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Mysore Sandalwood: Extinct or Thriving?

In 2018, at the early point of my research into perfumery raw materials, my attempts to gain clarity on the legal restrictions on sandalwood trees in India were met with responses that were dismissive or full of obfuscation - Until I met Singapore-based entrepreneur, Rithika Gupta of FP Aromatics.

Rithika is one of my trusted Patron-Suppliers particularly when it comes to ethically sourced sandalwood. Her family firm is one of the largest producers and exporters of Sandalwood Oil. They have been in this trade for three generations, consistently relying on tried and tested traditional distillation techniques. They responsibly produce sandalwood oils of Indian, Australian, New Caledonian, Vanuatu and African origins. Apart from her role in developing the family business, Rithika has branched off to launch the retail brand ‘Ollie’ (Singapore) that makes high quality essential oils accessible to consumers. In our conversation, she dispels the fog of misinformation surrounding this specific trade.

Bharti Lalwani: Rithika – Give us a glimpse into the history of the sandalwood trade in the Indian subcontinent.

Rithika Gupta: Sandalwood is one of the oldest known perfumery materials that have a history of over 4000 years in South Asia. The genus is represented by Santalum album Linn. Its wood is known commercially as East Indian Sandalwood and the essential oil from it as East Indian Sandalwood oil.

Sandalwood trade in India started as early as the 17th century. Realizing the value of sandalwood, the King of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, declared it as a Royal Tree in 1792. The wood was mainly exported to China during the first half of 18 century; a small quantity was also exported to countries such as France, England, Germany and Middle East. During the course of time, the wood trade with China stopped and instead commenced with USA and European countries for the extraction of its oil. As the technology for oil extraction did not exist within the Indian subcontinent, the export of well-dressed sandalwood logs, roots and billets for distillation of oil continued with the German Empire and USA till the beginning of the First World War. However, as Germany was heavily invested in the war, it severed connections with all the trades of the world. This was followed by a disturbance in the sea route transport systems and thereafter, exports fell. As a result, there was fall in the revenue to the Mysore Government.

The Maharaja of Mysore, Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, then decided to set up a distillation unit in the State itself. That’s how the Mysore Sandalwood Oil Factory was established by 1916 - 17. Over the next couple of years, they developed confidence to export sandalwood oil to different parts of the world and gradually increased their production from 2000 pounds of oil per month up to 12,500 pounds approximately. To meet the increasing domestic and international demand, they set up a second factory in Shimoga, a town 170kms from Bangalore in 1944. By early 1970’s, annual production of oil reached its peak at approximately 165 tonnes with over three fourth of the oil being produced by the two government factories, the rest was supplied by private distillation units that cropped up around the country. After 1975, there was a downward trend in terms of oil production.

BL: Why was there a drop in supply of East Indian Sandalwood oil from this point on? Were the trees being over harvested?

RG: To be frank, from the mid 70s on, the official numbers are not reliable. The official statistics show far less production than its use in various industries. The demand for oil was increasing in domestic and international markets, simultaneously prices also increased significantly. This incentivized numerous private distillers to procure sandalwood illegally. Perhaps there was no decrease in production of oil in the country; the official and unofficial production quantity was meeting high demands. In 1960 there were only 15 private distillation factories in the country, with a distilling capacity of around 45 tonnes. But in 1965 the number of private distillers had increased to 30 in number with a capacity to distill more than 85 tonnes of oil.

The production from Mysore Sandalwood factories decreased due to non-supply of sandalwood at subsidized price by the forest department. In the years that followed, oil produced by these institutions was just enough to meet their own requirements, hence the major supply of oil to both domestic and international market was coming from private distillers – legal and not. The official production of sandalwood oil figures from 1981 to the present date is around 100 tonnes but based on the different industries’ requirements the annual production quantity should be over 150 tonnes.

BL: Tell us about your family history and how they got into this trade three generations back – what has changed in this industry since then and what factors make your trade ‘ethical’?

RG: My grandfather and his siblings migrated from Punjab in search of Sandalwood for trade, and ended up in Kerala in 1958. Wood was available in abundance and there were no legal restrictions during that time. They set up a distillation factory in the outskirts of Calicut to meet mainly domestic and some export demands. They were one of the first few private distillers in the State. Over the years when the legal situation changed, we sold our factory and began trading from legal sources. We found we had to be nimble and change the business model from time to time to sustain, given we were now competing with the grey market – which is lower priced, and easily available to consumers. It wasn’t easy at all, and it still isn’t.

Our company ‘Vibhu Essential Oils’ is now located in Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh), and we are one of the only suppliers of legal Sandalwood Oil in India – This means that our sale comes with a legitimate invoice and proper documentation that includes a permit issued by the forest department since this product falls under their purview. While it’s tricky to be 100% ethical, legal, sustainable and traceable in this trade in India, we are trying our very best to work with farming communities, to work with the government, to challenge that government when required, and take charge of replanting on our own.

BL: Sounds like you have to chart the course for sustainability on your own especially if it’s not going to come from proper authorities.

RG: Yes, I’d like to highlight two key initiatives. Firstly, we are putting together an association to bring the people of this trade together so we can work through our challenges and problem-solve together. This way we can also represent ourselves formally to the authorities so as to bring about any meaningful change for the future. Secondly, within the company, we are launching a sustainability initiative where we plant a sapling for a certain quantity of oil processed or sold by us. There is no reason we cannot be sustainable about our operation, this is a matter of will and determination.

BL: I find there is a dense legal fog around the trade of this product. A while back, one old time distiller confided that his main concern is distilling the oil and selling it – his supplier provides him the sandalwood logs but where those logs are sourced from, he’d rather not ask. This is also the reason why I sometimes opt to use a synthetic aroma chemical for formulations instead of authentic sandalwood (the same consideration I extend for animal-derived musk).

RG: We have seen legal provisions being imposed by the government on sandalwood to show “conservation” which infact maintain “monopoly”. Take the case of Tipu Sultan – As per historical records, he is known to have gone to the extent of amputating the hands of people who dared to cut the “Royal Tree”! So, while he appeared to conserve Sandalwood, he infact ensured only he could exploit it. Even after India’s independence, when State forest laws were framed, provisions were made to enable the States to continue the control regime. Meaning, each State would frame and follow their own laws with regard to growing, cutting, transporting, processing and selling of sandalwood and its oil.

BL: What role do States in South India play in the conservation (or monopoly) of Sandalwood plantations?

RG: Karnataka being the hub of sandal production in India and a major beneficiary of sandal revenues has a special chapter relating to sandalwood in the Karnataka Forest Act. Section 84 of KFA proclaims that all sandal trees growing on any land including on private land to be the exclusive property of the State. So, if you have a tree in your house, you are responsible for preserving it, but you do not have rights over it. Tamil Nadu also declared sandal as ‘royalty’ even on private property in the Madras Forest Act, making unlicensed possession and extraction of sandalwood a punishable offence.

In Kerala, while there were laws that imposed restrictions on the cutting of sandalwood, there was no restriction on transport, possession, trade and processing of the wood. These relatively liberal laws in Kerala made room for a lot of illegal rackets, the biggest one conducted by Veerappan, the ivory and sandalwood smuggler who was active for 36 years. The illegal smuggling rings benefitted local village populations financially. Since the government didn't offer any incentives to local villagers from sandal proceeds, Veerappan enjoyed immense patronage from them and in return encouraged them to sell the wood on his behalf. All of this increased illegal harvesting and trade, discouraged private growers, and there was no conservation happening. This has slowly started to change in the last 5 to 10 years but it is very slow progress. A lot more work remains to be done.

While there have been tweaks in the laws over the years and the government is trying to encourage plantations (which would make it sustainable), the concept of private ownership is limited as the governments still retain some control over felling, sale, and/or transport of privately owned trees. Such restrictions dissuade most people from growing sandalwood trees. There is also a security threat, as sandalwood trees are scarce and might attract unwanted attention. This is such a pity, because Sandalwood trees are very hardy and easy to grow. If forest communities are encouraged to grow these trees, this will not only control theft, but the regeneration will be very high because you can leave it to the birds to carry the seeds and keep the species going.

A combination of unfathomable corruption, lack of uniformity in laws of the different Sandal producing States and inability to enforce the law has ruined the situation of this product in India today. This has given ‘Santalum Album’ variety growing countries like Indonesia and Australia an immense opportunity. Furthermore, demand for their sustainable sandalwood sales are only growing.

BL: Does the ‘Mysore Sandalwood’ oil exist? By that I don’t mean Sandalwood plantations in South India but rather the extraction of the oil from 50+ year old heart-wood. What’s the future of the trade like?

RG: ‘Mysore Sandalwood’ from a tree older than 50 years may not be available as the oil currently produced in India today is obtained from 20 to 25 year old heartwood. However, it is encouraging to observe new plantations developing in different parts of the country. In fact, more so in States that have liberal sandalwood laws. This, to me, is proves two things: First, there is no rationale in the assumption and fear that if the State relaxes regulations that would lead to large scale exploitation. If this were indeed true, then rosewood and teakwood would be extinct. Second, sandalwood in India is here to stay and flourish, for a long long time to come. Buyers are all over the globe - Perfumers big and small, Aromatherapy, Alternate medicine / Ayurveda, some mainstream pharma too, incense and candle makers, skin and personal care industry, and of course the flavouring industry, in particular makers of gutka and paan masala, an influential arm of the Tobacco industry who are the largest buyers. Everybody loves sandalwood and we’re determined to ensure its future!


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