Silent sentinels to Timor’s past and future

As you walk beneath the archway that welcomes you to Timor-Leste’s international airport from the tarmac, you pass a pretty garden, with neat lawns, shady trees and flag poles strung with the country’s eye-catching red, black and yellow flag. Hundreds of visitors stream past every day, but few, if any, notice the key piece of Timorese history that sits beside the archway.

Have you seen it? Any idea what it is?

It’s what brought the Portuguese settlers to the country in the 16th century.

It’s a multi-use organic matter with commercial, cultural, medicinal and religious uses.

It’s legally recognised as a plant of national value to Timor-Leste.

It’s Santalum album – a small tropical tree known as sandalwood.

Many benefits

Indigenous to the island of Timor, the tree has enormous cultural, economic and ecological benefits, and has been used by people for millennia. But due to overlogging, illegal logging, theft and everyday use, Timor-Leste’s sandalwood population has dwindled to nearly nothing, and few visitors would be able to tell you that they pass something so critical to the country’s history and development on their way in.

But sandalwood remains a crucial part of Timor-Leste’s story.

And with renewed vigour since independence, that story can continue.

A long history

Timor-Leste first entered the global economy in the 15th century, when Chinese traders reported trading large quantities of sandalwood. By the 16th century, the tree had caught the attention of Portuguese explorers, who arrived in Timor-Leste and gutted large areas of forest in the pursuit of elusive sandalwood oil and wood products. The quality and rarity of the tree sent prices sky-high, and over the first 200 years of the then-Portuguese colony, sandalwood forest populations declined. The colony’s governor saw the resource disappearing, and quickly ordered the planting of coffee in the early 19th century to supplement the struggling colony’s income.

By the end of the century, coffee had overtaken sandalwood as the colony’s chief export, but the damage had been done.

Various governors of the colony implemented rules and protections for the tree throughout the 20th century, and following the country’s independence in 2002, sandalwood was decreed an emblematic plant of national value and its cutting, extraction and marketing prohibited by law.

Now, new initiatives are attempting to restore the sandalwood forests.

The Government of Timor-Leste commenced a sandalwood reforestation program in 2003, distributing over 80,000 seedlings to nine of Timor-Leste’s 13 districts, and is exploring options for recovering the country’s sandalwood population.

Seedlings and the flower of Sandalwood tree.

AI-Com is supporting the government’s efforts by conducting research to learn more about sandalwood growth and health and how to best grow and plant this valuable tree.

So next time you arrive in Timor-Leste, look out for the  four tall Timorese sandalwood trees welcoming you at the airport gates – an emblem of the country’s history, culture, and identity. And now its future.

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