Australia has successfully exported sandalwood (Santalum spp.) since as far back as the mid 1800s. Having recently expanded into Indian sandalwood, the industry has its sights set firmly on staying a key supplier into the future. Sandalwood is a valuable timber especially prized for its aromatic oil, and is also used in a wide range of products ranging from incense-joss sticks and furniture to perfumes and pharmaceuticals.
A growing industry
The native sandalwood species growing in Western Australia (S. spicatum) currently supplies about half of the world’s legal sandalwood. A newer industry based on exotic Indian sandalwood (S. album) is now also emerging, concentrated largely in the fertile lands of the Ord River Irrigation Area (ORIA) in northern Western Australia. This species produces a much higher oil content than its counterpart and is worth substantially more per tonne. Much of the S. album in its home countries has been over-exploited, so overseas supplies are dwindling, leaving Australia in a strong position to reap the benefits from its new plantations.
|Sandalwood saplings (photo: Creative Commons, T. Maari)|
Successfully growing sandalwood on a commercial scale is a fine art. Sandalwood is a hemi-parasitic plant (like mistletoe), taking nutrients from a host plant to use for its own growth. A unique association exists between sandalwood and the host.
While many plant species (usually legumes) can be potential hosts, some are better than others. So for commercial production, it’s important to pick the best hosts that will nurture growing sandalwood and not out-compete it in the same soil space.
Research forms foundations of industry
ACIAR funded sandalwood research with the then WA Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) from 1987–1995 in Indonesia and Australia. Dr Frank McKinnell, who led the research, says it formed the foundations for the current Indian sandalwood industry here.
Frank explains “We were looking at the potential for a fast-grown plantation crop, so we knew there would have to be more than one host plant over the rotation. But we had no information on what hosts might be suitable nor what was the most efficient way to raise seedlings as a commercial operation.
|Sandalwood plantation (photo: Creative Commons, Reise-Line)|
“The work carried out under the ACIAR projects developed reliable nursery techniques for mass production of high-quality seedlings, as well as demonstrating the practicability and value of several second-stage and third-stage host plants. Therefore, it laid the basis of the current sandalwood industry in the ORIA and elsewhere in northern Australia.”
From little things big things grow
Indian sandalwood has evolved into a large-scale commercial industry here. One of the major companies in this space is Tropical Forestry Services (TFS). It manages the largest amount of Indian sandalwood under plantation in the world, with 7600 hectares of S. album in Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland.
The company recently secured a substantial sandalwood oil deal with a pharmaceutical company. Andrew Brown of TFS agrees the early research by ACIAR and others was critical.
“It provided the impetus to enable this industry to get started. Without this initial work I would not think that this industry would be where it is today, if at all." Andrew Brown, TFS
An 2011 independent impact assessment of the ACIAR research estimated spectacular benefits for Australia in upcoming harvests. The recent TFS contract suggests actual returns will be well on the way to delivering 300 or 400 times the initial investment by ACIAR and others in the plantation-related research.
Benefits also flow to the local indigenous community in the form of employment. TFS has an Aboriginal Liaison officer in their Kununurra office who works to facilitate aboriginal employment opportunities within the organisation.
Private and public research on S. album continues, ever on the lookout for better trees and better hosts, and more efficient growing methods.
Current ACIAR-funded research on sandalwood in Australia is focusing on another high-quality species that occurs in Cape York (S. lanceolatum). This work involves partnerships with two indigenous communities, the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and James Cook University. It is showing promising potential for another new branch of sandalwood production in the far north.
By Dr Wendy Henderson, ACIAR Communications
Article extracted from Partners magazine: Innovation and Entrepreneurs
ACIAR S. album research:
FST/1986/013 Fuelwood and sandalwood silviculture in eastern Indonesia
FST/1990/043 Multipurpose tree and sandalwood silviculture in Indonesia
ACIAR S. lanceolatum research:
FST/2002/097 Identification of optimum genetic resources for establishment of local species of sandalwood for plantations and agroforests in Vanuatu and Cape York Peninsula
FST/2008/010 Development and delivery of germplasm for sandalwood and whitewood in Vanuatu and northern Australia
Impact assessment: Lindner R. 2011. The economic impact in Indonesia and Australia of investment in plantation forestry research, 1987–2009.
ABC article: Australian sandalwood sells for millions