'Waria waria' tree turns to gold

Posted: 31 January 2002

Author: Peter McGrath

Author Info: Peter McGrath is a freelance writer based in Italy, specialising in scientific, agricultural and environmental issues.

In the early 1990s, in order to understand more about the distribution and quality of the melaleuca tree and its oils, Australian scientists carried out surveys in the remote Western Province of Papua New Guinea. Now that research is looks like paying off for the local farmers, if it can be harvested sustainably.

The trees (Asteromyrtus (Melaleuca) symphyocarpa) are distributed across northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, and their oil, like that of eucalyptus, is used to treat various ailments. When villagers saw the scientists using stills to extract oil for their survey work, however, they realised that the simple technology could also work for them.

Now, thanks to a partnership between CSIRO, the Australian government's research organisation, and the PNG National Forest Authority, five stills have been set up, and villagers are extracting the essential oils themselves.

"The oil, known as 'waria waria oil' after the local name for the tree, has found a ready market in villages as well as in Danu, the provincial capital," confirms Dr. John Doran of CSIRO's Forestry and Forest Products department. A marketing agreement has also been made for the villagers to sell their oil to a nation-wide trading company, providing an assured market and a good return for the product.

However, although the trees are common and often cover thousands of hectares, there are concerns that increased harvesting levels might not be sustainable.

Typically, collectors climb about 30 per cent of the most healthy, vigorous trees in a stand and remove all but three or four of the main branches. Once the limbs are on the ground, leaves and twigs are stripped by hand into bags for transport back to the village and steam distillation. "This harvesting method is working well, with minimal tree death and fast recovery of harvested trees," says Dr. Doran.

To confirm this, though, requires more rigorous scientific monitoring. Together with the University of PNG, CSIRO have set up a series of replicated experimental plots.

The aim is to try and determine what is an 'incorrect' harvesting method that would ultimately alter the ecological balance of the harvested area, and what is a 'correct' method that would leave things more or less unchanged. "Hopefully the plots can be monitored for many years," adds Dr. Doran.