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Sandalwood (Santalum Album) – An Endangered Tree Species

Sandalwood Benefits and Uses

Indian Sandalwood (Santalum album L.) may be considered as one of the world’s most valuable commercial timber and is currently valued globally for its heartwood and oil. Scattered in peninsular India, and most prominently promoted as a product of Karnataka, Sandalwood trees are also found in Odisha, naturally growing in Nandapur Block of Koraput district.  Since liberalization of rules regarding sandalwood growing in 2001 and 2002 there has been tremendous interest among farmers and stakeholders across India in farming this tree. The hemi-parasitic nature of the tree, its adaptability to grow in semiarid tracts and potential to grow in combination with horticultural species as secondary hosts makes it a potent agroforestry species.

High demand and remunerative prices of heartwood have motivated farmers/ stakeholders to take up sandalwood farming especially in non-traditional areas in many states across India like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra since the past decade.

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The potential of the tree in natural and naturalized forested areas, existing farming systems and other silvi-horticultural systems across India is immense. The current problems and future prospects for increased livelihood opportunities and enhancing farm income levels is also discussed along with suggestion for promoting sandalwood farming practices across India.

From sandalwood plantations in over 10,000 hectares (ha) of land, Koraput district is today left with only 2,000 sandalwood trees. The precious trees are falling prey to smuggling and Podu (shifting cultivation) chas by local tribals. Sandalwood plantation was patronised by kings of erstwhile Jeypore dynasty who brought many sandalwood saplings from Mysore in the 19th century. The kings then distributed the saplings to Nayaks (tribal heads) of Nandapur, Koraput, Jeypore and Lamtaput to plant them across the district. Sandalwood plantations over 10,000 ha were carried out in the early 50s in the forest ranges of Jeypore, Nandapur and Koraput.

The aim was to meet sandalwood requirement of temples across the erstwhile Jeypore kingdom. On special occasions like Rath Yatra and Dussehra, pieces of sandalwood were also provided to the Jagannath temple in Puri and State’s popular Devi shrines as gifts. There was no smuggling of sandalwood then as the trees were worshipped by tribals. However, after the zamindari system was abolished in 1956, felling and smuggling of the trees began.

Smuggling of sandalwood to States likes Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh became rampant in the 90s. Over the years, the number of sandalwood trees declined as Forest Department failed to contain the illegal felling and smuggling. Every year, around 50 quintals of sandalwood were donated to different temples for rituals across the State from the district but for the last two years, the donation was stopped for lack of an adequate number of trees. Also, the district forest wing supplied a minimal quantity of sandalwood to Puri temple during the Nabakalebara in 2015. In a belated move, the Forest Department has now decided to raise sandalwood trees in 2,000 ha of land under Jeypore and Koraput forest divisions in next two years.

Scope for Sandalwood cultivation in agro-forestry practices

Mockup cosmetic face serum brown glass bottle with a pipette on a minimalist white background
Sandalwood essential oil

Santalum album is capable of growing in a wide variety of soils from gravelly loam to  sandy clay soils. The most common soil type on which sandal occurs is the red ferruginous loam with underlying gneiss which has poor nutrients. It is able to withstand the soil pH up to 9.0 but unable to grow in waterlogged sites. The species is capable of growing where rainfall is 500 to even 5000 mm, long dry season duration and elevation from 0–1800 MSL.

However, the sandalwood tree can occur even outside this climatic zone and tolerate extreme temperature from 4 to 46 degrees Celsius. This plasticity is an added adaptation advantage for sandalwood when grown under some extreme site conditions. Sandalwood being a hemi-parasite requires a primary host, intermediate host as well as a long-term secondary host which gives it tremendous scope in agroforestry.

With the Karnataka Forest (Amendment) Act 2001 of substitution of Section 83, which recognizes the right of occupant or land holder to be legally entitled to the sandal tree in his land, there has been a marked demand from private entrepreneurs and private farmers for raising private plantations. High demand of sandalwood and remunerative prices of sandal heartwood have motivated private individuals to take up sandal cultivation on farmlands even though protection issues are still to be addressed.

In sandalwood based agro-forestry, a spacing of 6×3 m with amla at the same spacing in between sandal in quincuxial design of planting appears to be promising with cultivation of annual crops like horse gram, pulses as intercrop. The cost of raising sandal based agroforestry plantations may be marginally higher than raising sandal block plantations due to additional intercultural operations. However, this may be more than offset by periodic additional returns from horticultural crops. Sandalwood plants in agroforestry practices have been observed to perform well in terms of growth parameters possibly due to improved soil physico-chemical properties.

However, there is a paucity of data on sandal growth and related heartwood formation under agroforestry situations. To accommodate higher density of plants, a spacing of 4×4 m with a long term host like Casuarina equisetifolia in the center, also at the same spacing in quincuxial design of planting appears to be promising. The total cost of cultivation over the 15-year period works out to Rs 19.87 lakhs/ha and the total benefits around Rs 143 lakhs/ha. Of the total cost nearly 30% works out to be protection costs. The revenue from sandal tree extraction and processing in the 15-year works out to Rs 25,000/tree (sapwood, heartwood and mixed wood including).

Challenges of Sandalwood farming in India

Sandalwood nuts on tree, Avon Valery, Western Australia, Australia
Sandalwood nuts on tree

To counter challenges in physical protection of mature trees (from 10 year onwards) from theft, farmers have to invest in securing the plantation by investing in tamper-proof boundary walls, engaging security staff for patrolling along with trained dogs especially in large-scale plantation areas.

Remote surveillance systems similar to home security systems are being implemented by companies in recent times. However, these are still in the R&D phase and have not been fully commercialized as yet. Due to the long gestation period of sandalwood (15-20 years) under farming situations, the main challenge is to generate a sustained income during the period to meet the cost of protection and maintenance.

The opportunity in sandalwood agro-forestry is to introduce horticulture species as secondary host along with short-term primary hosts and annual intercrops whenever and wherever possible. Horticulture crops like pomegranate, guava, citrus, Syzigium cumini (Jamun), grafted mango, grafted Indian gooseberry (amla), custard apple (sitaphal) have been tried out by farmers across India with varying degrees of success. However there is no standard package of practices available on horticulture crops depending on soil, climate and market.

Government should set up sandalwood based agroforestry demonstration plots with horticulture species as secondary hosts for demonstration to farmers incorporating latest scientific technologies and R&D inputs. This will perhaps go a long way to promote sandalwood in combination with horticulture in the country.Tying up research institutes to evaluate the potential of sandalwood leaves as sources of drugs and medicines can help to promote this as a medicinal plant and generate a source of income for growers  through sale of leaves while they wait for the crop rotation to happen.

Suggestions to promote sandalwood based agroforestry across India

Since the challenges faced in sandalwood farming are huge while meeting the expectations of the farming community, only a concerted effort can help in solving some of the technical and management problems faced by farmers and other stakeholders. If some precautions are taken by farmers while procuring planting stock and also while maintaining sandalwood plantations in field the quality of the output can be ensured and also quantity can be enhanced. Some suggested steps to promote sandalwood cultivation are outlined below:

  • Only Quality planting material (QPM) stock where seed source is known should be procured by farmers for planting purposes

Sandalwood plants procured should be raised only by certified and accredited nurseries. The certification agency could be the various institutes of ICFRE/state Forest departments/public sector undertakings like KSDL Karnataka.

  • Scientific management inputs should be adhered to in initial stages of raising sandalwood like spacing, host management, intercropping, pruning of sandalwood trees, fertilization, drip irrigation and pest management

Currently there are innumerable half-baked nurserymen turned ‘consultants’ masquerading as sandalwood experts.

Prospective sandalwood farmers should be able to sift the grains from the chaff and not fall prey to them. It is always better to enter into an MOU with Government agencies for continued support in plantation programmes. One way would be to form groups of enthusiastic farers and take them on tours to successful plantations outside the state to get a first hand experience of the whole process.

  • Protection of growing sandalwood trees has become a major constraint for farmers

Protection of trees requires an investment cost equivalent to 30 % of the expected revenue. Rather than relying on physical protection of trees, farmers could explore the possibilities of installing remote surveillance and protection systems that is available and being offered by companies. Additionally creating natural barriers around individual trees by growing thorny berries shrubs could help to dissuade easy logging of the trees while letting some fruit gathering. Additionally planting thorny native shrubs with flowers can also lead to adding up apiaries to the sandalwood plantations which would further help to keep people engaged and thus have a dual purpose of vigilance and employment in the plantation.

In areas that fall under the government like protected forests and reserve parks, planting of sandalwood in areas where animals like tigers and panthers abound could help to maintain a population of trees that would be able to multiply in the natural environment and undergo natural breeding and selection. Similarly, these can be introduced in sacred groves where they would remain protected.

  • Rules and regulations regarding procurement of sandalwood from farmers by private entities need to be explored for enhancing profits to cultivator

Currently a monopsony situation exists where there is only a single buyer in the market which is the Forest Department or Government undertakings. Markets need to be liberalized further which will fall under the ambit of policy and governance.

  • Currently there are no schemes by commercial financial institutions on sandalwood tree insurance.

It is desirable that nationalized banks come forward with finance schemes for sandalwood cultivation. Insurance companies should also float schemes on tree insurance like in the case of horticulture crops. Currently, some State Medical Plant Boards are encouraging sandalwood cultivation by offering subsidy schemes which is an added incentive. Numbering of trees and monitoring their performance on a weekly, monthly, or fortnightly basis and entering the same could enable to forecast not only the management practices require like pruning, and pest control but also the yield that may be obtained can be approximated making the connection between planters and the industry. Sandalwood being a native Indian species can be highlighted as an indigenous product for both domestic and foreign markets. Additionally, this may be a good substitute species for eucalyptus as on a per-tree basis it would be yielding more profit to the farmers.

  • Need for push under Joint Forest Management

Village forest protection committees need to be encouraged with information and monetary benefits for the cultivation and sustainable management of Sandalwood trees in their village forests. Benefit-sharing mechanisms need to be clearly defined as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

  • Sandalwood as a substitute for eucalyptus

Unlike eucalyptus, sandalwood leaves can be used as fodder for sheep and goats. Such operations like running would also supply fodder for the domestic animals which would be a plus point for planters who may have less land and are unable to fit the industrial scale of eucalyptus into their holdings.

About Authors:

Dr. Ranjit K Sahu, PhD (Biotechnology) is a freelance author based in Virginia, USA. He is passionate about nature and the environment and writes about issues pertaining to nature conservation. He is also keen on the welfare of less privileged communities in remote regions of the world. His writings focus on bridging the gaps between available scientific knowledge and technology and their utilization by the common people throw bringing about an awareness on the topics of interest. Being an active research professional with experience in social activities, teaching and mentoring, Dr. Sahu has been pursuing writing technical, semi-technical, and nontechnical articles.

Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change, and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty-three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, GiZ, UNICEF, Sightsavers, Aide et Action, Practical Action, Agragamee, and DAPTA. He has a keen interest in indigenous and marginalized communities, hunger, malnourishment, and food policy issues.


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