From Trouble Tree to Green Gold : The Sandalwood Story of East Nusa Tenggara

From Trouble Tree to Green Gold : The Sandalwood Story of East Nusa Tenggara

From Trouble Tree to Green Gold : The Sandalwood Story of East Nusa Tenggara

By Windy D Indriantari

A sandalwood branch from an old tree and part of the main stem of a young tree (round rod)

"Here (sandalwood) is considered the ‘trouble tree’, ‘trouble wood’ or hau lasi. You cut it wrongly, you could go to jail. Or you could be fined by just cutting it."

That's what Yohanes Banoet said, a farmer from Kuale'u village, South Central Timor regency, East Nusa Tenggara (ENT) when asked about what it was like to cut sandalwood trees in the past. The trauma brought by the ‘trouble tree’ is still embedded in the memory of Yohanes and many other community members in ENT.

The fragrance of sandalwood is one of the charms that attracted the Europeans to The Land of Cendana (ENT) in the 15th century. Back then, ENT was the only region in the archipelago that produced sandalwood and at the time, the trees were abundant.

Sandalwood produces fragrant oil that can be used for various purposes in the cosmetics industry and praying rituals for Hindus and Buddhists. Sandalwood is also used for making a variety of handicrafts such as fans, beads, rosaries, and stationery.

Way before the Europeans came to ENT, the locals have traded sandalwood for centuries. Rulers may come and go, but one tradition continues to this day: sandalwood trees, wherever they grow, belong to the ruler. Before the Portuguese came, sandalwood trees were owned by the royal family.

According to Elizabeth Lukas, Program Coordinator of the Forest Governance Learning Group (FGLG), the 'tradition' continues with today’s Indonesian government. The owner of sandalwood trees, both in the forest areas, as well as community lands, is the government.

"When ENT was established in 1958, (sandalwood) was controlled by the state. It remained that way in local people’s mind until today," said Lukas  in an interview in Kupang, ENT, early December 2012.

The former head of the ENT forestry service said members of the community who cut sandalwood trees in their own land could still be subjected to criminal sanctions and be charged with theft.

However, to make both ends meet, people would often be forced to break the rules and 'steal' sandalwood in their own lands: “I once asked what they meant by stealing. They answered, 'If the government (official) is not there, we steal the trees.' Poor people, aren’t they?" Lukas said.

Because of the criminal penalties associated with the cutting of sandalwood trees particularly in South Central Timor (SCT), people gave it the name 'hau lasi', or trouble tree.

Locals would rather choose to cut than to keep young sandalwood trees that grow in their yards for fear of getting into problems in the future. As a result, those who live near forest areas did not care anymore if sandalwood trees were being cut illegally. Their sense of ownership for the tree has been replaced by fear of criminal liability.

Consequently, the sandalwood population decreased dramatically. Based on data from the ENT Provincial Forest Service, from 1987-1997, the sandalwood population decreased by 63% to 64%. Some media outlets even thought that the number is much higher. In other words, sandalwood trees in ENT are almost extinct.

The provincial government tried to save the remaining sandalwoods with a 'bleaching' policy in 1999. The intention was to conduct an inventory of sandalwood timbers in the communities, where many were suspected to have been obtained illegally.

All sandalwood timbers held by the people must be submitted to the government. "This policy was misinterpreted. People began cutting down all sandalwood trees that have been considered productive," said Christian Koenunu, Head of the Management and Utilization of Forest, Forest Service, South Central Timor, ENT.

After the massive tree cutting due to wrong interpretation of the regulations, the handling of sandalwood was transferred from the provincial government to district governments. At that time, according to Koenunu, sandalwood trees in ENT were nearly extinct, only a handful of mother trees were left.

Bringing back the sandalwood population could no longer rely on nature alone. Moreover, adds Koenunu, animals that spread the seeds of sandalwood are very rare nowadays, and they might no longer exist. The only remaining option was that massive replanting of sandalwood be done by the society.

Green gold

Koenunu said the SCT district tried to attract people to replanting sandalwood by issuing Article No. 24/2001. However, the regulation does not entirely give ownership rights to the people. The policy requires that upon harvest, the sandalwood owner must pay a levy by as much as 10% of the minimum price specified by the sandalwood regent.

"It’s like releasing the head, but still holding the tail. People still did not care. They prefer to ignore sandalwood, nothing special with the trees," said Christian.

After that, Christian added, the price of sandalwood which is now known as green gold went up because the wood is becoming increasingly scarce. Only then did people realize that they could take advantage of sandalwood.

"Each 20-30 year old tree is now worth 30 million-40 million rupiahs," Koenunu said.

The buyers mostly come from abroad and buy directly from land owners. According to Elizabeth, sandalwood which grows well in ENT belongs to Santalum album, a species of sandalwood that produces the best sandalwood oil in the world.

However, the enthusiasm of people to cultivate and preserve sandalwoods is still hindered by some regulations. Article 25/2011 of SCT district, and local regulations in other districts, still do not protect the rights of the people. This was discussed as the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) started working in ENT through the FGLG program with full support from The Ministry of Forestry. Four districts namely East Flores, Alor, TTS, and East Sumba were identified as project sites.

Elizabeth said that when the FGLG program began in 2010, the team immediately reviewed the existing regulations and followed up with discussions with all stakeholders - from governments, the parliament, academics, to the general public.

Slowly but surely, through the regulatory approach, two districts, TTS and East Sumba are now in the process of preparing new regulations in favour of the community. The new regulations in SCT districts will replace Article 25/2001. One salient point for example no longer requires the owner to pay 10% of the minimum selling price to the regent.

The Chairperson of the SCT District Parliament, Eldat Nenabu, ensures legislative discussions on the draft regulation are running smoothly and are scheduled to be adopted at the beginning of next year. "It will be approved in January (2013). Once it is approved, it will be disseminated to the public," said Nenabu.

Learning from the 'bleaching policy' experience and trying to avoid another misinterpretation, the regulation’s socialization campaign had already begun even though it is still in draft form. Lukas hoped that when the new regulation is approved and ready to be implemented, the government will intensify the dissemination at the community level.

Next problem

One of the FGLG team's worries, according to Lukas, is how to encourage people to preserve sandalwood. Currently, sandalwood is being replanted massively and aggressively. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of seeds had been dispersed. In 20-30 years, when the trees reach their productive age, the supply will be abundant. The price will fall and once again people will walk away from sandalwood.

Not only that, in the next 20 years, people may be tempted to sell their sandalwood even though the tree has not reached its productive age, especially when people become desperate to make a living. ENT has so many poor people. Based on the Central Bureau of Statistics, ENT has the fourth largest percentage of poor people in Indonesia after Papua, West Papua and Maluku.

This condition is certainly not beneficial for the conservation of sandalwood. SCT District Regent Paul Mella is aware of it. He said the district is preparing compensation for people who will not cut down their sandalwood mother tree. A mother tree is a tree that has produced the seeds of sandalwood. Such trees are about 20 years old.

"In the process of drafting the province regulation, the government will be giving an incentive of 100 thousand Indonesian rupiahs per year. When we were discussing the new regulation, we wanted the incentive to be higher. Perhaps for each mother tree, we will give a compensation of 200 thousand rupiahs. If the owner does not know if the tree is old enough to be considered as mother tree, we will give 150 thousand rupiahs," said Paul.

Paul however admitted that he had not thought about how to protect sandalwood prices at the farm level. Currently, he said, the government is still focused on replanting sandalwood. (*)

The Land of Kangaroos, Lessons Learned

The Banoet brothers from Kuale’u

Yohanes Banoet perhaps is just an ordinary farmer who happens to have a sandalwood nursery in South Central Timor (SCT) District, East Nusa Tenggara (ENT). He became special because he was lucky to get a chance to visit the sandalwood plantation and sandalwood oil distilling plants in Australia. The opportunity was provided by the FGLG program in 2011.

Banoet said he was impressed with the development of sandalwood in the 'Land of Kangaroos', where the process is handled very seriously and integrated. "We got an amazing experience in Australia. I noticed that they are cultivating sandalwood with advanced technology," said Banoet at his residence in the Kuale'u village, SCT District, early December 2012.

From his experience in Western Australia, Banoet concluded that the real potential of sandalwood in ENT is much bigger than Australia. The rocky and sandy natural conditions of the land in ENT gives better support for the development of sandalwood trees, especially from the species of Santalum album, so it can produce a better yield. Santalum album is recognized as a species of sandalwood that produces the best sandalwood oil in the world.

Banoet further explained the differences in productive age of sandalwood trees. In Australia, he said, sandalwood trees that lived 50 and even up to 100 years do not necessarily produce yield as good as a 20 year old sandalwood tree grown in ENT.

"Century old sandalwoods might still not be harvested there. But in Indonesia, a 100-year old or 80-year old sandalwood tree can produce a remarkable yield, about 200 kilograms. Right now the price of one kilogram of sandalwood is around 500 thousand rupiahs," he added.

This fact inspires his enthusiasm to encourage the cultivation of sandalwood in the Kuale'u village. With the guidance of the Forest Service and FGLG, Yohanes formed a farming business group, consisting of 15 members. The group has been named Sinar Kuale’u (The Light of Kuale'u) and all of the members are Banoet’s brothers and nephews. FGLG also helped the group by providing farming equipments and cultivation mentoring.

According to Banoet, he is very relieved that the government policy on sandalwood is starting to favour the farmers. "Now we can grow and sell sandalwood for our own benefit. There are no more levies. We are now planting up to a million sandalwood trees," he said.

The trainings which are given by ITTO in collaboration with the Forest Service were also very helpful. Within a year, Sinar Kuale’u has produced 100,000 to 200,000seedlings planted in polybags. Each seed is sold for 10 thousand rupiahs. Buyers, according to Banoet, come from all over ENT. However, there are also those who come from other districts, and even from outside the province.

With a seemingly bright future ahead, Benoet still expects help from the government to procure polybags and hoses to water the sandalwood seeds. "Our group expects stimulus funds so that we can continue what we have started. We are still in need of polybags, hoses, for our plants," said Banoet. (**)