Vila Times

Sandalwood Forum takes international delegates to the island of Tanna

Sandalwood Forum takes international delegates to the island of Tanna
Sandalwood Forum takes international delegates to the island of Tanna
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Sandalwood female farmer, Naomi Yaru is a classic example of a success story of a typical, hardworking, committed mother who proved that where there is a will, there is a way when she started growing sandalwood as a source of income for her family since her teen days.
A mother of seven children, Naomi has been planting sandalwood since her marriage to her husband, Yoyap. With limited education, she planted sandalwood to pay for school fees for her children so that they could have better opportunities. This goal was achieved with her first-born child and continues with her other children. Surplus funds are used to purchase basic household items such as cooking oil, rice, soap, salt, etc.
The original mother trees to supply seed belonged to a cousin located in a distant village. Naomi’s largest planting is around 300 stems planted 3 to 4 years ago. Sandalwood seedlings are typically planted within a yam garden as the yams are harvested. Her source of income are market garden and sandalwood.
“I started growing sandalwood without any help or support from any experts and I welcome you all to my village in the hope that I will learn from your experiences in your different countries as you visit my sandalwood farm,” said Naomi in her Tannese dialect.
This is the story of Naomi and her sandalwood farm as heard by international participants of the Sandalwood Regional forum that visited Tanna sandalwood farmers recently, capturing lessons learned as an integral part of the development of sandalwood industry in Vanuatu.
Sandalwood in Vanuatu has been harvested and traded by landowners for centuries, which saw exports to China since the late 1820s. The modest commercial industry has been operating consistently since the 1970s, with a current annual quota of 80 tonnes. The extraction and export of sandalwood was the first international industry in Vanuatu, way before copra production and was driven primarily by Australian merchants.
Recognizing its important economic value, Vanuatu Government through the Department of Forestry put sandalwood among the five priority species. Currently, Government and private promotion of sandalwood planting has led to a rise in smallholder plantings and some large-scale plantations in some of the bigger islands as in Efate, Santo, Malekula, Erromango, and Tanna.
Researchers, scientists, commercial operators, policy makers, practitioners and farmers from sandalwood growing countries throughout Asia, Pacific, and the US from the recent regional forum held in Port Vila, were given the opportunity to visit the island of Tanna on 15th and 16th November to observe firsthand the development progress of Vanuatu’s sandalwood industry in Vanuatu.
The study tour that brought together delegates from Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Indonesia, Fiji, Tonga, Australia, Hawaii and the US and their counterparts in Vanuatu took them through rough “man-made” roads, climbing hills and mountains to reach some of the remotest sandalwood plantations owned by small-holder farmers and families.
The participants were able to witness firsthand challenges such as natural disasters including cyclones, coastal flooding, drought, earthquake, landslide – the impact of climate change affecting the sandalwood industry as they inspect sandalwood plantations and listened to stories by the farmers on the difficulties they face trying to maintain these plantations.
Lounapaui is where the field visit started. This is an area in North Tanna where wild sandalwood was once abundant, but was harvested heavily during the year 2000s. Since that time, much planting has occurred with the most prominent planters such as Harry Maimai and Yauko Woas.
The community has some very interesting experiences with the income generation potential of sandalwood with vehicles, boats and a ship being purchased using the cash proceeds of sale. The ship is still operating moving freight between Port Vila and Tafea Province. The primary income of the village in order of importance is sandalwood, fish and peanuts.
Sandalwood grower and farmer, Harry Maimai who has been growing sandalwood trees for almost all his life said if you walk right deep into the interior of their land, you will find big size sandalwood trees, but in reality, he and his community have not seen any benefits so far from the harvest of his plantation of sandalwood.
“Sandalwood exists before 1980, but in reality we are still far behind in terms of our welfare and livelihood, as you can see for yourselves we still do not have access to proper road conditions.
“We do not have access to water, life is hard but we haven’t stopped planting sandalwood because we believe it is a valuable tree that can bring prosperity and change to our livelihood, and the Government also need to do its part to help us,” he said.
Harry Maimai was the man behind the new man-made 7 km road that stretches along the coast from Ienefa Bible Training School to Lounapau’i. It took him almost ten years, using only man-power to construct this road and with the help coming from the Government, the road is now accessible by vehicles transporting sandalwood and market produce to the main centre in Blackman town, Lenakel.
Hoya and Sam are father and son team that have a real affinity for planting sandalwood. Hoya has been planting sandalwood since 2000 and each year he plants over 100 seedlings. Sam first began planting sandalwood for his father when he was in primary school, before starting his own woodlots in 2011. They described sandalwood as a very adaptable tree that is a champion in this area. Everyone plants small numbers of sandalwood, but Hoya and Sam are the only ones that focus on sandalwood as their primary income source. The land area in Icouras is limited and so they only have small plots rather than large woodlots. Their primary source of income is sandalwood.
Andrew is one of the most prominent and active people involved with sandalwood. He first planted sandalwood in 2001, but increased his planting activities in 2004 to 05. These plantings complemented the natural sandalwood that grew in his area. Today all the trees are harvested and he has used his sandalwood as collateral to secure finance. He used this finance to secure a sandalwood buyers license and has traded sandalwood since 2013. His sandalwood business has allowed him to expand his business into local transport and logistics.
The international participants were able to exchange and share their experience with the local farmers in Tanna, providing them with advice as to how to plan, cultivate and grow good quality sandalwood, pruning and taking care of the trees; teaching them the grading system which is very important as farmers must be able to understand what is good quality sandalwood that can marketed for international market.
Project Team Leader Project Team Leader of Asia Funded Project working in Vanuatu and other Pacific sandalwood countries, Dr Tony Page , Dr Tony Page said the main purpose of this field visit is for delegates to discuss aspects of planting such as planting, harvesting, domestication, processing and of sandalwood with the local farmers.
He said the idea to bring international participants to the field is for them to share their experience with the local farmers and to build network to promote interest on sandalwood between them.
Dr Page said one of the key challenges that had dampened the spirits of the local farmers is the impact of Cyclone Pam which has destroyed most of their sandalwood plantations in Tanna island but it is through these kinds of forums that can help to lift the spirit and encourage farmers to continue to take up sandalwood farming.
He said another important topic is the grading system, which farmers must learn to understand and differentiate what is the best quality sandalwood to be traded in the international market.
“Currently grading system does not match the buyers that buy sandalwood in the world. Now our aim is to ensure that grading system for Vanuatu matches the international export market,” he said.
Dr Lest Thompson coming back to Tanna seeing how much sandalwood has been planted, what’s interesting coming back to Tanna 1997, there were just a few big old trees in the forest but now there were more trees being planted as a result of all the work done by the Department of Forests as part of the ACIR project to conserve and better utilize the local sandalwood
Dr Lex Thomspon from the University of the South Pacific who also work in Fiji doing research and conservation management of sandalwood said coming back and seeing how much sandalwood has been planted since 1997, it has shown the result of all the work done by the Department of Forests as part of the ACIR Project to conserve and better utilize the local sandalwood.
Dr Thompson said there were just a few old trees those days but what is interesting is that there has been a dramatic increase in the planting and this will be very important for the people’s livelihood in Tanna.
“It is interesting to hear about the sandalwood story which started here in Tanna, there was a lady who was doing some gardening and she planted a sandalwood and she looked after it for about 17 to 18 years and many people thought why she was looking after this sandalwood. Then there was this Economic Dr from the National University of Australia who looked at the sandalwood and did some analysis and found out its very economical to grow sandalwood on a shorter occasion.
“That could have been one of the problems that the farmers that there’s a temptation that they could try and pick up the sandalwood when its 10 or 15 years and really that could maximize the value when they could wait for 20 or 25 years for the sandalwood to develop more into hardwood,” he explained.
Senior Research Forest Officer, Toufau Kalsakau said throughout the field visit, ACIAR and the Department of Forest gave out 24-grafted sandalwood of high quality to one of the main sandalwood farmers, Pastor Andrew Iawak as well as 20kg to Sam Yakar to establish sandalwood seed orchards in their farms in West Tanna.
“The main purpose of this orchard is to be able to share and distribute the seeds of high quality sandalwood trees to other farmers in the island of Tanna,” she added.
The study tour also include local sandalwood farmers from Santo, Malekula, Erromango, Efate and Emae whom most of them have sandalwood plantations from 500 to 30,000 trees and represent farmers of the main sandalwood growing islands in this forum.
This Regional Sandalwood Forum builds on current research for development conducted with the generous support of ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research) across several countries in the Asia-Pacific.
Financial support for delegates from key producer countries has been provided by ACIAR, USC and the University of Western Australia. Source: MALFFB