5 Nov 2015

Sandalwood nurseries to improve livelihoods of local Pacific communities managing Important Bird Areas

A sandalwood nursary providing income for local communities
Sandalwood nursery in Fiji helping protect the Vatu-i-Ra IBA
By Morena Amoe

With up to 80% of the land in the Pacific owned by the local people for whom it is often their biggest asset, looking to protect nature requires working closely with their communities.  This is to get their support and participation in conservation projects. But helping with the development of sustainable livelihoods for these communities is a big part of achieving long term nature conservation.

This makes BirdLife a partner to some interesting enterprises like bee keeping, coconut processing, sago nurseries and, the subject of this story, sandalwood in Fiji.

Native tree nurseries bring in multiple benefits.  Sandalwood has medicinal uses.  Its natural aroma, gives sandalwood value to traders.  In Fiji, sandalwood is liked for its natural fragrance.  It is commonly used in traditional Fijian weddings – sandalwood powder is dusted onto bridal groups. Sandalwood oil is produced locally.  It is also used for ornamental purposes.  With very low start-up costs.  Returns range from $15,000 to $40,000 (Fiji Dollars) per matured yasi (Sandalwood).  Yasi is easily grown.  It can be housed in make-shift nurseries.  It takes about 15 to 20 years to mature.  

The hero of this story is Meli Naisele who lives in Nasau village in the north of the largest island, Viti Levu.   He is a member of the Nagilogilo clan that owns Vatu-i-Ra island, site of the IBA. With as little as $21 (Fiji Dollars), he purchased 6 yasi seedlings to start his business.  He saw that many of the villagers in Nasau depended on selling coconuts and brooms.  Meli wanted to start something different, so he decided to go into yasi farming.

Thatching palm fronds and using logs from fallen trees, was all he needed to set up his first nursery.  Sale of sandalwood seedlings peaked. Meli Naisele was then able to afford vinyl netting shelter.   Meli’s first nursery held 400 seedlings. Now he has 4000 seedlings and 2 nurseries. It takes 4 to 8 weeks for seeds to germinate into saleable sized seedlings.

From the first nursery, he donated 3 young plants to the village church elders, a few seedlings to the villagers and 200 young yasi plants to the Nasau village Development Committee.   He sells the yasi seedlings to the Department of Forestry, the local municipal market and even conservation-based organizations, such as Conservation International (Fiji).  He recently was offered $1500 for 300 seedlings.  Meli sells his seedlings at the market as well.  On average he makes $50-$60 each week.  He sells the seedlings at $5-$15 (Fiji Dollars).   Meli estimates he has made about $5,000 profit so far.  He is aware that this is a modest monetary return.   However modest this business may be, Meli sees that his business continues to grow.

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He also has influenced members of his community to plant sandalwood as an investment for their families – particularly their children’s education.  Seedlings have been given to guardians of orphans.  This will be invested to support their education.

The sale of seedlings is secondary.  He has invested on his sandalwood plantation.  At present he has 6 sandalwood trees (about 9 years old) and about 200 sandalwood trees (5 years old).

Water is essential.  Meli’s nurseries are built close to a creek.  With more nurseries and plantation land now, he is exploring ways to improve irrigation to his plantation and also nurseries.  He consistently waters the seedlings and noticed that when they were watered every day the seedlings were healthy and grew quickly.

Finding more markets for sale of his yasi seedlings is a way to further his business and support his family, community and conservation efforts on Vatu-i-Ra.  Developing a good irrigation system is an investment that needs to be made.  Meli, with the support of NatureFiji-MareqetiViti is exploring avenues to get proper irrigation systems established in his nursery and plantation.

Sandalwood investment is long term – it takes 15-20 years for trees to grow into a profitable value.  But it will lead to creating sustainable incomes for local communities to ensure nature endures.