Berita 2000

West Java’s fragrant roots not as sweet as they used to be

Sumber: Januari 2000 

BANDUNG (JP): Throwing his tattered hat angrily onto the ground, Amin half cursed, “”Akar wangi (a kind of fragrant grass) farmers are dying. The price of the akar wangi oil has slumped,”” he said. “”Just look around, do you see any processing plants that are doing well?”” he asked.

His eyes wandered around, looking for confirmation. In and around KampungSituhapa, Sukakarya village, Samarang, West Java, there are five akar wangi distilleries. There were no signs of activity at three of them.

Sukakarya is one of the areas which produces akar wangi oil in Garut regency, West Java. It is located at an altitude of 800 meters above sea level and some 30 km southeast of the town of Garut. In this region the fragrant grass plant is called usar. Fields with the plants are widely spread, as far as the Kamojang area east of Bandung.

Garut has been known for a long time as a region for the production of akar wangi oil in Indonesia. The high quality of the oil has raised the reputation of Java internationally. In Dutch colonial times, Garut’s usar oil was referred to as “”the Java Golden Vertier Oil””.

These days it is exported to the U.S., France, Britain, the Netherlands and other countries to be used as a raw material in the production of cosmetics.

Although it was once a main export commodity, the akar wangi plant causeserosion. The centers of the plant cultivation — the subdistricts of Leles,Samarang, Cilawu and Bayongbong — are located on the upper course of the Cimanuk River. Every year the river, that empties into the Indramayu regency, carries away with it no less than 25 million cubic meters of mud.

Akar wangi plants are considered one of the causes of erosion in the upper regions of the Cimanuk River and of flooding in the Indramayu region in the north of West Java.

Moreover, the akar wangi plant is greedy, devouring more than its fair share of nutrient elements in the soil, which accelerates the process of soil impoverishment. As a result, since 1974 akar wangi plants have been banned from cultivation. Akar wangi oil production levels have sharply declined. However, using different cultivation techniques, the negative impacts of the plant can be minimized.

Conscious of this, in 1990, the West Java governor and the Garut regent issued decrees stipulating that the plants could be cultivated again. However, the area was limited to 2,500 hectares in the subdistricts of Leles, Samarang, Cilawu and Bayongbong.

In order to safeguard the environment, it was recommended that the farmers use a terrace system to prevent rain water flowing down from the upper regions with mud to the lowlands.

The fragrant grass grows on loose soil rich in nutrient elements in regions at an altitude of more than 700 meters above sea level. The plant needs one year before it can be harvested. The method of harvesting is by uprooting the plant and cutting off its fragrant root.

Oil is obtained by distillation in a large iron drum/stove. The stove is made of iron plates measuring two meters high and has a diameter of one anda half meters. In the dry season the stove’s contents weigh only one ton. If the grass is harvested in the rainy season, the weight can reach one anda half tons.

Water content also affects the quality of the distilled product. When theprice is good, the quality of Indonesian akar wangi oil declines because some producers mix the oil with another liquid. “”At the distilleries nobodymixes the oil,”” said Udin, who owns a distillery in Sukakarya village.

The adulterating of akar wangi oil can be done because there is no directtrade with the exporters. From the distillery, the oil is collected by traders in the main town of the regency. It is then resold to wholesale traders and only then is it collected by the exporters.

Adulterated akar wangi oil has caused Indonesia’s world-wide reputation to decline. Once, even, Indonesian akar wangi oil could not be sold in the market. The farmers had to bear the ill effects of dishonest practices. Meanwhile, the number of countries producing this fragrant oil has been on the increase.

Haiti, for example, is a tough competitor and the quality of its oil is far better. The price of Indonesian akar wangi oil is only half of that of Haiti, US$40 per kilogram against $80. Oil from Borbon is even more expensive at $120 per kilogram.

The low price of akar wangi oil has affected the level of the welfare of farmers and distillers in this region. According to Sulaeman, an akar wangi farmer, if the price of the oil is good, distillation of the oil is profitable. “”The farmers also benefit from it,”” he said. But now the price of akar wangi oil has slumped to Rp 100,000 per kilogram. It once reached Rp 270,000.

In Garut regency there are about 1,800 farmers who cultivate akar wangi plants and another 300 are engaged in oil distillation. With the oil at Rp 100,000 per kilogram the distillers get nearly nothing. “”Just imagine,”” said Udin, “”for one distillation , the raw material — one and a half tons of usar grass costs Rp 450,000. Diesel fuel and wages amount to Rp 150,000,making a total of Rp 600,000. The yield is only 5 kgs. There is a Rp 100,000 shortfall with each production.””

Selling akar wangi oil is not difficult. Traders acting as collectors of the oil also provide the working capital for the purchase of raw material, the construction of the distillation plants and the purchase of the stove, costing more than Rp 60 million. “”We would not be able to provide the capital ourselves,”” he said.

However, as a result, the distillers can determine the price, but cannot sell their product to other parties.


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