Thursday, 16 February 2017

Rebuilding Vanuatu’s forestry sector: helping farmers turn trees into money

In the late 1990s Vanuatu farmer, Mr Malakai Vele, who lives in the Sara village on the East Coast of the island of Espiritu Santo, began planting whitewood trees on his farm. Whitewood (Endospermum medullosum) is a fast growing native hardwood tree in Vanuatu that has a degree of cyclone resistance and which can produce a high-quality pale timber that in the 1990’s was processed into high-value products and exported to Japan and Malaysia. In order to produce the high-quality timber, young whitewood trees need to be planted closely together, to minimise the development of large branches, and then thinned out as the trees grow to concentrate the growth on to the best trees. Unfortunately nowadays there are very few markets for small diameter whitewood trees in Vanuatu so the farmers are reluctant to carry out the required thinning operations. So this is where an ACIAR forestry project is coming in to help. 

Figure 1: Mr Malakai Vele in his whitewood planation

FST/2012/042: ‘Enhancing management and processing systems for value-adding in plantation-grown whitewood in Vanuatu’ is encouraging investment in planted timber resources in Vanuatu through improved management and utilisation of whitewood-based plantation and agroforestry systems.

Figure 2: Ni-Vanuatu partner sawing Malakai’s timber with the project’s band saw

Malakai agreed with the project staff that they could conduct a thinning trial in his 17 year old whitewood plantation, some of which he had thinned previously. However, as there was no existing wood processing industry on Espiritu Santo that could efficiently process the small diameter trees, the project set about creating a timber research facility within the Department of Forestry, specifically to conduct research on the sawing, drying and preservation of whitewood timber. The project imported a semi-portable band saw and some winching equipment to move the heavy logs from the forest to the nearby sites where the sawing operations were being conducted. The thinning trial enabled 120 trees from Malakai’s whitewood plantation to be thinned and cut into timber on-site. The sawn timber was treated with various chemicals to trial resistance to the development of blue stain, which can develop within 24 hours on untreated sawn wood and reduces its value for use in appearance grade timber products.

Figure 3: Project timber processing equipment

The trials showed that the sawn timber can be painted with a commercially available preservative and blue stain does not develop for many months, enabling the timber to be transported to distant markets. Malakai said he was very happy with how the project and has given him hope that markets could be found for his timber and his sons had also developed an interest in sawmilling by working with project staff at the mobile sawmill. 

Whitewood timber is not naturally durable and if exposed to the elements in the tropics it deteriorates quickly. Whitewood logs which are too small in diameter to produce sawn timber can be used as poles in local constructions or as fence posts if they are treated with timber preservative. The project established a pilot scale timber treatment plant, trained local staff in its operation and then negotiated to have the treated pine posts sold through a local hardware store (Santo Hardware).

The project team are now looking at further opportunities to build the whitewood log market in Vanuatu. It is hoped that through the work of an ACIAR beef cattle project in the future Santo’s beef cattle farmers will see the benefit of applying rotational grazing of improved pastures and be willing to purchase durable whitewood fence posts. One new eco-tourism resort is using local whitewood poles for the roof structures for the new guest bungalows and dining areas. The poles he is using come from thinnings of whitewood stands about 10 years old, which provides income to the farmers and enhances the long term productivity and value of the farmer’s plantation.

Figure 4: Whitewood roofing poles on resort bungalows

Figure 5: Treated whitewood fence posts for sale


In 2012, another farmer from Lorum on East Santo, the late Mr Kelsai Sul, was very keen to work with the ACIAR to establish mixed species agroforestry systems in the gardens around his house to diversify his farming system. The project team discussed the choice of species and site management options with Kelsai and then established a set of trials where the growth and returns from the agroforestry systems can be monitored and new knowledge is gained on the impact of traditional gardening practices on the soils within the agroforestry systems.

Figure 6: 4 year old mixed agroforestry systems trials at the Kelsai family farm at Lorum

The natapoa nut trees in these mixed agroforestry systems are already beginning to produce nuts, which means the family will gain income relatively quickly while the timber trees continue to grow.

For more information on this project, please download a copy of the FST/2012/042 factsheet on our website:

For more information on ACIAR’s forestry projects and research priorities visit

Alternatively, contact Tony Bartlett, ACIAR Forestry Research Program Manager via email on

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