Working Paper No. 29: Haumeni1, not many: renewed plunder and mismanagement in the Timorese Sandalwood industry

Concluding Remarks: Indigenous rights and natural resource management

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Concluding Remarks: Indigenous rights and natural resource management

The crisis in the sandalwood industry across Timor and the unremitting plunder of mature stocks has reached a point where the very viability of the species on the island is threatened. Given the failure of successive governments over the course the twentieth century to either manage extant growing stocks sustainably or to create viable commercial plantations, alternative approaches are desperately needed.
Under the National Indonesian system of classification for forest resources, sandalwood falls into the category of a ‘minor forest product’. This designation reflects the institutional bias towards timber (major forest product) within the Indonesian forestry sector, while simultaneously belying the historical significance of sandalwood to the economy of Timor and nearby islands. Sandalwood is also classified as a non-timber product (Monk 1997) and, like other forest resources in this category, such as gums, resins, bamboo, fruits and nuts, the rights of rural communities who traditionally exploit and manage these resources have tended to be denied or ignored by State interests. (Poffenberger, 1990). Seen in this context the depletion of sandalwood stocks on Timor and Sumba through unsustainable extraction in the face of numerous attempts by successive Governments to manage the resource can be understood as a microcosm of the wider processes of forest resource mismanagement across Indonesia and Southeast Asia generally. The literature on deforestation and the progressive appropriation of indigenous forest community rights and benefits by State interests is extensive (see for example Hurst, 1990, Poffenberger, 1990). It underscores the political weakness of marginalised forest communities and the unfortunate track record of centralised paternalistic Government complicity and neglect in the alleged interests of national development (World Rainforest Movement, 1990). What makes the case of sandalwood unusual, if not unique, is the extension of State control over a ‘forest resource’ which is cultivated and managed predominantly by local farmers and communities on their own land.
If solutions are to be found in this downward spiral of sandalwood resource depletion they lie in a combination of two key initiatives. Firstly, the effective transfer of resource and management ownership from State monopoly to grower and landowner control. This entails not only the recognition of private and community based ownership rights, but also extensive market de-regulation both in terms of pricing regimes and transparent marketing channels. At the same time more attention needs to be directed to the policing of sandalwood theft and tougher sanctions against illegal trading activities.
A second complementary approach requires a re-orientation of the role of forest resource managers from a control and policing role with an industrial plantation focus, to one of facilitating long-term agro-forestry in partnership with local farming communities. This is consistent with observations elsewhere in the Forestry sector. As Dove has commented, ‘all available evidence suggests that the centralizing tendency in Indonesian statecraft leads too easily to local economic hardship and resource degradation. His recommendation, in relation to the rubber industry but the principle is the same, is that instead of developing expensive and problematic nucleus estate projects, the government would be better advised to assist existing traditional small-holder in situ at far less cost (1996: 54). Similarly, on-farm, in situ research and support to improve sandalwood production and cultivation is likely to have long-term benefits to upland farming communities who are among the poorest in the region. Under a more supportive governmental regime, there are also opportunities for strengthening and re-vitalizing traditional indigenous conservatory practices that have been eroded over generations of neglect and disregard.
Calls for just this form of transfer and re-direction are well supported both in terms of encouraging the regeneration and conservation of the species, and as a long overdue recognition and redress of the equity rights of the many peasant communities on whose land it grows. Any modest State levies and taxes on the subsequent sale of the commodity should be used to facilitate and improve the industry. Kushalapa (1998) commenting in relation to just this issue in relation to Karnataka State (India), considers as baseless the fears that a relaxation of sandalwood regulations would lead to complete destruction of the species. If this were so, he argues, it would have already happened to the teak and rosewood species that are equally valuable but not controlled like sandalwood.
In the end, it can only be the collective action of the Timorese community, in partnership with the Provincial and District Governments in NTT, that determines whether sandalwood in Timor has any chance of becoming once again a significant export commodity and even a symbol of the islands future. A similar challenge faces the emergent National Government in East Timor (Timor Lorosa'e). There, the creation of new Government structures offers the opportunity to redress the policy failures of the past and institute more favourable conditions for the sustainable farming of sandalwood. The historical track record of resource mismanagement in the region combined with the endemic rural poverty of the island makes this a challenging but worthwhile prospect. With effort the sweet smell of sandalwood might once again become an integral part of Timorese farming systems and be known as the ‘white wood money’ tree (hau pan muti) and not the ‘tree of acrimony’ (haum lasi) which is easier to eradicate than to tend.

Appendix 1: Comparative results from sandalwood inventories 1987/88 and 1997/98 in Nusa Tenggara Timur

Mature trees

Young trees
















Source: Dinas Kehutanan NTT 1998

I note that these figures are not entirely consistent with those presented in the text (above) and here one must recognise the inherent unreliability of statistical data from Government sources in NTT. The data from West Sumba for example looks suspect. Moreover, inventories in NTT are not necessarily based on field inspection but on the verbal reports of local communities. In the current climate there is little advantage for villagers to provide accurate information. Indeed there remain widespread suspicions that local hill people have cut and stored significant amounts of sandalwood in the face of continuing theft by outsiders. Nevertheless something of the scale of decline over the last ten years can be gauged from these figures. Growing stocks on the basis of this data have declined in the order of an 85 percent over the last decade.

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