Members of Western Australia’s $ 40 million native sandalwood industry have warned that the industry could collapse under the weight of an increased market supply and over-harvesting of illegal stocks.
The main point:
- The sandalwood industry and conservation groups are concerned about the future of WA’s native sandalwood industry
- This year, the harvest will begin in the thousands of hectares of plantation growing in the Wheatbelt
- The government says the quota for wild harvest will be reviewed before 2026
Each year 2,500 tonnes of wild or native Australian sandalwood, Santalum spicatum, harvested from most of the semi-arid and arid grassland areas of WA.
It is one of the state’s oldest exports, dating back to 1844, and is valued for its oil and by the agarbatti, or incense market.
But proponents of illegal industry and plantations have warned that without a change in management, the market will suffer from oversupply when the harvests of millions of plantations begin this year. Santalum spicatum a sandalwood tree grows across from Central Wheatbelt.
A letter, signed by 12 groups including Forest Communities, Dutjahn Sandalwood Oil and WA Sandalwood Plantation, was sent to the WA Government late last year, calling for the significant reduction of the annual harvest quota of wild sandalwood, and for the role of the Forest Products Commission (FPC) in the sandalwood industry was transformed.
In danger of depletion
The FPC has overseen the commercial harvesting, regeneration, marketing and sale of illegal timber, a role the letter defines as an “inherent conflict of interest”.
WA Sandalwood Plantations managing director Keith Drage, which manages 19 million trees growing on more than 13,000 hectares, said that the commercial status of FPC profits for illegal timber should be removed, and FPC should shift to the plantation timber sector.
“I think it has been well marked over the years that when plantation resources come into operation, there needs to be a transition away from the reduction in wild harvests that are lauded by the plantation resources, and what happens is that there is no reduction in wild harvests,” he said.
Drage said the timber from his company’s plantation trees will start flowing this year, and will increase to 6,000 tonnes a year.
Drage, also director of native wood distillation company Dutjahn Sandalwood Oils, pointed to a 2008-2020 industrial development plan which he said foresees the scenario the industry faces if illegal harvests are not reduced.
The FPC manages around 6,000 hectares of sandalwood plantations, which are expected to begin harvesting by 2026.
Letters to ministers Dave Kelly, Ben Wyatt, Stephen Dawson and Alannah MacTiernan also signaled environmental concern for fragrant native wood.
“Under current harvest quotas, this species is in danger of significant depletion, and, at worst, is on an inexorable path to extinction in the wild.”
Review before 2026
Ministers Kelly and Dawson were contacted for comment. Minister Kelly’s Office provided a written statement.
“Sustainable harvesting of wild sandalwood occurs within limits set by the 2015 Sandalwood Council (Limits for the Removal of Sandalwood), and requirements under the 2016 Biodiversity Conservation Act and the 2018 Biodiversity Conservation Regulation,” the statement said.
“The annual harvest quotas will be reviewed before the end of the Order in the current Council in 2026.
“[We] will work with the plantation and illegal sandalwood sector to review all aspects of the sandalwood industry. “
Important job provider
Harvesting sandalwood provides employment and income for a number of Aboriginal groups, including Clinton Farmer of the Kutkabubba Aboriginal Corporation.
Mr Farmer continues the business his father started on traditional land in the Gibson Desert.
He said he was concerned about the original sandalwood being over-harvested and questioned the effectiveness of the government’s regeneration program.
“We harvest according to the knowledge that was passed on to us in a sustainable manner, that’s what we want on the spot, so it doesn’t get harvested,” said Pak Farmer.
He supports calls for reduced illegal timber harvests.
“We try to create jobs for our people and stay connected and keep our families out of trouble in the city.
“We can’t do that if our economy is threatened by the government flooding the market – it needs to be scaled back so we have a chance.”