Stopping the stink?

Saturday, 5 April 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A former Kandy Pradeshiya Sabha member was arrested this week for smuggling Walla Patta, raising the growing need to regularise this special plant so that it can be used legally for economic benefit and conservation. Three Chinese and one Malaysian were arrested in January for transporting 12 kilograms of Walla Patta along with the Sri Lankan supplier. It is speculated that the herb was being sprinted away with the intention of being smuggled out of the country. In Sri Lanka, the stink of corruption emanates from the most scented of places. Walla Patta, or Gyrinops Walla as it is scientifically known, is an indigenous herb that is used to produce some of the finest perfumes in the world. Since it is exclusive to the country, trade in this precious plant is prohibited, but it is increasingly evident that a thriving black market trade is afoot. In May 2013 an attempt to smuggle over 13,000 kilograms worth over Rs. 200 million from the country in what is clearly a well-organised operation was thwarted. On 20 May, Police Special Task Force (STF) personnel recovered 13,499 kilograms of Walla Patta herb valued at around Rs. 200 million to be smuggled out of the country and arrested six suspects including two Indian nationals during a raid in Kolonnawa. France was suspected to be the destination for the massive consignment. The arrests were made in the night and the suspects were handed over to Wellampitiya Police for legal action. Three Bangladeshi nationals were arrested in Ratnapura in February for the possession around six kilograms and 750 milligrams of the Walla Patta plant. They were attempting to export it to Saudi Arabia, giving an idea of how widespread the demand for the plant is. What is interesting though is that the endemic plant, which is traditionally used for medicinal purposes, when injured produces a resinous substance called agarwood, which fetches a high price internationally. It is reported that a single kilo of agarwood can fetch anywhere from US$ 10-850 depending on its quality. For the previous consignment, around 400 Walla Patta trees had to be kept alive but injured for an extended period of time, which would have been an onerous task. This clearly shows that the extraction of agarwood, despite being illegal, was being carried out in industrial proportions and given the fact that it was kept hidden for such a long period of time also shows high level complicity in the smuggling ring. It is clear that traditional conservation policies are not going to save this precious plant. Instead the Government needs to formulate policies that allow commercial export of Walla Patta, thus ensuring that the endemic plant will be proliferated. Regulation of the product will reduce the black market and promote sustainable trade and farming practices that actually benefit the public rather than allowing well-connected thieves to corner the profit. Previous reports have hinted the Government had plans to commercialise production of the plant. However, this needs to develop in tandem with greater adherence to law and order, but, almost a year on, it is clear no progress had been made and the plant is as exposed as ever to smugglers. Increasing foreign involvement also shows a well-organised chain of supply that could well spill over into cartels if the State and law enforcement do not step in.