Many essential oil-bearing plants, as of 2016, are facing extinction (see Conservation of Essential and Carrier Oil-Bearing Plants) primarily because the demand for their essential oil outweighs the supply of plants. Often times, a low supply results from unsustainable practices such as overharvesting, smuggling, killing entire communities of mature and immature plants, and not replanting what has been destroyed. When coupled with natural factors, such as fire and/or climate change, the threat of survival to an already fragile species, greatly increases. Unfortunately, most countries that are home to threatened essential oil-bearing plants, are faced with these problems and many more.
High demand placed on threatened aromatic medicinal plants for their essential oil stems mostly from the aromatherapy, agriculture, cosmetic, flavor, perfume, and pharmaceutical industries. Although the demand is high and accelerating quickly, awareness about the decline of certain essential oil-bearing plants is beginning to spread through these sectors.
There are organizations in the planning stages of creating sustainable management techniques and sustainable sources of high-quality essential oils from threatened plants, and there are others who have already taken the leap. One such organization is Santanol, an Australian-based company that is dedicated to the sustainable management of East Indian Sandalwood (Santalum album), and to an ethical and sustainable supply of its essential oil.
East Indian Sandalwood (S. album) is one of the essential oil-bearing plant species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List (Asian Regional Workshop, 1998), and in the 2005 Global Forest Resource Assessment. Consequently, the numbers of mature adults left in the wild, range from 250 – 10,000 and the numbers are decreasing throughout Timor Leste, China, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Exploitation of the wood is primarily for its essential oil, and often a result of its excessive use in the furniture industry. Smuggling, fire, and grazing also contribute to its vulnerable status.
As a consumer, educator, and/or consultant, it is important to know if your source of S. album essential oil comes from sustainably managed trees, and from quality-controlled distillation. To learn more about Santanol and their practices, I interviewed Emilie Bell, Sales and Marketing Manager of Santanol in November, 2016 and August, 2017.
My questions were designed around the three main goals of sustainable agriculture, which are 1) environmental health, 2) economic profitability and 3), social and economic equity (Feenstra et al., 2017). According to the USDA (2007), to meet these three goals entails sustaining resources for future generations through enhancing the quality of the environment and natural resources, implementing renewable and on-farm resources efficiently and naturally, financial stability, and through local and global community outreach and engagement, research, and education. Success also requires collaboration among, for example, ecologists, chemical ecologists, botanists, biologists, environmentalists, geneticists, pedologists, and hydrologists. This is extremely important when dealing with a threatened species whose plant biology is delicate and complicated and thus would require experts with a deep understanding of their biology for successful cultivation.
East Indian Sandalwood (S. album) is one of those unique species which is very difficult to cultivate. This is because the germination process is complex, as it is hemiparasitic, which means it requires association with other plants for nutrients. The sandalwood feeds itself partly through root binding to host trees and is protected from aggressive sunshine through the host canopy. Further, planting seeds is labor-intensive and has to be done at a specific time, and the soil must be properly managed.
Extraction of essential oil from threatened plant species must also be carefully done, after the plant material has been sustainably harvested. Plant material should be distilled in a timely fashion, and distillations should be efficient, and preferably should integrate renewable resources into the process. Post-distillation, chemical analysis, and additional quality-control checks of the laboratory and distillation equipment should frequently be performed. Extracting essential oils from threatened species require extra costs (e.g. money for permits; efficient distillation equipment), and consequently may be done illegally with makeshift equipment in countries where resources are often not affordable or easily accessible. Therefore these essential oils, often sourced from said countries, are routinely adulterated, contaminated, or are a blend of different oils.
All of these variables and considerations are what I use to gauge companies, such as Santanol. In response to my questions, below are Emilie’s summarized answers in bullet points. Italicized text is my interpretation of goals met for successful sustainable agriculture of (S. album), and quality-controlled distillation practices which result in a high-quality essential oil.
Emilie Bell – Interview Answers
- Santanol was formed in 2005. KKR, an American private equity firm, became the major shareholder in 2013, as it added substantially more plantations to create an estate of 2,300 hectares of East Indian sandalwood (S. album) (Image 1).
Long-term financial stability supports reliable source of sustainably-managed plants and sustainably-sourced essential oil
- Santanol plantations of S. album are located in the northern part of Western Australia near Australia’s second largest freshwater man-made reservoir, Lake Argyle (Image 2). During the 1960s, the Australian government conducted research into the agricultural development of the area and developed an irrigation system they created with water from Lake Argyle to support the development of different crops and trees near the lake. Many crops and trees were planted as part of this experimentation phase, but not many survived the severe environment that includes a 42℃ temperature, except for some S. album seeds shipped directly to Australia from India. As part of the development, drip- and flood-irrigation systems are used in the plantations depending on ground structure and soil composition (Image 3).
Efficient use of on-farm resources
- Santanol doesn’t only grow S. album, but also the different host trees which provide the nutrients it needs to survive. A host tree is planted alongside the S. album tree seedling (Image 4), and different types of host trees are used throughout the development and growth of S. album. Striking a balance between the right hosts is a work in progress that began over 20 years ago. Even in the nursery, S. album seedlings grow with the help of a pot host (Image 5).
A deep understanding of the plant’s biology; Crop diversification
- Everything at Santanol is quality-controlled including their nursery (Image 6), laboratory, and distillation factory.
Quality-control at all levels
- Santanol’s first harvest occurred in 2015. Harvested trees are debarked, dried for a certain period of time (different periods for different parts of the tree), sorted, and chipped at the plantation site. Materials are then shipped to Santanol’s distillation factory in Perth (Image 7).
Sustainable harvesting; Efficient distillation process
- Sustainably-managed trees can be harvested on a 16-year cycle. Santanol implements a 16-year harvest rotation cycle because after the 15-year-old tree is harvested, a year is devoted to soil remediation and the land preparation before replanting new seedlings (Image 8). The oldest tree at Santanol is 26 years old. Mixed-aged trees guarantees a supply of wood for distillation throughout the year (Image 9) and for many years to come offering a sustainable product.
Sustainable harvesting; Soil management; Replanting and regeneration; Resources for future generations
- Santanol’s essential oil is an unadulterated product of the whole tree. The highest concentration of the oil comes from the roots, then from the logs, and to a lesser extent, from the branches. Each batch of essential oil is individually tested – batches of essential oils come with a quantitative breakdown of tree parts in the blend, safety data sheets, a GC-MS certificate of analysis, and gold-grade ISO standards. The oil complies to Cosmos by ecocert for natural products, and IFRA. Santanol will complete its REACH registration process for 2018.
Quality-control; Chemical analysis
- Late 2015, Santanol started to commercialize their East Indian sandalwood (S. album) essential oil within the fragrance and flavour industry and became more involved in the aromatherapy world in 2016. Santanol is also conducting research with labs and clients in Europe on the benefits of S. album on the skin.
Close collaboration with clients; Intensive end product-related research
- Regarding its forestry, Santanol has a R&D center of specialists who study horticulture, agriculture, pedology, forestry, dendrology, and genetics.
Collaboration; Biological research
- In 2016, Santanol embarked upon an Aboriginal Engagement Process, recruiting staff from local Aboriginal communities. Today, 40% of Santanol’s workforce in Kununurra are composed of aboriginal men and women. Santanol is very proud of this. This type of relationship between Santanol and the Aboriginal communities has resulted in high retention rates and a strong foundation for future growth of Santanol, and building long-term expertise within the Kununurra community.
Community outreach and engagement; Local economic stability
- Santanol implements genetic selection and diversification through selective breeding programs toward highly viable and more ‘fit’ trees. Genetic reinforcement of “best performing trees” includes trees that looks straight in form, grows a lot every year, delivers significant oil in its heartwood, and looks healthy (e.g. disease free) (Image 10). Santanol looks at the fit between its trees and the specific Kimberley environment.
Collaboration; Genetic diversity and performance breeding reinforcement
- Santanol minimizes environmental impact through efficient energy and water use. For example, the distillation factory runs its boilers on natural gas widely available in Western Australia, they recycle much of the water used in the distillation process, and leaves, tree bark, and host-tree residuals are left on the ground year-round as a natural mulch.
Utilizing on-farm and renewable resources efficiently; Natural resources recycled
- Termites are a threat East Indian sandalwood (S. album) is faced with in Australia; termites eat the heartwood of the tree and, if not eliminated, propagate in the soil. As a prevention measure, Santanol employees check daily for termites. When an attack occurs, termites are removed through targeted short-term treatments which do not affect, or impact the oil. Natural treatments are also under review.
Relentless monitoring of the health of the trees and of the natural organic resources
- In addition to Santanol’s commitment to research, Santanol is committed to internal education. They work very closely with KKR on their Green Solutions Platform focused on eco solutions for sustainability of plantations (https://green.kkr.com/).
Overall, Santanol strives to provide a reliable, pure and natural East Indian sandalwood (S. album) oil from an ethical and sustainable supply and will be ramping up its production year after year.
Santanol Contact Information
In conclusion, I encourage you to always keep up-to-date on the practices of companies striving to meet the same goals as Santanol. As a researcher who investigates these practices, it is important I do the same. Early 2016, I thoroughly reviewed Quintis (formerly TFS Coporation Ltd.), another Australian-based company recognized for its sustainable management of East Indian sandalwood (S. album) and its ethical and sustainable supply of S. album essential oil. Although my findings at the time revealed an ideal model of sustainable management, and an ethical and sustainable supply of S. album essential oil (contact me for details), as of March, 2017, the company appears to be struggling. You can read more here:
It is my hope that companies whose goal is to make a positive difference, succeed. Threatened essential and carrier oil-bearing plants need our continued protection!
Asian Regional Workshop (Conservation & Sustainable Management of Trees, Viet Nam, August 1996). 1998. Santalum album. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 1998:e.T31852A9665066. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.1998.RLTS.T31852A9665066.en. Downloaded on 2 August, 2017.
Feenstra, G., Ingels, C., Campbell, D., Chaney, D., George, M.R., and Bradford, E. UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, University of California, Davis. http://asi.ucdavis.edu/programs/sarep/about/what-is-sustainable-agriculture. (accessed June 2016).
Global Forest Resources Assessment (2005). Threatened, Endangered, and Vulnerable Tree Species: A comparison between FRA and the IUCN Red List. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). www.redlist.org (Accessed August, 2017).
United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] (2007). Sustainable Agriculture. https://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/sustainable-agriculture-definitions-and-terms#toc2 (Accessed July, 2017).
Photo credits: Santanol