Australian sandalwood production could end with the two major players up for sale

Australian sandalwood production could end with the two major players up for sale
  • PublishedJuly 7, 2024

Two decades ago, Jeanette Carson made the move across the country from Victoria to the small regional town of Kununurra, in Western Australia’s far north.

She and her husband wanted to be close to their son, who was living in the remote Kimberley region. And she was able to afford it, thanks to a job opportunity with the world’s largest Indian sandalwood producer, Quintis. 

The company owns millions of sandalwood trees spanning the north of Queensland, the Northern Territory and WA.

And for the past two decades, it has marketed itself as the key supplier of sandalwood oil.

a marketing image for a bottle of perfume
Iconic perfumes like Chanel No 5 have key notes of sandalwood in them.(Supplied: Flickr/krheesy/ccby2.0)

It’s a popular product in many households, found in perfumes, scented candles and oil diffusers.

At the industry’s peak, sandalwood plantations spanned more than 13,500 hectares of Australia’s tropical north.

But, despite the commonplace nature of Indian sandalwood products, Quintis has a chequered history, ending earlier this year with the company being placed in receivership.

Aerial picture of Stylo Station in the outback
Quintis grew Sandalwood across the NT (pictured), Kimberley and Northern Queensland.(Supplied)

It put Jeanette Carson and more than 90 others working for the company out of a job. 

“I got a phone call from my boss to say that she just come out of a meeting and the whole company had gone under,” Ms Carson said.

“And that was sort of the first that we realised what was going on. And it took a few days for it to sink in that, yeah, you’ve lost your job.”

a woman sitting in a chair outside a house holding a cup of tea

Jeanette Carson worked for Quintis for more than 15 years. (ABC Kimberley: Alys Marshall)

Workers cop it

Ms Carson managed Quintis’s local shop, where tourists to the Ord Valley came to learn about the industry and buy locally-produced products.

In her 15 years behind the till, she saw her employer go through voluntary administration, accusations of short selling, a recapitalisation and privatisation process and, most recently, allegations of debts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to local farmers.

“I’ve had tourists come in that were shareholders that had lost money, and I’d hear about it because they had nowhere else to go,” she said.

“They didn’t know who else to contact. We’ve had shareholders say, ‘We’ve tried to ring [Quintis office] numbers in Perth, but we don’t get any answers.’

“We certainly copped it. Or I copped it, because it was only me there.”

Local jobs lost

In a statement, Quintis’ recievers FTI Consulting told the ABC the total number of redundancies was 96 people, approximately 61 per cent of the Quintis workforce.

A sign saying Quintis on the roof of a building
Quintis, the world’s largest producer of Indian Sandalwood, called in receivers earlier this year. (ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

With the industry a significant player in Kununurra over more than two decades, Shire President David Menzel said the demise had been a blow to many.

“It’s obviously unfortunate for those who have lost their jobs,” he said.

“It’s so up in the air as to what happens to the whole sandalwood industry within the valley here.”

Mr Menzel hopes those involved in the forestry industry will find new jobs locally and be able to put their transferable skills to use amidst a labour shortage around town. 

But for Ms Carson, who was living in Quintis housing, the loss of her job has heralded a return to Victoria. 

“With no work and no accommodation, it’s probably time to go back. The decision has been made for us,” she said.

FTI Consulting initially tried to sell Quintis as a whole package, but did not receive a suitable offer.

It’s now looking to sell of the company’s assets individually.

Lines of trees stretching off into the distance, with a bulldozer visible.
Sandalwood trees are a common site around Kununurra and the Ord Valley.(ABC Kimberley: Sam Tomlin)

Santanol also for sale

The other major player in Australia’s sandalwood industry is Santanol, owned by Canadian company Mercer International. 

Their most recent report to investors noted the company’s continuing plan to get out of sandalwood. 

“Efforts to sell the business have started and a sale is expected to occur within the next 12 months,” it stated.

The company declined to respond to the ABC’s questions about the future of its business and workforce.

a man with a chainsaw cuts into bushes
A Santanol employee works the chainsaw at an Indian sandalwood plantation.(ABC News)

Kimberley and NT land valuer Frank Peacocke said it was unprecedented to see this amount of sandalwood land up for sale at once. 

“There’s a lot of country particularly left in the Ord and left in the Territory and just how they’re going to manage the saleability of individual lots remains to be seen,” Mr Peacocke said.

But he can’t see a world in which the sandalwood plantations are taken over and kept as forestry blocks.

“The sandalwood industry looks like it’s under a fair bit of stress and the agents who are marking these blocks are saying the interest is coming from farmers wanting to have a crack at cotton.”

an image of cotton
The cotton industry hopes to one day have more than 20,000 hectares of the crop grown in Kununurra’s Ord Valley.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

Last year, cattle baron Sterling Buntine paid more than $5 million for 363 hectares of Ord Valley sandalwood land alongside well-known wheat farmer Ron Greentree, who paid more than $7 million for 517 hectares.

But the transition from forestry land to cotton country isn’t a quick one, and the number of jobs offered by the cotton industry won’t nearly rival that of forestry, as shire president David Menzel acknowledged.

“Per hectare the jobs aren’t there in cotton, it’s a highly mechanised industry,” he said.

But with more and more land moving into cotton, he hopes the scale of the emerging industry will support the local economy into the future.

“The area will be massively more than the forestry industry. So there’ll be a dilution of people over more hectares, which will provide some opportunities for those workers who want to stay in the agriculture or farming game.”


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