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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 726

Sunday Celebrity: Sandalwood scientist Anantha Padmanabhan works for 'royal tree' restoration

By Gopal Ethiraj, Chennai
Chennai, , 24 May (Asiantribune.com):

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Sandalwood, the most popular fragrant wood, which is mainly used for the essential oils it contains, is currently a threatened species and consequently very expensive. Indian sandalwood, known scientifically Santalum, indigenous to South India, and growing in the Western Ghats and a few other mountain ranges like the Kalrayan and Shevaroyan Hills, was believed to be difficult to cultivate in the nursery and raise as plantation. It has to come up on its own.

It was news to me when a Forestry Consultant, who was staying next room in the hotel I was staying in Sri Lanka when I was there recently, told me that sandalwood plantation could be raised successfully. So would the news be a surprise to many, I think.

He was also from India like me, we both on different works—he on sandalwood cultivation and me on covering general elections for the Asian Tribune. His information raising my brows, we settled for a discussion.

Dr. H S Anantha Padmanabha, the forestry consultant, is an expert on sandalwood cell biology, who mastered the technology of artificial raising of sandalwood. A scientist of 40 years experience in forestry in India, he had worked as a senior scientist at the Institute of Wood Science and Technology in Bangalore (India) from 1964 to 1998 and was responsible for guiding research projects on sandalwood and other forestry species including but not limited to techniques of growing sandalwood and decease and pests affecting forestry tree species.

Currently he is a Director of Karnataka Research Foundation and Advance Technology Transfer, Bangalore, Consultant to Tropical Forestry Services Western Australia, consultant to Forest Rewards, Western Australia, and had served as consultant to Department of Conservation and Land Development (CALM) and Forest Product Commission (FPC) Government of Western Australia from 1998 to 2002. He is honorary consultant to Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Ltd, Bangalore, assisting and providing guidance to farmers, corporate bodies and NGO’s in growing sandalwood in India.

He has co-authored books on sandalwood and have published over 150 publications in both Indian and International journals. He was designated as chief Technical Advisor for sandalwood projects with the World Bank FREE project (ICFRE) Government of India.

Sri Lankan project has more than 500 acres sandalwood plantation

Anantha Padmanabha was is Sri Lanka as he is Consultant to Touchwood Investment Co Ltd, Sri Lanka for Sandalwood project, under which more than 500 acres had been planted with sandalwood. More is to be planted this year and the company is planning to go plantation in Vietnam and Thailand.

He says in the North, erstwhile conflict zone, sandalwood plantation could be raised.

He says the sandalwoods are hemiparasitic and it needs a mother plant to grow on. And this condition is naturally available in the forest where the roots under the soil criss-cross, and a sandalwood seed falling in between manages to grow as a parasite for some time.

The growth of sandal under natural forest conditions is very slow due to reasons like fire, grazing and human intervention, etc. Under plantations with irrigation, fertilization and management technique it is possible to make a tree to develop scented heartwood in 12 to 13 years, he says.

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Anantha Padmanabha says Sandalwood (Santalum album) belonging to the family Santalaceae, has 16 recognised species distributed in the world. Santalum album is an important species commercially, which is found in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, China, and Australia. At present nearly 70 per cent of wood is coming from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, but the production is on the decline over the years.

Karnataka’s contribution towards sandalwood production is waning out and the name “Gandada Nadu” (Sandal country) no more exists! This is mainly because of wrong policies adapted by the Government.

“Indian sandalwood, the wood and oil is in short supply. Our foresters felt forest is a renewable source to extract sandalwood and will be available at all time to come, they never planned to grow in the natural forest or to conserve the species,” he says.

“Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were the major suppliers of natural sandalwood, and they never believed that it can be grown as a plantation crop, though I tried to explain them at different meetings. Our foresters felt that only natural grown sandalwood will give scented heartwood and oil.”

The sandalwood scientist went on: “With a lot of persuasion I was able to convince some of the big Corporate bodies in North Indian users of sandalwood oil, to grow sandalwood using Agro- forestry practices. At present about 1000 acres of sandalwood plantation is coming up in North India. Our foresters had blind belief that sandalwood grown in North India do not produce scented heartwood, it is rubbish. Wood core samples taken from 4 year old sandalwood showed initiation of good scented heartwood.”

‘Australia would be world leaders in Indian sandlwood’

He says he is a consultant to a big sandalwood company in Australia, growing Indian sandalwood (Tropical Forestry Services, WA). “The company has 10,000 Ha of Indian sandalwood of different age group. Every year they are planting sandalwood in about 1000 ha. The oldest plantation is about 12 years and will be harvested in 2012.”

Anantha Padmanabha says they will be world leaders in Indian sandalwood in the years to come. “I brought samples from trees of 6 years and 9 years for the estimation of heartwood and oil in India, people in the forest department and scientific institutions did not believe that sandalwood grows in Australia possessing high oil content.”

He is worried that people outside India are showing keen interest to grow Indian sandalwood in a big way because of its value and need in the perfumery market, but here in India there is no interest.

He points out those countries are giving incentives to grow, whereas in India “we create lot of problems to growers, users and to the industries. Unless we make sandalwood a free trade in India, we are going loose our heritage and the species.”

Sandalwood has a 4,000-year-old history in India, but it took our politicians and smugglers only a few decades to rob this region of its legacy. However the rot had begun much earlier when the Maharajas were ruling from this palace.

In the 1790s, Tipu Sultan christened sandalwood as a “royal tree” and gave the government total monopoly over the sandal trade. Successive governments in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh blindly followed it, while other states enjoyed the commercial potential. The restriction imposed on possession, storage, processes and transportation has induced to wide spread smuggling and illegal trade, he says.

Two hundred years of public monopoly and preservation and harassment of those on whose land the plant grew were enough to make the royal wood vanish.

Forest department should propagate the amended Act

Anatha Padmanabha is happy the Indian government has now amended Forest Act, Sandalwood Act in August 2001, wherein the owner of land shall be the absolute owner of sandalwood. “This has been done to promote farmers and corporate bodies to take initiative to grow sandalwood outside the forest limits.

Farmers and corporate bodies who have taken up to grow sandalwood for lucrative returns are still facing the stringent rules framed by the forest departments.”

This has given some relief to the public and the farmers to keep sandalwood in their land. The forest department should propagate the amended Act by different media to create awareness to grow sandalwood tree so that more people may come forward there by reducing pressure on natural forest.

The laws also should be made simple; the individual should be able to cut and sell to earn more revenue. Farmers will take more interest if they are given more freedom. They should not be any binding on them to handover the proceeds to the forest department. This will help to reduce illegal harvest and the price will be stablised. The merchants can have free access and at the same time they are assured of constant supply of raw material.

Former Karnataka Chief Minister, S.M.Krishna had pointed out during the inaugural speech “greening campaign” at Mysore and Chamarajnagar on June 29, 2003, that those who grow sandalwood tree should get ownership rights and freedom of utilizing the tree should also be given to them. But his assurance remind as paper news, he says.

‘Wooden Gold’

One can easily plan the rotation of sandalwood tree at the age of 12 years to earn good revenue. The existence of heartwood in individual trees grown under irrigation and high nutrients, cannot be disputed, since this is not an assumption, but based on existing fact.

Prices have skyrocketed and what was until now only a tree has come to be known as 'Wooden Gold'.

Regarding the value of sandalwood as on date; during the last auction of sandalwood held during July 2005 at Tamil Nadu Forest Department, sandalwood roots was sold for an average price of rupees 32 lakhs per tonne; sandalwood billets of bigger class was sold for rupees 30 lakhs and the branch wood (as per the class, Ein-chilta and Ein-bagar) to an average price for rupee 18 lakhs per tonne. The rate is increasing at a premium of 20 to 25 per cent per year. The increase trend in sale price since last five years clearly indicate, formers can profitably grow sandalwood in agro-forestry systems.

Although all sandalwood trees in India and Nepal are government-owned and their harvest is strictly controlled, many trees are illegally cut down and smuggled out of the country. Sandalwood essential oil prices have risen up to $1,000–1,500 per kg in the last 5 years.

Anantha Padmanabhan says: “Keeping this in view the government should amend the rules in such a way that commercial sandalwood cultivation will have no hurdles to produce, to cut and sell to make a better living for the farmers. This liberalization promotes the farmers and private organizations to take more initiative in planting and protection of sandalwood industry in the state and reduce pressure on the natural forestland. The liberalization finally reduces illicit smuggling and transport.”

The expenditure involved for all the operation, like purchase of seedling, planting, maintenance, including a watch and ward for 12 years would cost a farmer about 5 lakhs per acre, The amount of returns expected is about 75 to 80 lakhs at an average production of sandalwood heartwood of 5 to 6 tonnes. Some of the banks have come forward to advance loan and the National Medicinal Board provide subsidy to take up sandalwood plantations.

Sandalwood can be intercropped with fruit bearing trees like Grafted tamarind, Amla, Pomegranate, Drum stick, Karivepillai, etc, these give quick returns from 2nd to 3rd year to the farmer, to reduce the burden of maintaining the long term crop.

- Asian Tribune -

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