The Timor-Leste Tree: How East Timor Nearly Lost Its Illustrious Sandalwood

The Timor-Leste Tree: How East Timor Nearly Lost Its Illustrious Sandalwood
Photo Credit: Wiki Commons
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The fate of the sandalwood tree is inextricably linked to East Timor's turbulent history.

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On July 22, 1995, nearly a dozen Kopassus (Komando Pasukan Khusus-Indonesian Army Special Forces Command) soldiers from battalion 745 stationed in the town of Baucau, west of Dili, the coastal capital of Indonesia-occupied East Timor, barged into the house of Diamantino da Costa Freitas, a twenty five-year-old student in agriculture at Universitas Timor Timur.

Freitas’ wooden, thatched-roof, cone-shaped Maubere house couldn’t protect him against the angry intruders. When they found him hiding in a corner, the Kopassus soldiers beat the lanky young man up, tied his hands, blindfolded his eyes, and threw him into the cargo-bed of a pick-up truck, which proceeded to speed away.

Inured to such arbitrary raids by Indonesian authorities, Freitas’ old, tais-clad parents didn’t panic. “They just looked on, helpless and blank, probably, worrying if their son would ever return home from the hands of Kopassus,” says Freitas, now a Dili-based paramedic, “Arbitrary detention, torture and death in the hands of Kopassus were so commonplace those days that the Maubere had stopped weeping anymore.”

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Indonesian Army's Kopassus special forces patrol outside the venues of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bali Oct. 5, 2013.

Two hours of bumpy drive and Freitas found himself locked inside a dimly-lit room in a Kopassus barrack somewhere in Baucau, East Timor's second-largest city. After an hour, a swarthy Indonesian man with a gravelly voice – an officer from Bakin (Badan Koorinasi Inteligen Negara), Indonesia’s powerful State Intelligence Coordinating Agency, entered and prepared to quiz the young man.

“My hunch was that my pick up must have something to do with the incident of killing of a Koramil (commander of Kopassus) a couple days ago near my village in Vemasse,” recalls Freitas. “And that turned out to be true. The Bakin officer repeatedly interrogated me about the Koramil’s death.”

The slain Koramil, Freitas says, was locally known for leading frequent “cendana missions” – exploration and harvesting drives of precious sandalwood that dotted the mountainous interior of Vemasse.

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Photo Credit: Diamantino da Costa Freitas
Diamantino da Costa Freitas, who was a witness to the unsustainable exploitation of sandalwood by Indonesian armed forces in mid-1990's East Timor.

Unsurprisingly, the Kopassus was quick to attribute the Koramil’s death to East Timorese resistance fighters, and notwithstanding the denial of the murder accusation by the National Council of Maubere Resistance’s (CNRM), the Timorese' leading resistance group, Kopassus cadres arrested nine people from Vemasse who they suspected were connected to the resistance guerrillas. Freitas was one of them.

Though he was well-connected to the Maubere resistance fighters in Vemasse and Baucau, Freitas claims he hadn’t the slightest clue how the Koramil had met his death.

The Portuguese news agency Lusa, citing an East Timorese resistance source, reported on Aug. 10, 1995: “The commander, who has not been identified, worked in exploring sandalwood in the mountainous areas of Vemasse, and was killed by workers.”

“As I failed to provide information of any worth, I was set free – but not before being severely beaten up by Kopassus soldiers,” says Freitas showing me the scars inscribed on his back.

Over the course of years, academic researchers, journalists, and activists have produced evidence of Indonesian armed forces’ complicity and direct involvement in massive illicit trade in sandalwood and other valuable natural resources in East Timor, which has contributed to stripping the territory bare of its forest cover.

By 2001, as a result of such large-scale, unsustainable exploitation, sandalwood was pushed to the brink of becoming a non-entity across the island. “The unremitting plunder of mature stocks has reached a point where the very viability of the species on the island is threatened,” suggests this Australian National University’s Resource Management in Asia-Pacific (RMAP) working paper.

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Photo Credit: J B Friday
Two Maubere (East Timorese) men pose beside a sandalwood tree in Timor-Leste's Viqueque district.
Sandalwood and the colonization of East Timor

For Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor, sandalwood – Santalum album – isn’t just a precious tree. It’s more than that: a part of East Timorese identity; a cultural marker for the insular Asian nation, whose history is invariably entwined with it; and the country’s national tree – The Timor-Leste Tree.

“The history of Timor, for perhaps the last millennium, has been intimately linked to the shifting fortunes of sandalwood production and trade,” says Andrew McWilliam, an associate professor of anthropology at Australian National University who has studied Timor’s natural resource management practices for decades.

Sandalwood played a critical role in attracting foreign traders and colonizers alike to the island. In 2009, the young nation’s resistance hero and then President of East Timor Xanana Gusmao said, “The Portuguese invaded East Timor for its precious sandalwood.”

Indeed, it was sandalwood that lured 15th century Chinese traders to the coasts of the Oecusse-Ambeno Kingdom, now the autonomous enclave of Oecusse in independent Timor-Leste, facilitating the country’s first entry to the international trade market. In 1436, the Chinese traveler Fei Hsin in his chronicle "General Report of my Overseas Wanderings," wrote of Timor that there were 12 ports or mercantile establishments, each under a chief, where commerce in sandalwood thrived.

Nearly a century later, the Portuguese would follow the scent of sandalwood across the ocean, which would eventually lead to over four hundred years of Portuguese colonization of sandalwood-rich East Timor. That the abundance of sandalwood in Portuguese East Timor was legendary and that it was an important driver in drawing trading and colonial interests to the island becomes evident in the accounts of Antonio Pigafetta. Pigafetta, who’d arrived Timor in 1522 aboard Magellan’s boat Victoria, wrote, “All the sandalwood and wax which is traded by the people of Java and Malacca come from this place, where we have found a junk from Lozzon which has come to trade for sandalwood.”

The Portuguese colonizers logged the sandalwood stocks relentlessly, at such a pace that production fell from 900,000 kg in 1910 to 20,000 kg in 1926 meriting an export moratorium to allow stocks to regenerate.

On Dec. 7, 1975, just nine days after Portugal’s withdrawal from the colony, Indonesia, under the presidency of a hawkish General Suharto, invaded East Timor leading to an occupation that would extend over the next 25 years. “This second colonization of East Timor was devastating,” says Freitas. “The country was unremittingly plundered of its natural resources, and sandalwood and coffee in particular.”

Tirta N Mursitama, who led a research at the University of Indonesia’s Centre for East Asia Cooperation Studies (CEACoS) on Indonesian military’s involvement in illegal logging and illicit timber trade in East Kalimantan (1999-2006), says, “Indonesian military personnel from low-ranked soldiers to territorial commanders were found to be involved in the practice of illegal logging in East Kalimantan. They acted as coordinators, investors, middlemen and people who deliberately failed to monitor flow of illegal logging transport.”

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Photo Credit: Tirta N Mursitama
Professor Tirta N Mursitama, who led a research at the University of Indonesia's Centre for East Asia Cooperation Studies (CEACoS) that found evidence of Indonesian armed forces' involvement in massive illegal logging activities in East Kalimantan (1999-2006).

In some places military commanders gave logging concessions and licenses to cukongs – Indonesian Chinese businessmen – for money, in other places they acquired shares in logging companies involved in illicit timber harvesting, says Mursitama.

Mursitama adds: “I’m pretty sure a parallel case can be made for occupied East Timor.”

As a matter of fact, a report by The Sydney Morning Herald on March 30, 1995, does exactly that. The report said Indonesian army chief Benny Moerdani had struck a secret deal with cukong Robby Sumampuow, whose Batara Indra Subsidiary, PT Scent Indonesia, was given exclusive removal and export rights of East Timor’s sandalwood in return for bankrolling underfunded Indonesian forces occupying the former Portuguese colony. By 1986, PT Scent exported 380 tons of sandalwood and oil from East Timor. But in 1991, sandalwood yield plummeted to a mere 11 tons showing a drastic fall as the resource depleted – clearly as a result of unsustainable exploitation.

In Wini Port, in the Indonesian province of Nusa Tengara Timur, I met with Simao Lopes, who in 1999 led the pro-Indonesian Sakunar militia against the East Timorese Independence fighters in Oecusse. Lopes retired as a staff of North Timur Tengah district administration in 2004. He concedes, “It is true sandalwood and other natural resources were smuggled to fund various militias – both pro-integrasi (pro-integration) and independence-seeking groups. The secret routes used to smuggle illegally logged timber from Oecusse were known as jalan tikut.

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Photo Credit: Simao Lopes
Simao Lopes, who led a pro-Indonesian militia called Sakunar militia in the 1999 conflict of East Timor, says sandalwood and other natural resources were smuggled to fund armed activities.

Vast forest patches were denuded and burnt down using napalm by Indonesian forces. Before decimating a forest, recounts Lopes, Kopassus cadres and militias used to comb it for valuable species such as sandalwood.

Back in Jakarta, the late Indonesian activist Munir Said Thalib, who was awarded a Right Livelihood Award in 2000, launched a battle against Indonesian authorities’ corruption, violation of human rights and abuse of power in East Timor, Aceh, Borneo, and West Papua. The human rights NGO founded by Munir in 1998, KontraS, was prominent among a host of groups in spotlighting the Indonesian army’s illicit trade interests, including involvement in illegal trade in timber and other natural resources – which ultimately prompted Indonesian President Megawati Sukornoputri in 2001 to issue a Presidential Instruction mandating Indonesian armed forces to take action against its cadres if found involved in illegal logging activities.

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Photo Credit: KontraS
Suciwati Munir (centre), wife of the late Indonesian activist Munir Said Thalib, with their son and daughter. Since Munir's assassination in 2004, Suciwati has been heading KontraS, the NGO founded by Munir that vocalized concerns about Indonesian armed forces' human rights violations and illicit trade interests.
The government tree

In precolonial East Timor, sandalwood resources were managed through a complex customary system involving tobe (the local ritual chief) naijuf (the village chief) and usif (the king), which made harvesting of sandalwood a chain of negotiations implicating location-specific ritual and political authorities. While the plant grew mostly on individual farmers’ private land, the entitlement of the sandalwood harvest remained with the usif. This customary practice of sandalwood resource management more or less continued well into the Portuguese era.

Angelo do Rosario, a local agriculture expert and district seed officer for Seeds of Life in Oecusse, says, “As the Oecusse oral history goes, centuries ago a Costa king instructed the village naijuf and other residents to appoint an autochthonous individual as tobe and entrust him with the responsibility of carrying out agricultural rituals.”

The tobe used to be the local authority over sandalwood resources. “Once a sandalwood tree is spotted no matter on whose land, the tobe ensures its upkeep, safety and health, and delivers the harvest to the usif, thus facilitating royal monopoly over the sandalwood trade,” explains Rosario, “It was the king – usifwho netted the profit from sandalwood. That’s why the Meto people of Oecusse call it hau plenat – the government tree.”

Corroborative of this, Crijn Van Raemburch's account of the early 17th century sandalwood trade goes, “On Timor, in buying sandalwood one must engage in endless negotiations with the king and the noblemen. The felling and transportation to the coast is carried out by ordinary people. The greater part of the profit goes to the rulers.”

However, things turned for the worse with the Indonesian occupation. “They replaced the traditional-customary system of regulating sandalwood resource with the Indonesian national forestry system, which proved to be a disaster," says Rosario, adding that Indonesian forestry officials hardly understood the cultural and bio-physical significance of East Timorese sandalwood. “Thousands of trees were felled before reaching maturation or burnt down in bulk using napalm. Sandalwood roots weren’t even spared to regenerate. It was a real mess.”

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Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
Sandalwood beads and rosaries such as these are in high demand in Hindu Bali.
Decline in indigenous agriculture hit sandalwood regrowth

There are strong associations between naturally occurring sandalwood stands and the historical practices of Timorese slash and burn shifting agriculture.

In his 1956 book, “The Timor Problem: A Geographical Interpretation of an Underdeveloped Island," F J Ormeling writes, “Everyone traveling through Timor is immediately struck by the fact that Santalum [sandalwood] grows mostly on cultivated or abandoned ladangs [bush gardens]. Sandalwood seeds find a suitable environment in the loose soil where a crop has just been harvested. Root growth here also is favorably influenced by the artificial wounding of the roots, which often occurs on the ladang while planting or weeding. The young sandal plants are protected by the pagar [fence].”

Until the state monopoly over sandalwood was removed by an independent Timor-Leste government in 2003, farmers never purposefully planted sandalwood, and hence the majority of the sandalwood trees found on the island occurred naturally through vegetative regeneration. Twentieth-century attempts by Dutch, Portuguese, and Indonesian authorities at sandalwood silviculture and commercial plantations across Timor achieved little to no success. McWilliam says, “These attempts at sandalwood silviculture never really extended beyond experimentation. Until a few years ago, whatever sandalwood you could spot on the island occurred naturally, sprouted from the lateral root systems of matured sandalwood trees.”

"Vegetative regeneration of sandalwood is significantly enhanced by application of fire," McWilliam explains. "Heat induces scorching and fissuring in the bark of lateral roots promoting shoot regrowth. Therefore indigenous Timorese agriculture that use fire is crucial for natural propagation of sandalwood."

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Photo Credit: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya
A piece of artwork carved in Timorese sandalwood, highly valued by tourists vising Nusa Tengara Timur.

During the Indonesian occupation, East Timor’s agriculture, like all other sectors, collapsed. Indonesian authorities in East Timor forcibly relocated tens of thousands of East Timorese into ‘guided villages,’ restricting their mobility and rendering hundreds of mountain villages empty as part of a strategy to isolate and cut resistance guerrillas off from their popular support base and resource supply chain. This policy, McWilliam says, became an obstacle to the mobile slash and burn agriculture of the East Timorese resulting in a drastic fall in agricultural production.

One can gauge the impact of Indonesian occupation on East Timor's agriculture sector from these figures: according to the Indonesian economist Hadi Soesastro’s estimate, East Timor’s overall output of agricultural crops fell from 42,100 tons in 1973 to 12,600 tons in 1976, and rice production fell from 25,200 tons to 8,000 tons.

Evidently, the conflict had hit East Timorese swidden agriculture dearly – which, Rosario says, also likely hindered natural regeneration of sandalwood on the country's rocky coralline slopes.

“Despite continued massive plunder of sandalwood that culminated during the Indonesian occupation, sandalwood didn’t vanish altogether,” says a beaming Rosario. Today, according to Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries' estimate, two in every 1,000 wild trees in the country are sandalwood trees. Rosario hopes “East Timor’s iconic sandalwood will once again thrive on the island.”

This story is funded by a Reporting Right Livelihood Grant, 2017

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Editor: David Green

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