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December 15, 2008

Sandalwood – A Critical View of Developments

by Tony Burfield December 2008

Four Santalum (Sandalwood) species are present in the IUCN Red List 2008, including the extinct Santalum fernandezianum. The more familiar Santalum album L. is one of the remaining three, being assessed as Vulnerable in 1998, but a more detailed breakdown of the eco-status of individual Santalum species from various geographical locations, with ancillary notes, is available on the Cropwatch website, in the A-Z Section of the latest update of the Threatened Aromatics Plants data-base, at http://www.cropwatch.org/Threatened Aromatic Species v1.09.pdf

A comprehensive Sandalwood bibliography, together with many abstracts & (often critical) Cropwatch comments, is also available at http://www.cropwatch.org/SandalwoodbibV.pdf. These two resources should help empower potential sandalwood oil buyers to decide for themselves, just how ethical their purchasing intentions might prove to be.

The shortage of Sandalwood oil East Indian has been caused especially by the ravages of spike disease and to a lesser extent by fire, vandalism, animal damage & by other factors, on the existing Indian Sandalwood forests in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and the ruthless over-exploitation of this declining resource by illegal distillers, smugglers and corrupt officials. Arguably the over-exploitation of Sandalwood only came about because of the persistent market demand for Sandalwood logs for incense, wood carving & furniture making, and the demand for Sandalwood oil itself (which some have estimated at 250 tons/annum), despite warnings of serious depletion from eco-aware groups. A few years back, some aromatherapy profession officials and certain aromatherapy essential oil trading group representatives belittled the threat to Sandalwood (see Cropwatch bibliography), and inferred that if any blame was to be apportioned at all, it should be laid at the door of the major users, the fragrance industry. You will note that even now, within the EU, nationally-run aromatherapy vocational courses still feature Sandalwood oil for study, in spite of representations from Cropwatch to the organisers. The incense trade, of course, have ignored their obligations almost completely, and as far as we can tell, many parts of the conventional perfumery trade have done the same.

Alexandre Choueiri (2008), head of Lancome UK, speaking at the Sandalwood Conference 2008, Kununurra, W. Australia , notes that of 7,000 classified fragrances since the year 1750, 3212 contain sandalwood notes. Drawing on data from Fragrances of the World by Michael Edwards, Choueiri makes the point that of (only) 106 current fragrances now listing Sandalwood, only 36 detail Indian Sandalwood, and of those, only 16 detail Mysore Sandalwood. Of the 36 fragrances marketed by leading fragrance houses, I counted 3 supplied by IFF, 2 by Robertet, 9 by IFF, 4 by Drom, 2 by Takasago & 3 by Firmenich Of these 16 current fragrances allegedly employing Mysore Sandalwood, 4 are supplied by IFF, 2 by Givaudin (Quest), 1 by Firmenich, and 1 by Symrise. So what are we to gather from this? That the use of Sandalwood oil in fragrances is in decline, but that major aroma corporates are still ruthlessly exploiting what remains of the world's Sandalwood reserves? If they are, they are not alone in doing this. Another speaker at the conference, Venkatesha Gowda, who works for the R&D Dept. of Karnataka Soaps & Detergents Ltd., a long-time manufacturer of Sandalwood soap, maintains that in spite of the official figures (14 tons/annum of Sandalwood oil exported from Tamil Nadu during 2007-8), the current (2008) annual production of Sandalwood is actually 3,000 - 4,000 tons and for Sandalwood oil it stands at 120-150 tons, of which 80 tons/annum of Sandalwood oil is consumed by the domestic market. Gowda also remarks that Sandalwood oil is adulterated by polyethylene glycols, African sandalwood oil (Osyris lanceolata), castor oil and coconut oil, and that he has been involved in planting Osyris lanceolata in India (but hopefully not with trees smuggled out of Tanzania!). As a passing comment, a simple solubility test with 70% ethanol can easily be carried out by prospective Sandalwood oil buyers (if you are unaware of the details, contact Cropwatch), which is often a good indicator of the presence of adulterants such as fixed oils. OK, its not rocket science, but sometimes it’s a good on-the-spot resort!

Also of interest, is the fact that the Lush company publicly own up to using 1 ton per annum of New Caledonian Sandalwood oil (see http://www.lush.co.uk/Shop/FeatureDetail.aspx?fdShopFeatureId=6888) and have forwardly contracted to buy TFS Australian sandalwood (Bird 2008), as confirmed by Mark Lincoln of Lush Australasia, speaking at the Kununurra Conference. Cropwatch has reservations about the ecological effects from the abstraction of such large volumes of Sandalwood oil from New Caledonia (bearing in mind that Lush are not the only buyers of the oil from this limited source); & none of the information presented on our various data-bases supports this rate of extraction (see for yourselves!). We remain open to persuasion that this policy can be truly sustainable, according to our strict interpretation of the word, but would only be too happy to review and post up any forwarded evidence to the contrary.

Of course it is well publicised that Australia has ambitions to become a major supplier of oil from Santalum album oil in the future (see the multitude of articles on this subject in the Cropwatch Sandalwood bibliography), and the Kununurra Sandalwood Conference 2008 can primarily be seen as a conference designed by TFS mainly to re-assure investors in Australian Sandalwood plantations. Indeed, the trade magazine Perfumer & Flavorist, once the flagship magazine for the industry, apparently reproduced the conference organiser’s promotional material without critical comment - to us, another sign of the slipping standards of this once-great magazine. Overall, Cropwatch remains skeptical of the ability of the Australian sandalwood machine to supply Sandalwood oils in the volumes estimated, of being an acceptable odour quality, & at a price that the market is prepared to pay, bearing in mind the current economic climate, the downward pressure on aroma ingredient prices, and the easy availability of cheap synthetic sandalwood aroma chemicals.

Cropwatch is persuaded that with proper policies & investments, some Sandalwood sources can be made truly sustainable, and we believe this may well the case in Vanuatu. However, taking pure Sandalwood oil East Indian as a benchmark, the odour profiles of Sandalwood oils from other geographical locations and/or other species are usually different in character, and lack fine notes, and may be over-sweet (as with East African Sandalwood oil) or predominantly woody-camphoraceous (as with Chinese Sandalwood oil), or just plain lacking in impact & character (as with Indonesian Sandalwood oil). From here, the future looks difficult for Sandalwood.

(All references can be located in the 68 pp. Sandalwood bibliography mentioned above).

Posted by Tony Burfield on December 15, 2008 in Conservation, Ecological/Cultural Sustainability, Essential Oils/Plant Extractions, Oil Crops | Permalink

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