Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sandalwood trade and smuggling

If you're interested in perfumery then you're most likely aware that sandalwood from Mysore in India is in short supply. Perfumers describe it as the highest quality sandalwood and while I'm no expert on the different varieties, I did once have a pot of powdered Mysore sandalwood and in past decades you could buy it easily in 'head' shops, or shops that specialise in incense. The wood is used in perfumery but also much used for arts, sculpture, architecture and incense.

The scent is velvety and sour/sweet, nutty and slightly 'lactonic' (i./e. milky). It has great longevity so acts as a fixative in perfumes as well as lending rich softness and depth. 
Since Mysorean sandalwood supplies have become depleted this variety has become scarce and extremely expensive (£1500 per kilo) so unfortunately it follows that this sparked illegal trade in Mysorean sandalwood and undermined the protection of depleted forests.

I wasn't aware of the levels of danger and crime involved until my niece (knowing of of my interest in perfumery) gave me a book for Christmas (in graphic novel form) about sandalwood smuggling - On the Trail of Sandalwood Smugglers

It's produced by bath, body and perfume products company Lush and was written by the owners, Agnes Gendry and Simon Constantine, of a UK based perfume and essential oils company, both of whom are keen to source only high quality ethical products. 

The book describes their hair-raising discoveries about sandalwood smuggling, which has involved serious levels of crime including murder, and the battle between Indian authorities and smuggling organisations. The worst of these was headed by Veerappan (a notoriously violent criminal who'd also traded in illegal ivory tusks) whose organisation was finally hunted down after the Indian government offered 1.25 millions for revealing his whereabouts. He and his associates were lured into a trap, a gun battle ensued and he was killed.

To cut a longer story short, despite the efforts of Indian authorities to strictly prohibit the production and sale of illegally sourced sandalwood (there is in fact an official seal on legally procured Mysore sandalwood, but many are willing to overlook this detail for the sake of cheaper sandalwood!) sandalwood production in India is currently not sustainable. Prices have sky rocketed and people who seek legal sources of sandalwood have turned to alternatives in Australia and elsewhere.

As the book points out though, Australian sandalwood exists in sustainable natural form (harvested by an Aboriginal organsiation) but it also exists in mass plantations which have grown sandalwood trees from saplings from Mysore, which unfortunately behave as a parasite in Australian soil, leeching essentials from surrounding natural plants. So again, not sustainable.

Agnes and Simon also discovered one other source of ethical sandalwood, from producers in New Caledonia. Though again, it's an indication of the levels of danger involved that the organisation's leader, Michel Point, passed away in suspicious circumstances.
Sandalwood producers, New Caledonia
What's most worrying of course is that this affects the perfume industry; if perfume companys don't carefully research provenance of sandalwood, then it follows that we as perfume wearers may not always know if we're wearing illegally sourced sustainable sandalwood or not. The thought that violent gun crime and the damage of rare trees is involved in perfume smelling good is pretty sickening.

I've not yet researched into the company policy of the various perfume houses on sourcing sandalwood supplies, but intend to from now on. The luxurious, high-end 'front' or branding of companies can hide a multitude of sins (including for example clothes made in tax free zones) and this is an area of  interest for me. During my post graduate studies in museum and gallery curation at St Andrews University, I explored the illegal trade in museum objects. Only a couple of decades ago, leading upmarket auction houses based in London, New York and Paris sold rare artifacts that were illegally sourced (meaning that ancient artifacts were ripped out their historical context, causing damage to sites that were supposed to be protected). Nowadays provenance is extremely strict, but we must be ever vigilant!

In the meantime I'll be following news of developments in Mysore sandalwood with interest, and hoping of course that ethical sandalwood trade in India can be to some extent protected and restored.

You can read more about the illicit trading of sandalwood in this interview with Agnes Gendry Here

Mysore forest in Tamal Nadu region, India