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Sandalwood – a fragrant tree with great potential

The Sandalwood trade in Fiji dates back to the 1700s when Europeans first began trading with Fijians. In the early 1800s there were major trade imbalances developing between China and Great Britain, due largely to Britain’s newly acquired taste for tea drinking. Sandalwood was one of the few commodities of high value that China was interested in trading with the West. The increased demand for the fragrant wood almost drove the wild “yasi” populations to extinction, thus bringing an end to the trade in 1816. 

High value tree

The first South Pacific sandalwood species to be exploited was Santalum yasi, also known as Yasi ni Viti which grew naturally in certain parts of Viti Levu, Vanua Levu and few islands in the maritime zone including Kadavu, Lakeba, Ono–i–Lau, Vanuabalavu and Oneata. 

The selling price at that time was unspecified. However, it is estimated to have been approximately FJD $2 per kilogram. The price of Sandalwood now ranges from $100 to $120 per kilogram. An auction about five years ago saw the price shooting up to slightly more than $300 per kilogram. The owner of the sandalwood tree that was auctioned received a hefty $60,000 for his 40-year old tree.

Due to the high value and great potential of this natural resource, the Fijian Government through the Ministry of Forestry has been working with development partners and research institutions on sandalwood conservation and development programmes to ensure preservation of its genetic base and the long-term sustainability of the industry.

In 1996, the Ministry began conducting conservation programmes with assistance from the AUS-Aid funded South Pacific Regional Initiative on Forest Genetic Resources (SPRIG) project to develop techniques on methods of growing S. album and S. hybrid yasi and to also re-establish santalum yasi (Yasi ni Viti)  plantations. To this end, the Ministry has thus been supplying seedlings to communities and individuals interested in growing and selling yasi as a source of income. Since 2011, the Fijian Government has continued to promote the expansion of a sandalwood footprint outside the sandalwood areas of these 3 species. These conservation efforts have progressed from having sandalwood growing in selected parts of the country in the past to a now widely grown tree in other provinces and districts.

Interest from communities

The interest and demand in sandalwood planting is overwhelming as shown by individuals, communities, schools, church groups and others. To date, a total of 141,511 sandalwood trees covering a total area of 353.4 ha can be found across Fiji. These figures do not include stock from private nurseries and plantations. 

As of 2020, the Ministry has developed a database on Sandalwood and continues to reach out to farmers to have an appreciation of the existing resources and to also consider the next phase in the development of this species.

The promotion of sandalwood planting is now part of Fiji’s 30 Million Trees in 15 Years tree-planting programme. Specifically, through the Government funded sandalwood project, community sandalwood nurseries have been established thus, empowering men, women and youths in these communities to develop their own sandalwood plantations and generate an income through the sale of seeds and seedlings.

Multiple Uses of Sandalwood

Sandalwood has medicinal and both traditional and cultural uses. Sandalwood shavings/dust is commonly used in Fijian Weddings to anoint the heads of the bridal party and is also used as a scent in oils and soaps. Globally, the oil is used as a base for perfumes in the fragrance industry.

The Ministry is encouraging people who own or lease land whether native, freehold or State land to invest in Non-Timber Forest Product (NTFP) plantations like sandalwood to ease the pressure on our native forests. 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines NTFP as forest products consisting of goods of biological origin including fuelwood and small woods, derived from forests, other wooded land and trees outside forests. 

Future Projections 

Fiji is expecting a huge harvest of sandalwood in 2030. The last major export of 511 metric tons was in 2006-2008. Knowing our sandalwood and its socio-economic and environmental value, the Ministry is investing in the following sandalwood research areas: 

Valuation of sandalwood species (heartwood variation) by different age groups of 5 years, 10 years, 15 years and 20 years.

Oil assessment for the 3 local existing sandalwood species at different age groups of 5 years, 10 years, 15 years and 20 years.

Cost benefit analysis of all sandalwood products such as oil, handicraft/carving and whole sale.

Establishment of Sandalwood Growers & Buyers Association 

Sandalwood Regulation 

This research will enable farmers to know the relationship between stem size, tree height, stem form, taper and heartwood percentage by species, to know the heartwood oil chemistry of different species by age and of various segments of the tree, to understand the maximum economic value of different downstream and value-adding processes, and most importantly safeguard farmers and ensure that they receive maximum benefits from their sandalwood.

Sandalwood can be a medium to long-term investment. Farmers could plant the tree together with other short-term crops. With Government support to re-establish this valuable resource, the future looks bright for Sandalwood as the foundation has been established for a lucrative comeback! 

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