Editorial comment – Turning to the land

Isaac Lee at his sandalwood farm at Laqere, Tabia. Picture: LUKE RAWALAI

THE revelation that we have sandalwood farms worth $500m is quite interesting.

At a glance, the reports in today’s edition should attract attention and start discussions.

At the forefront would be the fact that we actually have a multi-million dollar industry before us.

There is the very real possibility of riches, but at the tail end of hard work.

A survey by the Forests Ministry’s sandalwood development department revealed we have sandalwood farms valued at exactly that figure — $500 million.

The farms are on Vanua Levu, Viti Levu, Kadavu and Lomaiviti.

The plant takes 20 to 30 years to mature and we should expect to have a sandalwood boom between 20 and 30 years if everything goes according to expectations.

At least that’s according to the ministry’s research officer Maika Daveta.

He said it was too early to give an overall picture of the industry’s potential until a mapping exercise was done.

Forest conservator Sanjanna Lal said the ministry had yet to identify the markets Fiji’s sandalwood were sold to but suspected it ended up in Asian countries such as Taiwan, China and Korea.

Interestingly these markets, she said, then sold the sandalwood oil to global perfume brands such as Chanel which did not recognise the products as Fijian made.

Since its discovery in Fiji in 1801, the sandalwood trade raged on for years, nearly causing its extinction in parts of the northern division.

It appears to be making a comeback now. Four years ago, Korean national Sueng Bae Lee decided to invest in planting what he now refers to as his insurance policy — sandalwood.

He says his sandalwood farm in Tabia, Labasa would benefit his grandchildren and the money earned from the sale of the trees would also go towards financially supporting the South Pacific Missionary Training Centre in Suva.

His son Isaac Lee manages the farm which has over 400 plants aged one to four years old at Laqere, Tabia.

Planting sandalwood, Mr Lee said, was a low maintenance job, “but the first two years require a lot of sweat and dedication”.

The efforts in the first two years would determine the value of the trees.

Understandably nothing comes easy.

Farmers such as Mr Lee, however, understand and value the potential in sandalwood.

They value this potential to the extent that they are prepared to bide their time, nurturing plants that can be quite sensitive at times.

They realise the positive impact of hard work at this early stage, and look to the future with optimism.

That’s because they see potential for their family, growth and endless possibilities.

Perhaps there is a story in there for farmers who can gather the courage to make a difference in their lives, and take on the challenge of the sandalwood trade.

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