Sustainable South Pacific Sandalwood?

Aug 14, 10:33 PM

If you read my blog, you know my feelings about using essential oil from endangered species such as sandalwood (Santalum sp.). When a number of sellers began advertising their "truly sustainable" sandalwood from "the island of Vanuatu," I got very curious and looked into it. As with many things in the aromatherapy business, it turned out that nothing was what it seemed. 

For starters, Vanuatu is not an island. It's an island nation, consisting of 82 small islands comprising 4,710 square miles of landmass in the South Pacific. 

Sandalwood is locally known as yasi, and various species are found on the islands: S. spicatum, S. yasi and even some S. album. Logging of these species has traditionally been heavy, and most of the islands have suffered significant deforestation. As a result, the land has been further decimated by soil erosion and landslides. Supplies of fresh water have been reduced due to deforestation of watersheds. Areas surrounding the larger villages and towns are experiencing increasing air and soil pollution, further harming indigenous flora.

Sandalwood trees do not develop any hardwood (from which the essential oil is traditionally distilled) until they are 12 or 13 years old. It takes approximately 25 years for a tree to develop enough hardwood to yield a good quality oil. Younger trees have the highest concentration of essential oil in the buttwood, and therefore must be completely ripped up by the roots to glean the maximimum amount of essential oil from a distillation. Not all islands in this archipelago can furnish suitable growing conditions for sandalwood, and truly sustainable agriculture of these slow growing species requires far more landmass than Vanuatu can provide.

Vanuatu is a poor, mostly rural nation. Many islanders are desperate for money to support their families and are all too willing to sell mature trees from their land for short term gain. A careful online search will reveal queries to this effect in agricultural online forums: "I have 2 acres with 50+-year-old trees on my land. I want to sell them to a distillery. How much can I get for them?" The owner of this land isn't considering his long term future or the future of his children, for it will be nearly a decade and a half before he can receive any more income from sandalwood timber, and over 2 generations before he can fully replace trees of that quality.

Those who are distilling sandalwood claim that they are producing jobs and income for islanders; therefore they are practicing sustainable agriculture. While this is a worthy and admirable endeavor, it is not by my definition sustainable. Vanuatu can only sustain so much more slash-and-burn agriculture and so much more deforestation before all its wild sandalwood is extinct. That which is cultivated cannot possibly keep up with worldwide demand for the timber or the essential oil from these trees. With Vanuatu's limited landmass, cultivation of sandalwood cannot reasonably provide a long term, consistent living wage for very many islanders. Either way, Mother Nature and her children all eventually lose. 

I don't feel good about this situation, and you will not find any Vanuatu sandalwood oil among Aromaceuticals' offerings.

The people of Vanuatu might benefit from heeding the wisdom of the Iroquois Confederation: "In every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next 7 generations."


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