Copaiba (FAO, NWFP 6)

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Peru and Tolu balsams
Coppen, Gums, resins and latexes of plant origin, 1995

  • See the main page Baumes (in French)
  • Extract from : NWFP 6. Coppen J.J.W., 1995. Gums, resins and latexes of plant origin. FAO, Rome. 142 p. (Non-Wood Forest Products, 6). on line





Copaiba balsam is an oleoresin obtained from certain Amazonian species of Copaifera. Although distillation of the oleoresin provides an essential oil, the term "copaiba oil" is sometimes also applied to the oleoresin itself, since the crude material occurs naturally in a very liquid form.

Crude copaiba balsam is a clear, pale yellow oil which darkens and becomes less fluid on prolonged storage or exposure to air. It is employed by the fragrance industry as a fixative in perfumes and in other products such as soaps.

In Brazil, which is the main source of copaiba balsam, it is also employed in pharmaceutical applications, mainly as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. Most pharmacies sell copaiba oil, either in small bottles over the counter or in the form of capsules. The oil is also added to shampoos, soaps and cosmetics, which are promoted for their value in treating skin complaints and numerous other disorders.



Exports of copaiba from Brazil for the period 1986-92, and their destinations, are shown in Table 26. The international market for copaiba (either the balsam or distilled oil) is probably around 100 tonnes/year. The major importers are the United States, France and Germany - accounting for approximately 50%, 30% and 15%, respectively - and the major consumer is the fragrance industry. Use by the international fragrance market largely depends on prices of substitute materials. Copaiba oil is considered relatively inexpensive by the perfume industry, suggesting that there is little scope for increased use.

The Brazilian market is larger than the international one and is, perhaps, of the order of 300-500 tonnes annually. Usage is divided between the fragrance and pharmaceutical industries.

Demand for copaiba oil internationally is only likely to increase if there were to be wider use of it for pharmaceutical purposes. Demand on the domestic Brazilian market appears secure although, equally, the established markets are unlikely to grow significantly in the medium term.

Supply sources

Brazil has historically been the major producer and exporter of copaiba and this remains the case today. Neighbouring countries produce small amounts of copaiba but this is mostly used domestically.

Some Brazilian production data are shown in Table 26. There must be some considerable under-recording since production figures for the years shown are consistently less than exports, without taking into account the even larger domestic consumption. Smaller quantities


have been available to the market from Venezuela, the Guianas and Colombia. In all these countries, primary production has been dependent upon the tapping of wild forest trees.

Annual fluctuations in Brazilian production are due to variations in river levels, which give access to the collection areas. Transportation of both collectors and the balsam is by means of boats and the upstream sites cannot be visited in years when river levels are low. More than 90% of Brazilian copaiba production comes from Amazonas state; most of the balance comes from Pará.

Brazilian exports of copaiba shown in Table 26 are at a similar level to those recorded since 1978 (COPPEN et al., 1994) and have fluctuated around 70 tonnes/year with no discernable trend.

Quality and prices

There are no international standards for copaiba or its distilled oil, although in the United States an EOA standard for the oil specifies various physico-chemical requirements. Copaiba which has stood for some time without protection from the air or light is liable to be rather variable in quality, and may show signs of discolouration and resinification.

Export data indicate an average FOB value of US$ 7-8/kg in 1990 and 1991, and about US$ 3.90/kg in 1992. Traders in Brazil were quoting prices of around US$ 7.50/kg FOB Belém in early 1993.

Published wholesale purchase prices for copaiba balsam in New York are currently (mid-1995) US$ 10.50-11.00/kg. In London, copaiba is listed at around US$ 10.25/kg (CIF).


Botanical/common names

Family Leguminosae:

Oil/balsam: copaiba, copaiva, copahyba

Description and distribution

Copaifera species occur in Africa and South America but the only ones which yield commercially useful oleoresin are those found in the forests of Amazonia. (As noted earlier, some African Copaifera were once used as sources of certain types of copal). The trees grow up to 30 m high and are widely distributed along the Amazon and its tributaries, although in very variable densities, often only thinly scattered.

Copaifera reticulata, Copaifera guianensis and Copaifera multijuga are the principal Brazilian sources of copaiba. Copaifera reticulata has been stated in the past as accounting for 70% of Brazilian copaiba


production. Copaifera langsdorffii is a cerrado source of oil but is not believed to be traded in any significant amounts. Copaifera officinalis is the traditional main source of copaiba in Colombia, Venezuela and the Guianas.


Copaiba oleoresin accumulates in cavities within the trunk which join and form reservoirs of clear liquid in the centre (core) of the tree. Tapping is carried out by drilling a hole into the tree about 1 m above ground. A bamboo tube provided with a simple stopcock is inserted and this enables the flow of oleoresin to be controlled. Sometimes a second hole is made some distance above the first. After the flow of oil has ceased a plug of wood or clay is used to seal the hole. The interval between visits to the tree to make a new hole is anything from 3 months to a year or more.

The only treatment of the oleoresin which is undertaken prior to any large-scale distillation is the removal of extraneous matter by filtration; this is usually carried out by traders before sale to the factory.


The yield of balsam per tree is very variable and depends on the species of Copaifera tapped, the age of the tree, the period of time since the previous tapping and the season. Estimates given by traders in Brazil for oleoresin yields differ widely and yields of up to 15 litres or more are quoted.

Relatively recent tapping studies (ALENCAR, 1982) have revealed high variability in yields between individual trees growing under the same conditions. A maximum mean yield of 0.25 litres of oleoresin per tree was obtained for the first tapping. The highest yield of oleoresin was almost 3 litres, but a third of the trees produced no oleoresin at all, and four further tappings over a 31/2-year period yielded progressively less.


Distillation of the crude oleoresin or oil - which is only undertaken by companies with largescale fractionation facilities - furnishes a paler, refined oil, free of any polymeric and other high-boiling material which may have been produced by natural degradation of the original.


Some use is made of the wood for sawtimber. The wood is also reputed to make good charcoal.


The possible use of copaiba oil as a substitute for diesel fuel has attracted some attention from researchers in the past, and in the late 1970s/early 1980s there was speculation that Copaifera might be grown on a plantation scale as an energy source. However, it was conceded at the time that the economics of such a venture would probably not be favourable and there is no evidence that the situation has improved since then.


The tree provides no other potentially useful product which would make it attractive as a multipurpose tree (apart, possibly, from timber), and with no firm evidence that copaiba can penetrate the international pharmaceutical market (and therefore generate increased demand) or that present supplies from traditional exploitation of the wild resource cannot be maintained, there is no strong case for assigning a priority to research on formal cultivation of copaiba.

Research into improved tapping techniques for use with wild trees is also difficult to justify. The physical form of the oleoresin does not lend itself to adapting tapping methods used for some of the more viscous or harder resins.


  • ALENCAR, J.C. (1982) [Silvicultural studies of a natural population of Copaifera multijuga Hayne of Central Amazonia. 2. Production of oleoresin] (in Portuguese). Acta Amazonica, 12(1), 75-89.
  • BERTHIER, A. (1982) [Copahu balsam] (in French). Parfums, Cosmétiques, Arômes, (46), 29-30.
  • CALVIN, C. (1983) New sources for fuel and materials. Science, 219(7 January), 24-26.
  • COPPEN, J.J.W., GORDON, A. and GREEN, C.L. (1994) The developmental potential of selected Amazonian non-wood forest products: an appraisal of opportunities and constraints. Paper presented at the FAO Expert Consultation Meeting on Non-Wood Forest Products, Santiago, Chile, 4-8 July.
  • EOA (1975) Copaiba oil. EOA No. 10. 1 p. Essential Oil Association of USA.
  • GUENTHER, E. (1952) Oil of balsam copaiba. pp 203-211. In The Essential Oils, Vol. 5. New York: Van Nostrand Co.
  • MORS, W.B. and RIZZINI, C.T. (1966) Trees with trunk exudates. pp 42-48. In Useful Plants of Brazil. San Francisco/London: Holden-Day.
  • ZONTA, A. and ESPINOZA, O.L. (1994) [Copaibo oil] (in Spanish). pp 26-27. In [Non-wood forest products in Bolivia]. Paper presented at the FAO Expert Consultation Meeting on Non-Wood Forest Products, Santiago, Chile, 4-8 July.


Table 26. Copaiba: production and exports from Brazil, 1986-92 (tonnes)
1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992
Production 43 99 54 49 na na na
Exports 47 114 94 59 51 95 56
Of which to:
France 17 26 15 na 22 na na
Germany 14 10 13 na 14 na na
USA 8 68 52 na 10 na na
Mexico 4 5 3 na - na na
UK 4 4 2 na 5 na na
Spain - 1 4 na - na na
Netherlands - - 4 na - na na

Source: National statistics (taken from COPPEN et al. 1994)