The correct citation for this publication is:
Author: Andrew McWilliam
Year of Publication: 2001
Title: Haumeni, not many: renewed plunder and mismanagement in the Timorese Sandalwood Industry
Series: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Working Paper No. 29
Publisher: Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program, Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School for Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University
Editor: Karen Fisher
Place of Publication: Canberra
ISSN – 1444-187X
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Haumeni, not many: renewed plunder and mismanagement in the Timorese Sandalwood industry
There have been numerous occasions throughout history where the exploitation of a single commodity has transformed the fortunes of institutions, communities and even nations that have sought to benefit from its control. One only has to think of Middle Eastern oil, rubber from the former Belgian Congo or gold in South America to name a few striking examples. For the eastern Indonesian island of Timor, it has been the long-term struggle for the control and trade of high quality white sandalwood (Santalum album L) which holds this pre-eminent position. The history of Timor, for perhaps the last millenium, has been intimately bound up with the shifting fortunes of sandalwood production and trade. Over the centuries, the attraction of sandalwood and the fine scented oil produced from its heartwood, has encouraged an extraordinary array of diverse trading interests that jostled and warred for influence and a share of the lucrative profits from its exploitation and sale across Asia. For indigenous Timorese too, participation in sandalwood politics frequently lay at the heart of endemic struggles for power and wealth. The capacity to exert control over sandalwood production and trade from the interior of the island was a direct measure of political authority and standing among rival Timorese indigenous domains. To control the production and trade in sandalwood was to control the polity, at least as long as the situation remained uncontested. The converse also held true; namely that the holders of effective political power within Timorese domains were well placed to monopolise available sandalwood stocks. Thus to a significant degree the fortunes of Timorese society are mirrored in the history of sandalwood politics.
Like other natural resources however, the bounty that is sandalwood has its limits. While the heartwood of the tree has brought great wealth and riches to those dealing in its trade over the years, it has been achieved through uncontrolled plunder of available stocks. The history of sandalwood in Timor has been an exemplary model of natural resource destruction with little or no regard for long-term management and ecological sustainability. The consequences of this chronic neglect have lead Fox to argue that for Timor, ‘sandalwood now stands as a symbol of its past not its future (1977: 73).2 A striking illustration of the contemporary situation in relation to sandalwood production and export, can be see in a recent report on trends in commodity exports from Nusa Tenggara Timur. It charts with an ironic absence of comment the drastic decline in the proportion of sandalwood production from the Province as a percentage of total exports. According to the official figures, the contribution of value added sandalwood products to export earnings declined from a substantial 30 percent in 1992 to zero in 1997.3
Source: Dinas Kehutanan NTT 1998
The figures reflect belated Government efforts to stem the widespread and largely unregulated harvesting of sandalwood stocks within the Province and especially across West Timor, which produces the majority of timber. A ban on the harvesting of sandalwood and strict controls on exports has officially brought sandalwood exports from the Province to a halt.4 For possibly the first time in the recorded history of the region, sandalwood no longer figures in export revenue from Timor. For Ormeling, who noted this declining trend over 40 years ago, the numbers represent a sorry contrast to the times when "open dumps of sandalwood covered a distance of a kilometre and more along the road to Kupang" (1956: 179).
Given this clearly pessimistic assessment of the state of the sandalwood industry in Timor, it is logical to conclude, as others have done, that the sandalwood resources in Timor are basically fully depleted with little or no hope of recovery. This is a view that has had its proponents over many years, and reflects a remarkably consistent and recurring perspective on sandalwood production from the Island. As early as 1656, for example, a Governor General of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) concluded that "in the Solor and Timor there is little for us to do in the future, virtually no sandalwood to negotiate, and more costs than profits to be gained for the Company" (cited in Fox 1977: 73). Admittedly these comments only reflected the depletion of accessible sandalwood reserves in the coastal areas controlled by the Dutch (Ormeling, 1956: 102). But from the middle of the Seventeenth Century sandalwood reserves across the island were already in decline. More than one hundred years later, the English Sea Commander, William Bligh, commented on his visit to Timor that "[t]he produce of the island is chiefly (s)andalwood and beeswax; the former article is now scarce" (1789  241). Much later, Fox in his ecological study of Palm economies in the region also concludes that by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries "…there can be no doubt that the major resources of sandalwood had been irreversibly diminished" (1977: 73). The pessimistic outlook is sustained by the end of the twentieth century when fears of an immanent collapse of the sandalwood industry were being expressed by business interests in Timor (Jakarta Post, 14 September 1996). The term ‘di punahkan’ (wiped out) is now commonly employed to describe the situation.Thus, the history of sandalwood exploitation in Timor for the last few hundred years or so has been characterised equally by excessive extraction and by images of continuing or recurring scarcity.
Now, it is undoubtedly the case that the stocks of high quality Timorese sandalwood have been in long-term historical decline, and the prospects of returning to the situation that Portuguese traders in Timor faced "whole mountains covered in sandalwood" (Ormeling, 1956: 176) seem remote. Nevertheless, it is also the case that sandalwood exports have continued to flow from Timor for generations, albeit in gradually declining quantities. As evident in the official data (above) until very recently sandalwood has been one of the key export commodities from this otherwise resource poor island and a major contributor the regional gross domestic product of the Province of Nusa Tengarra Timur (NTT). The average contribution of sandalwood to Regional revenues for the Province of Nusa Tenggara Timur between 1992-1997 was 26.78 percent going as high as 43 percent in 1993-1994. (Udik, 1999: 3). Similarly, Government revenues from sandalwood for the period 1986-1990 averaged around 39 percent (Suripto, 1992). In these terms sandalwood has until recently represented a vital economic commodity for the region. Comparable figures for East Timor have not been located, but are likely to be somewhat less important to RDP but significant nevertheless. Officially reported average production of sandalwood (heartwood) in East Timor between 1990-1995 was around 124 cubic metres per annum (see Appendix 1).
In the midst of scarcity and diminishing numbers, mature stocks of sandalwood have thus continued to represent a major source of income for Governments, traders and rural communities alike.5 The key moderating factor in this equation is that sandalwood is an endemic species on Timor and continues to propagate naturally over wide areas of the island, particularly in areas of disturbed ground. In other words sandalwood is a finite resource at any particular moment but one that is naturally renewable with high rates of seed and root stock propagation. Comparatively small numbers of high quality mature trees can produce abundant quantities of seed and new vegetative shoots.
From seedling to maturing heartwood takes around one human generation and consequently it would be theoretically possible to regenerate extensive stands of sandalwood under the right conservatory circumstances. In the past, fluctuating market prices for the scented timber undoubtedly influenced the extent to which sandalwood reserves declined or regenerated. The practice of recurring plunder, a boom and bust cycle of harvesting, would have also led to fluctuating conditions of availability for the native timber which helps explain why the wood has for centuries been viewed as a scarce commodity yet continued to provide significant export revenue over the same period.6 In the contemporary context, as in the past, what limits further development and conservation of sandalwood stands has less to do with the bio-physical aspects of plant husbandry, and much more to do with the politics of control and effective regulatory conditions for managing the resource. In the following paper I explore some of these aspects of sandalwood politics and argue that one key problem facing the development of a sustainable sandalwood industry in Timor is the monopoly State control of the commodity itself. Unless and until the Provincial Government relinquishes and devolves its control over the diminishing resource there is little likelihood of restoring sandalwood to its central historical place in the economics of Timor island. In the absence of progressive policy change local farming communities, who have been the historical producers of the fragrant wood, will continue to be denied their rightful inheritance.