In the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka, 5,000 feet above sea level, tiny, delicate sandalwood seedlings begin to sprout inside a plant nursery. Mr. Kula, the bearded gardener who owns the nursery, gently runs his hands over the leaves of the young plants. If all goes well, they will be large and strong enough for harvesting in 20 years.
The seedlings are a sandalwood variety known as Santalum album. It grows naturally in Sri Lanka and India and is a high-quality variety that Weleda uses in its Sea Buckthorn and Pomegranate products. Sandalwood oil is extremely valuable; there is a huge demand and limited supply. In India, the trade is subject to strict legal regulation, and all sandalwood trees are the property of the government. As a result, an illegal sandalwood trade has popped up there, making a transparent supply nearly impossible to come by. This is why Weleda traveled to Sri Lanka to find partners for the sustainable cultivation of sandalwood.
In 2009, when Weleda’s project partner in Sri Lanka, Kumar Devi, first asked Kula whether he would be able to cultivate a few thousand seedlings for a special reforestation program, Kula doubted whether the idea would succeed. To his knowledge, sandalwood had never before been planted in Sri Lanka on a large scale.
Kula experimented with various types of earth, compost and cultivation methods until he found a suitable solution that mimicked sandalwood’s ideal habitat. Even today, more than half of the young plants do not survive the first few months. Despite the continued challenges, this is still a success in the eyes of the dedicated gardener, since barely a tenth of the seeds germinated during the first year. After his initial scepticism, Kula has now been completely won over by the seedlings in his care.
The Old Tea Plantation
About 12 miles away from Kula’s tree nursery, there is a tea plantation overgrown by vegetation. Nothing but the rhythmic, metallic sound of chopping rings out across the fields. A team of 15 farmers from the nearby village slowly work their way up the steep sides of the plantation, clearing space in the overgrown fields where Kula’s sandalwood seedlings will be planted. The workers unearth thousands of tea bushes more than 100 years old. Young sandalwood trees are also uncovered. Some are barely three-feet tall, while others stand at an impressive 16 feet and are a good 10 years old.
Agricultural engineer Rajiv Kulatungam watches the proceedings carefully. The 25-year-old and his father, Ramasamy, are delighted to be starting something new together on their long-overgrown family land. “Until the 1950s, 130 tea pickers used to work on around 500 acres of our land,” says Kulatungam. “When the tea and rubber plantations were nationalized in 1972, we lost three-quarters of our land in one fell swoop,” says his father. Although parts of this process were reversed in 1978, the business settled into a deep slumber that lasted decades.
An inquiry from Kumar Devi in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo finally breathed life back into the business. Devi, who supplies Weleda with around 80 gallons of sandalwood oil per year from his own production operations, put Kulatungam and his father in touch with Bas Schneiders, former head of strategic sourcing at Weleda.
In the next 10 years, Kulatungam will harvest the 500 or so sandalwood trees that grow naturally on his 100-acre farm for Weleda, while an additional 125 trees per acre will be replanted in the project’s initial phase. Depending on how well the young plants thrive, this will result in a sustainable harvest method in just a few years’ time. Between 2011 and 2014, 2,500 seedlings will be planted each year in open fields.
Kulatungam hopes to turn the former tea farm into a hub of biodiversity, with cinnamon trees and vegetables growing alongside sandalwood. He also plans to open an educational center where locals can learn about organic agriculture.
The sandalwood distillery, on the outskirts of the capital of Colombo, is a six-hour drive from Kulatungam’s plantation. At dusk the gray building looks nondescript; no name or number hints as to what lies inside its walls. Inside the unadorned factory buildings, Devi explains the method for extracting sandalwood oil, which is simple in theory but in practice can only be achieved with a great deal of knowledge and experience.
“During the two-to-three-day distillation process, we extract about 30 ounces of essential oil from 200 pounds of wood,” says Devi. Security levels are high here —the precious pale yellow liquid drips into a sealed conical glass jar, which can only be accessed by one employee. Rubbing a couple of drops of sandalwood oil into the skin reveals why this distinctive and delicate scent has been valued for centuries in the East. The balmy wood aroma, reminiscent of cedar, emits a calming sensation that wraps you in warmth and comfort.
It will still be a few years before the first drops of oil from the reforestation project managed by Weleda, Kulatungam and Devi can be captured in glass bottles, but Devi is convinced that this patience will pay off — there is no alternative. “Without constant development work and the cultivation of sandalwood trees, there would be hardly any sandalwood oil produced in Sri Lanka 30 or 40 years from now. This partnership came at just the right time. I hope that others will follow our lead and that the project will inspire them to adopt a sustainable approach to producing this precious natural substance.” Michael Leuenberger
What’s So Special About Sandalwood?
Weleda uses 16,000 ounces a year of sandalwood oil, an important base fragrance for natural essential oil mixtures. With its characteristic velvety, warm and woody notes, precious sandalwood oil is used in Weleda's Pomegranate and Sea Buckthorn products. As well as having an inspirational fragrance, sandalwood oil supports the skin's natural balance and self-regulating capabilities.
To learn more about Weleda’s ingredients, visit http://usa.weleda.com/cultivating-beauty/index.aspx.