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Sniffing out an export market

SANDALWOOD is again emerging as a strong export prospect for WA.

WA has been exporting its indigenous variety of sandalwood since 1845 – mainly to China.

The industry is now worth about $11 million a year.

The local product is rated as second only in quality to Indian sandalwood. Its oil contains between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of santalol – the active ingredient in the oil – while the more valuable Indian variety has between 90 per cent and 93 per cent.

WA sandalwood is selling for about $6,500 a tonne, while the Indian product sells for more than $40,000 a tonne.

The wood’s oil is used in a variety of preparations such as perfume, soap, medicine and incense.

It is a major ingredient in scents such as Chanel Number 5, Calvin Klein’s CK1, Obsession, Eternity and Contradiction, and Christian Dior’s Fahrenheit.

India attracted US$80 million from its sandalwood exports in 1998-99.

Because the oil has a high boiling point it is used as a fixative to hold the scents of volatile flower or spice oils.

The wood of the sandalwood tree bears a fine grain and is used for carvings.

The oil also has good antiseptic, antipyretic and diuretic properties.

There are substitutes for sandalwood oil but none of these fully matches all of the oil’s properties.

While the WA variety’s oil contains less santalol, it is growing in popularity because production of the Indian sandalwood has dwindled.

India is the heart of the international sandalwood industry and most Indian merchants are now starting to accept WA sandalwood oil.

In 1990-91, India produced about 3,000 tonnes of the wood. In 1997-98 its production fell to about 1,000 tonnes. Adequate steps are not being taken to plant new trees in the natural sandal stands in India.

Added to problems caused by poor husbandry, India’s sandalwood is falling victim to brigandry and smuggling.

Another problem afflicting India’s sandalwood forests is the fatal spike disease.

Sandalwood expert and forestry consultant Anantha Padmanahba said the disease was only found in India.

The only other major sandalwood stands are found in East Timor, but most were destroyed in the recent fighting there.

Some WA companies are attempting to grow the Indian sandalwood variety in the Ord irrigation project.

Due to the continual irrigation, sandalwood production can be greatly accelerated. Trials show a crop rotation of about 10 to 12 years is possible and the trees will yield about 30 kilograms of the oil-containing hardwood. Indian trees only yield 20 kilograms.

The sandalwood tree is a partial root parasite, requiring another tree to provide it with the nutrients it requires.

Therefore, the Holy Grail of sandalwood production is to find a host that produces high-value timber as well as a viable sandalwood tree.

One Ord trial, a tax minimisation scheme involving Tropical Forestry Services, is marrying Indian sandalwood trees with African ebony and mahogany trees.

The WA sandalwood tree is believed to be capable of growing in land susceptible to salinity.

In theory, sandalwood could be cultivated on these lands, providing farmers with a potential cash crop while helping to reduce the watertable and prevent salinity.

Forest Products Commission arid forests manager Peter Jones said the commission had some sharefarm projects in place to get farmers involved. However, none involved salinity susceptible lands.

“We’ve allowed a budget of 200 hectares and it looks like that will be filled this year,” Mr Jones said.

“At the moment trials indicate we reap two to three tonnes per hectare on a 20-year rotation, but that’s only in certain parts of WA.”

Notre Dame environmental studies professor Syd Shea agrees WA sandalwood has good potential as a cash crop.

However, Dr Shea is sceptical as to whether sandalwood would have an impact on salt-affected lands.

WA natural oils producer Mt Romance has entered into the sandalwood production arena using the Aruyvedic Medicine essential oils extraction plant in Albany.

Mt Romance director Stephen Birkbeck said sandalwood oil was similar to a “good red wine”.

“The oil can mature. It’s often better after six months than it is fresh,” he said.

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