each covered with a bright red aril, are the source of two spices, nutmeg and mace. To the botanist nutmeg is known as Myristica fragrans Houtt. while to the Dutch, Portuguese and English merchants and sailors who risked their lives in search of it, nutmeg became as valuable as gold due to it's medicinal properties during the time of the Plague (Milton, 1999). The island of Run is one of a small group of volcanic islands at the south-eastern edge of the Moluccas or Spice Islands as they are known. The Spice Islands are unique in being the wild source of both nutmeg and cloves (Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merr. & Perry). These spices were both in such great demand, that once the Portuguese and later the Dutch had discovered the source of these two spices for themselves, they began to export vast amounts to Europe[1]. So began the first documented large-scale over-exploitation of wild aromatic species by Europeans.

The exploitation of any wild species will disrupt the normal ecological functioning of populations, and depending on the species, may have significant effects in the future on regeneration and resilience to both disturbance and environmental change. The most important categories of impact of harvesting aromatic plants from the wild include:

1)      the impact on the survival of the species as a whole (vulnerability = threatened status)

2)      the direct impact on the plants/populations being harvested (biological impact of harvesting)

3)      the impact of harvesting on other associated species (ecological impact), and

4)      the impact of harvesting on people's livelihoods (social impact).

The efficiency of production methods and the failure or success of legislation designed to protect threatened species, are also important factors to consider. Each of these issues is discussed below.

1.    Species vulnerability as measured by its threatened status

The assessment of threatened status is not an easy task as the accuracy of any evaluation  depends upon the quality of the data available. Also, the biological criteria used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 1994) are technical in nature and difficult to apply without field data on population characteristics. As mentioned above, this data is often lacking even for species that are very well known commercially.

The World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) collates information from the literature on the IUCN threatened status of plants and animals and publishes this information in a database on its web site (http:\\ The WCMC database lists the names of threatened or possibly threatened species, the countries in which they are threatened, and gives references to the sources of this information. The information on this database represents the best information available and so is very important as it can be used to assess the extent of our ignorance as well as the state of our knowledge. The database is constantly being updated, but the information provided is only a starting point and users need to be aware of its limitations. For example, the database still uses the older pre-1994 IUCN threat categories which means that the information is less precise than it could be. The database also sometimes lists data under different names for the same species. For example Nardostachys grandiflora DC is the new name for N. jatamansi DC, yet both names are listed as separate species and are given different threat categories in the same country (Nepal). Quite often, the assessments are incomplete as the literature covering the entire distribution of a species has not been assessed, but where this is the case it is usually clearly indicated.

As far as essential oil producing species are concerned, whether the species is harvested from the wild or grown in cultivation will be very significant. If the species is still harvested from the wild, it is important to assess the biological and wider ecological effects of harvesting. If the species is grown in cultivation, it is important to ask how it is propagated. In order to highlight those species of greatest concern, essential oil species can be divided into four categories as follows:

·       Globally threatened in the wild & harvested from the wild

Species that are globally threatened in the wild and extracted principally from the wild are likely to be of special concern. An example would be Aquilaria malaccensis Lam. (Agarwood, Eaglewood), Guaiacum officinale L., (Lignum-vitae) and Myroxylon balsamum L. Harms. (Tolu Balsam). All three species have been over-exploited in the wild and have become threatened as a result. Both A. malaccensis and G. officinale are listed in Schedule II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) which regulates world trade in threatened species. The database at the WCMC lists M. balsamum as a species that is suspected to be threatened in at least 15 countries in Central and South America. In all but two of these countries there is no available information upon which its true status can be assessed but it suspected to be threatened. In Peru and Costa Rica, however, it is listed as Vulnerable. In other words it is likely to move into the Endangered category in the near future if the present rate of exploitation and loss of habitat continues. 

·       Globally threatened in the wild but produced in cultivation

The continuing impact of commercial exploitation on wild populations of species in this category may often be negligible, but may have been significant in the past. A good example would be cloves (Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merr. & Perry), the cultivation of which was so closely controlled by the Dutch in the 17th century that they destroyed any plantations outside the permitted area in the North Moluccas[2]. As a result, the Dutch probably destroyed a large part of the genetic diversity that may have existed in this otherwise uniform species.[3]

Species such as S. aromaticum that are entirely produced in cultivation are not of concern today, but it is worth remembering that germplasm always has to be taken from the wild at some point before cultivation can start. For some species, however, existing legislation may actually restrict the amount of cultivation that is possible so that it is easier or even cheaper to continue collecting seedlings for cultivation from the wild. This is the case with Brazilian Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora Duke) for example[4].

·      Not Globally threatened but threatened in 1 or 2 countries

Some species may be generally easily available despite being under threat in part of their range. They may be under threat due to over-exploitation in some parts of their range, and/or they may be threatened at the edges of their natural range. In marginal environments, harvesting can cause populations to become more vulnerable to disturbance and environmental change and this may eventually lead to local extinction. Examples in this category are difficult to identify as you have to know where a species has been introduced and where it occurs naturally. The literature on conservation status only tells you about countries where a species is of concern and does not always distinguish between countries where it has been introduced, and those to which it is native. A likely candidate would be Melaleuca cajuputi Powell (Cajeput oil) which occurs from Burma to Australia but is now extinct or threatened in parts of its natural range mostly due to over-exploitation for both its timber and its oil. For species that fall into this category, the purchase of oils from countries in which they are threatened in significant parts of their range (if the origin of the oil can be identified) is not to be recommended.

·       Not Globally Threatened but Commercially Threatened

Species that are not considered threatened in the wild and which are still extracted from the wild, but have already been over-exploited in most of the commercially extractable areas. A good example is Aniba rosaeodora Duke (Syn. A. duckei Koster), the main source of Brazilian Rosewood. Apart from a few areas that have been protected by the Brazilian Environmental Institute, exploitation of the wild resource has been unrestricted. Any natural regeneration has been dependent upon the slow growth of self-sown seedlings. A survey by Green (1992) showed that this species had been virtually eliminated in areas where only a few years previously, it had been abundant. Trees of one metre girth, the basis of the former industry, no longer exist in economically accessible areas, and there are few trees exceeding 30cm girth within 20km of river banks.

This category has not been formally recognised in the literature as such species are not biologically threatened, but it is important that commercially threatened species be examined in order to determine what the likely ecological knock-on effects may be in areas where over-exploitation has resulted in commercially threatened status.

2.    The biological impact of harvesting

Harvesting generally falls somewhere between two extremes: Destructive and sustainable. Destructive harvesting results in the death of the plant being harvested (e.g. when the whole plant or too many roots are harvested). Sustainable harvesting is much harder to identify as the definition of what is sustainable depends upon whom you are talking to. Biological definitions of what constitutes sustainable harvesting usually make reference to population viability data which must be gathered in the field over a number of seasons and so is time consuming to obtain. Commercial definitions at the other end of the scale usually only take into account the stability of supply in a relatively short time frame. The supply might be coming from raw material that was destructively harvested, but so long as the volumes available each year do not change significantly, the supply is considered to be sustainable. In practice, neither the biological or the commercial definitions work very well as there is seldom any funding to carry out field work required to determine sustainable yields, and equally, the commercial definition makes no reference to population biology. What is needed is an approach that uses indicators for the likely impact of harvesting so that individual species can at least be assessed for their potential vulnerability in a relatively short time-frame.[5]

There has been very little research on the impact of different harvesting methods on the survival of wild populations, especially woody plants, probably due to the time-scales involved. Very often collectors pay little attention to harvesting methods and will indiscriminately harvest every plant that they can find. There are good practical reasons for this. Collecting tends to take place in the most convenient location e.g. close to a road or path. Factors such as the price of raw material, the availability and location of cheap labour, the cost of fuel and the level of knowledge of the geographical distribution of a species are all important in determining when and where harvesting takes place. Often the locations of valuable species are carefully guarded and kept secret. The reason for this secrecy is usually to eliminate competition from other collectors, and to avoid taxation if at all possible. All these factors increase the likelihood of over-harvesting at a particular location to maximise income in the short-term.

At the very least, where there is little other ecological information available, a knowledge of the part of the plant being harvested and the normal intensity of harvesting can used as a crude indication of the likely impact. Obviously, when leaves are being harvested, the impact on the plant is generally less significant than when reproductive parts or roots are being harvested. Similarly, if too much bark is harvested at one time, or if resin is tapped too frequently, this can kill the plant.

Those species that are destructively harvested in the wild are likely to be the species of greatest conservation concern. The impacts of destructive harvesting are much easier to recognise than the more subtle impacts of over-harvesting on plants or populations over longer time periods. For example, in situations where the most healthy and robust individuals are the ones targeted for destructive harvesting, the result may be increased vulnerability to environmental change over time. Removing the best-adapted individuals (genotypes) from the population causes a loss of valuable germplasm and potentially reduces the overall reproductive success of a population. Reduced population viability carries with it an increased risk of local extinction especially where there are other species that compete for the same ecological resources (niche). Some essential oil species that fall into this category include: Aquilaria malaccensis Lam. (Agarwood), Ravensara aromatica Sonn. (now placed in the genus Cryptocarya), Aniba rosaeodora Duke (Rosewood), and Nardostachys. Species such as A. malaccensis with a high value are often mercilessly over-exploited until they have been eradicated from all areas in which harvesting is economically feasible.

When harvesting is not destructive but large quantities of reproductive parts such as fruits and flowers are harvested, the impact on seed production and therefore recruitment to the next generation can be significant. If too many fruits are harvested, this may have a significant effect on the level of genetic variability present in a population reducing their ability to respond to environmental change, compete with other species, resist disease and so on. Essential oil species in this category include nutmeg and pimenta. The huge quantities of nutmeg fruits exported from the Spice Islands in the 17th Century were not sustainable. In Central America, the fruits of Pimenta dioica (L.) Merr. (Allspice) trees are still harvested in large quantities from wild trees in the forest but fortunately it is easily cultivated and is now produced mainly in Jamaica, Mexico, India and Réunion. Other areas of production are Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Brazil.

The lack of control over how allspice is harvested in the wild is part of the problem. In the Peten region of Guatemala and in Belize, harvesting has traditionally been done by scaling the trees, and cutting off fruit-laden branches. The tree, which only grows on limestone soils in the wild, grows a new canopy, but it is not clear how long this takes. Central American populations of  P. dioica have suffered from this sort of unsustainable destructive harvesting method for centuries and it is therefore a species of concern despite the fact that it is also widely cultivated.

Bark harvesting from the wild is often destructive as woody plants need to regenerate the tissue that has been removed before the wound becomes infected. The temptation is always to remove too much bark or to remove the bark carelessly so that the underlying tissues (vascular cambium and phloem) are also removed which prevents regeneration. Essential oil species that fit into this category include Myroxylon balsamum L. var pererai (Royle) Harms. (Peru Balsam). Modern bark collectors have had such a devastating effect on Peru Balsam in Belize and many other central American countries, that it is now difficult to find large trees. Rectangular strips of bark are removed from trees that have previously been beaten or scorched by fire and left for 6-8 days (during which time the bark softens). Intermediate strips of bark are left sound to avoid permanent damage to the tree. Up to 18 tappings can be made each year at approximately two-week intervals. In contrast to the modern collectors, the ancient Maya had a traditional code of practice for harvesting bark of M. balsamum which helped to preserve this important species. According to tradition the bark was cut in 6 inch strips, one each from opposite sides of the tree, and then the tree would not be harvested again. Another restriction was that ideally the bark should be harvested at sunrise or at sunset, but the reason for this is unclear, possibly something to do with yield? Nowadays, the bark is harvested indiscriminately in large amounts often resulting in the death of the tree (pers. comm. Romero, 1997). The contrast between the ancient and modern methods of extraction could not be more stark.

The traditional method of collecting Tolu balsam (M. balsamum L.) is likely to be more sustainable than that for Peru balsam. The method involves making V-shaped cuts into the bark of the tree which just reach the phloem but not the vascular cambium. Fresh cuts are made at intervals throughout the year. In the second year, part of the trunk above the first area is worked. This may be repeated for a third year, after which time the tree is rested for three years before further tapping. Alternatively the tree can be tapped in alternate years.

Over-frequent harvesting of resin can kill a tree indirectly as one of its main functions is to seal wounds and act as an anti-microbial substance to prevent infections. Also, the synthesis of carbon rich resin compounds utilises a lot of energy that could have been used for reproduction, growth, etc. For those who derive an important part of their income from tapping resin, there is some incentive not to do it in such a way that damages the trees and jeopardises their livelihoods. In Somalia, for example, where wild frankincense stands (Boswellia) are owned by the families that live in the resin producing areas, the trees are carefully tapped. However, inter-tribal warfare in which frankincense trees were deliberately destroyed, the increasing pressure from grazing, the need for firewood and the gradually drying climate over the last 2000 years has dramatically increased the pressure on wild populations of frankincense. The more accessible trees are often tapped continuously through the year, with no rest periods, and this puts them under further stress.

For those wishing to harvest plants in the wild, a good reference for practical ideas on ethical harvesting is Tilford, G.L. (1998). From Earth to Herbalist - an earth conscious guide to medicinal plants. Mountain Press Publishing Company: Missoula, Missouri. A list of available guidelines on sustainable harvesting can be found in.

3.    The ecological impact of harvesting

Many species that have evolved together in the same environments have developed complex relationships of dependence on each other. Examples include insects species that have evolved to pollinate only one plant species (e.g. Euglossine bees and Ophrys orchids), animals which depend entirely on the fruits produced by one species of tree (e.g. figs and bats), and ant species (genus Azteca) that provide defensive services to host trees which in turn provide them with an energy source in the form of nectar exudates (Janzen, 1983). In ecology there is a hypothesis that some species are particularly important in terms of the other species that depend upon them. The elimination of such species would also remove the dependent species causing cascades of linked extinctions. These key species have been called keystone species, but there is no really good evidence that such species exist or can be easily identified. Nevertheless, this is an important point, and illustrates the need to understand something of the ecology of species that are being harvested since keystone species would obviously have a high conservation value, and make a significant contribution to the healthy functioning of ecosystems.

In most cases we know almost nothing about the ecology of essential oil producing species and cannot therefore gauge the broader ecological impact of harvesting. For example, trees form an important part of the forest ecosystem by providing shade, resources and habitats for many other species to exist. Aniba rosaeodora trees for example, are pollinated by stingless bees which are attracted to the oil glands, and the seeds are dispersed by toucans (Mabberley, 1997). Whether the bee pollinators are specifically adapted for pollinating A. rosaeodora or to what extent the toucans depend on A. rosaeodora seeds is unknown.

In some species it is only the larger individuals that are harvested. In M. balsamum for example, the lethal effects of over-harvesting bark has effectively removed the larger trees (which can be over a meter in diameter) resulting in significant changes to the population structure. Larger mature trees tend to produce much greater numbers of seeds than immature trees, so that by removing large trees selectively, the impact on total seed production of a population is significant. Furthermore, when it is cut for timber, the seedlings are often accidentally destroyed at the same time. Another example from Nepal is that collectors tend to dig up the largest plants of Nardostachys grandiflora DC. (the incense plant known as Jatamansi or Nard) as these have the largest roots and are therefore more time efficient to harvest. The largest plants often grow in marginal habitats on steeper ground where the grazing pressure is lower. The impact on regeneration and the probability of soil erosion in an already delicate environment is not considered. Due to the high demand, N. grandiflora has been ruthlessly exploited in Nepal to the extent that it is now listed as vulnerable. Fortunately it is still relatively abundant in Bhutan and had been given some degree of protection by the Forest Department.

More worrying perhaps is the fact that harvesting of a rare species is most likely to be carried out where the largest populations exist, but these sites are also likely to be centres of dispersal. Consequently, it is these areas that are most in need of protection. Rarity in fact provides the best index of vulnerability.

4.    Social Impacts

This is an area that is receiving increased attention as development agencies focus on poverty at the household level. A recent report from UNEP for example shows that 80% of people in less developed countries live on less than $1 per day. Women and children spend their downtime between more important agricultural operations, collecting wild plants for sale or use in the home. When collecting for personal use or for medicinal use, they often adopt sound conservation practices so as to maintain access to the resource in the future. However, where species with commercial value are involved, over-exploitation is common as the income derived from harvesting these species can be a significant part of the household budget in many less developed countries.

The market chain for most of these products is usually long and information on market prices is kept closely guarded by middlemen who are also usually responsible for the initial processing and packaging which adds significant value to the material. These middlemen provide a valuable service to the community as they usually know what the market wants in terms of quality, and they also know who to sell the material to for the best price. However, any labour intensive activity needs to be justified by an appropriate financial reward. In the Labe area of Guinea for example, 36 villages were found to be involved in the collection of flowers of the aromatic wild species Karou Karunden (Leptactina senegambica Hook f.) for use in the perfume industry. Each of these villages collect up to 130-140 kg of flowers by hand over a period of about 6-8 weeks. Collection only takes place once every 2-3 years as the oil produced from the flowers is not a major commercial oil and is not needed in large quantities. However, the concrete produced from the flowers is sold for 1900 French Francs per kg, and so it pays sufficiently well to make it worth while for the villagers.

The higher the value of the product the more effort local people will put into harvesting it, the greater the risk of over-exploitation. The volatile nature of market prices for many of these products due to competition and over/under supply, makes it difficult for local people to predict what they will get in return for their labour. Prices are usually kept a closely guarded secret by middlemen so that the collector seldom receives more than a fraction of the final price paid by the consumer Also, issues such as health care, access to education and economic security arise especially when it is women and children who do most of the work. From the point of view of the consumer, access to information on these issues is very difficult to obtain. Perhaps the best security net to ensure that biological, ecological and social issues are being paid attention to is either for consumers to buy oils directly from the producer through a co-operative society perhaps, or to buy oils from distributors that only buy from organic or sustainably managed sources. Many organic certification bodies for example include social as well as biological criteria in their requirements. However, there are many ways to falsely claim organic and sustainably managed status, and not all certification bodies are of the same standard.   

5.    Efficiency of production – a conservation issue!

Production of Brazilian Rosewood in Brazil has been a highly organised industry since the 1920s. Whereas in the past, distilleries were set up deep in the forest, today they are mostly sited on the riverbank as far upstream as they can be shipped on a raft. Scouts who are very experienced in identifying and distinguishing the various Aniba species by their appearance and odour, are sent out to locate natural stands. Teams of labourers are then despatched to fell and manually carry the trunk wood (in 1m lengths) to the distillery for processing. Most of the wood doesn’t reach the distillery for as long as 6 months as the collectors have to wait until the beginning of the wet season when the rivers are adequately high for shipment. Furthermore, some 60% of the wood biomass is left on site and therefore wasted. Young branch wood provides the highest oil yields, but is rejected on site in favour of the more readily portable trunk wood. At the distillery, significant losses occur in sawing and chipping wood prior to distillation, and owing to a lack of investment in equipment (now mostly very old), oil recoveries are sub-optimal. The extraction process is thus labour-intensive, poorly paid, destructive (of rosewood trees and other trees in the exit corridor), and inefficient. Although substantial natural stands of Aniba rosaeodora  (Syn. A. duckei) remain, they are in inaccessible parts of the Amazon where they are not economic to extract. As a result, producers are now harvesting smaller trees than before including species of Aniba that were previously left untouched. Not only is the harvesting and processing inefficient, but it is now increasingly damaging to the species being extracted, some of which may become threatened as a result.

6.    Conservation and the failure of legislation

Very often, legislation designed to protect threatened species is ineffective and difficult to enforce. Whenever a species has a high value and is protected, there is likely to be an illegal trade. A good example is the trade in Aquilaria malaccensis (agarwood) which is used as an incense, in perfumery and as a medicine. A recent study of the exploitation of A. malaccensis and its trade carried out by TRAFFIC India (1992-93) raised serious concerns about levels of illegal trade and over-exploitation of this species in India. In the state of Arunachal Pradesh, the regular exploitation of agarwood since 1957-58 has depleted natural populations to the extent that it is only now found in a few areas. In 1982-83 the Forest Department finally banned all commercial exploitation of agarwood in the state, but this came after at least 26 years of regular extraction.

Until recently, A. malaccensis was only protected by state bans and by administrative orders of the state forest departments. In response to the findings presented in the Traffic-India report, however, a proposal by the Indian government to include A. malaccensis in Appendix II of CITES was recently accepted. This provides a measure of control over trade in A. malaccensis, but the vast majority of agarwood in trade originates from wild sources and so will always be difficult to police. In India for example, although the existing export legislation prevents the export of agarwood in the form of logs, chips and dust, it allows the export of derivatives obtained from any wild species excluding sandalwood and red sanders wood. The legislation is thus contradictory in that it allows the export of agarwood derivatives but not the wood itself.

In Laos, Government attempts to prevent agarwood exports have resulted in regular arrests of traders, but illegal harvests have not ceased. Recent press reports from Kalimantan, Indonesia, indicate that helicopters are being used to identify trees for agarwood harvesting, and that attempts to control illegal harvest and trade have been unsuccessful. In summary, the reports available indicate that harvesting is destructive and largely out of control throughout the range of the species in South East Asia.

Worse still is the fact that other species of Aquilaria have suffered similar over-exploitation to that documented for A. malaccensis but are not yet protected. Fears about over-exploitation have led the Vietnamese Ministry of Forestry to establish a plantation of 200 A. crassna trees. Given the ineffective control measures, and the scale of cultivation attempts, it seems unlikely that continued over-exploitation can be avoided. A. crassna, and possibly other species of the genus may be worthy of consideration for inclusion in the CITES Appendices - justifiable for both their conservation, and to support the listing of A. malaccensis which may prove hard to enforce owing to the likely difficulty of distinguishing its products in trade from those of unlisted species.


From the point of view of the consumer, the overall conservation ‘status’ of an essential oil producing species should not just be based on a consideration of its biological status. It should also include an assessment of the likely ecological and social impacts of harvesting, the efficiency of production methods, and the effectiveness of any legislation protecting the species.

There will always be problems when trying to assess the biological conservation status of a species as the information that is available is often incomplete and requires careful interpretation. When the species is being harvested from the wild, the ecological impact of harvesting is likely to be unknown. While producers generally have little interest in the wider ecological impacts of extraction, they are at least likely to be very aware of the impact of harvesting on the availability of target species. However, most producers are not willing to discuss this or the efficiency of their production methods. Those producers that will discuss these issues are likely to be responsible and should probably be supported. Lastly, the scale and impact of any illegal trade is always hard to estimate.

A responsible consumer should therefore ask a number of questions about a species before coming to an educated guess about its overall ‘status’. These questions might include:

·        Is the species known to be threatened? If so is it threatened in the country where the material was harvested? (note that this may be different from the country where the oil was actually produced).

·        Is the species harvested from the wild?

·        If so, is it destructively harvested or is the part of the plant which is harvested likely to have a significant effect on regeneration and the structure of populations?

·        What are the known ecological effects of harvesting? Are there any other species which depend on the species concerned to provide resources, shelter etc.?

·        If the species is cultivated, how is it propagated and is material gathered from the wild for propagation?

·        What were the long-term effects on wild populations of bringing the species into cultivation?

·        For wild-harvested species, how sustainable are the harvesting methods used by most producers, and are there any producers who use more sustainable methods?

·        How efficient is the method production?

·        If the species is protected by legislation, how effective is this legislation?

None of these questions is easy to answer, but some information should be available. It should therefore be possible to rank each species on the basis of these questions in order to identify those species that are of ‘special concern’.  Consumers should also ask if the producing company has any sort of formal or informal corporate responsibility code that outlines best social and environmental practices and processes. Very few companies will have formalised their policies in writing[6] but there may at least be some sort of shared vision that includes not buying threatened or poorly managed species, buying mainly organic raw materials or oils, and a commitment to recycling, pollution reduction and other such issues. Another good question to ask would be whether or not the company had heard of CITES.

An initial assessment of 117 commercially available species and varieties indicates that about 8% of these are species likely to be of special concern. In other words, 92 out of 100 essential oil species are not likely to threatened as a result of commercial production, etc.

Without having carried out a detailed assessment, some examples of species that are likely to be of special concern are: Amyris balsamifera, Aquilaria malaccensis, Aquilaria crassna, Boswellia carteri, Guaiacum officinale, Commiphora myrrha, Myroxylon balsamum, Nardostachys grandiflora, Pimenta dioica and Ravensara aromatica. Each of these species has different reasons for being potentially classified as a species of special concern, and the fact that they are likely to species of concern does not always mean that a responsible consumer should not use them. For example, in Madagascar, producers have set up plantations of Ravensara aromatica and should therefore be able to sell the oil with few associated concerns. The point is that unless there is good information to suggest otherwise, consumers would be well advised to apply the precautionary principle until more detailed information is available that can be used to reassess the situation. Just like biological conservation status, the ‘status’ of essential oil species defined in the way described above, should be flexible and allow for improved information.  

Establishing some sort of certification process for essential oil production similar to that used for organic products, fair trade or sustainably managed forests, may provide the best way to deal with the issues raised above (biological, ecological & social impacts), for the end user. One of the benefits of the certification process is that it involves tracking the product from raw material to end user, and pays attention to the social and biological issues. There are problems with the certification process though as the costs of verification are high, standards vary, and many developing countries have established their own certification programs which are not up to international standards.

Existing certification programs are often single-issue orientated (timber, organic, ethical trade, etc.) and do not adequately cover wild-harvested products. The other main problem is that the collection areas for wild-harvested products are not typically under the control of a private landowner. Certified wild-harvested products are therefore regarded as being of unknown origin and the harvesting as effectively uncontrolled. The way forward is probably to certify entire wild areas as organic so that all wild-harvested products from those areas are also effectively certified as organic. This is a recent development of the certification process and only a few such wild areas have been certified (a few forests in the US and Russia)[7]. An alternative approach would be to certify sustainable harvesting (rather than management). This concept is relatively new and methods for certifying non-timber forest products such as medicinal plants are currently in the process of being developed[8]. Lastly, there is an increasing trend toward the use of quality seals to assure consumers of ethical practices in the harvest, growing and manufacture or quality. There is very little public confidence in quality seals which amount to little more than trademarks, and so it is very difficult to make the seal successful enough to influence consumer purchase decisions[9].

The only certification process that has been applied to essential oil production is for organic oils produced in cultivation. In the absence of established internationally recognised certification programs for essential oil production based on wild-harvested material, the concerned end user will need to do some research themselves by asking questions until they are satisfied.


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Herb Research Foundation, October 2002. Non-Timber Forest Products and Markets for Khabarovsky Krai, Primorsky Krai and Irkutsk Oblast. A Rapid Assessment. Volume 1. (Submitted to Winrock International/Forest Project).

IUCN Species Survival  Commission, (1994). IUCN Red List Categories. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) : Gland, Switzerland

Janzen, D.H. (Ed.), (1983). Costa Rican Natural History. University of Chicago Press : Chicago, London.

Laird, S.A. & Pierce, A.R. (2002). Promoting Sustainable and Ethical Botanicals: Strategies to Improve Commercial Raw Material Sourcing. Rainforest Alliance : New York, USA.

Mabberley, D.J. (1997). The Plant-Book: A portable dictionary of the vascular plants. p. 40. Cambridge University Press : UK

Milton, G., (1999). Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How one man’s courage changed the course of history. Hodder & Stoughton : London

Peters, C. (1994). Sustainable Harvest of Non-timber Plant Resources in Tropical Moist Forests: An Ecological Primer. USAID/Biodiversity Support Program. Washington D.C.

Pierce, A.R., Laird, S.A. & Malleson, R. (2002). Annotated collection of guidelines, standards and regulations for trade in non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and botanicals. Rainforest Alliance : New York, USA.

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Simmonds, N.W.,  (1979). The evolution of crop plants. Longmans : London

Traffic-India, (1994).  Trade in Agarwood. 51 pp. WWF-India (Traffic-India) : New Delhi, India.

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