Cannons and cartels, the spicy world of nutmeg

By Elizabeth Pisani
728 words
18 December 1989
Reuters News
(c) 1989 Reuters Limited


RUN ISLAND, Indonesia, Dec 18, Reuter – Crouched in the tropical sea, dotted with a few bamboo huts and free of traffic snarls or drug warfare, Run hardly seems a match for New York.

Yet this speck of an island, one of eastern Indonesia’s Banda group, was once considered a fair swap for Manhattan.

The reason hits visitors in the nose as they clamber to the island over the coral reef; nutmeg, growing on one of the nine tiny islands that are its only natural habitat.

It is harvest time for the venerable spice, which prompted early seafarers to genocide and earned them fortunes. Run is wrapped in the warm scent of nutmeg drying in the sun.

The brown seed of the nutmeg tree, caged in scarlet mace and prized as a delicious preservative for meats, was de rigeur in the world’s grandest kitchens in the days before refrigeration.

The Portuguese were first off the mark, finding the islands in 1599. Then the Dutch launched a bloody campaign to wrest control. They resorted to the murder of the entire population of the main island, Banda Neira, and won power.

Their rusting cannons still litter the islands. The Dutch sealed their monopoly in 1667 by handing over Manhattan to the British in exchange for total control of Run, and thrived.

An enterprising Englishman stole seedlings during the Napoleonic wars and replanted them in Grenada and elsewhere and the monopoly was smashed.

The Bandanese say nutmeg needs volcanic soil, sea breeze and lots of shade. It is now grown elsewhere in Indonesia and the world, but Banda has a lock on quality, they say.

"It seems we’re the only ones who provide what it needs. The British stole our trees and planted them where they didn’t have those things and they got stunted," said Bandanese Tanya Alwi, adding sadly that top quality is no guarantee of success.

"The world has grown used to second-quality nutmeg, those horrid little dry things from Grenada," he said. "We’re too spicy."

Alleged mismanagement of plantations and volcanic eruptions have devastated Banda’s own crop. And in the cartel export system, based around Aspin (the Indonesian Nutmeg Association), history repeats itself.

Now, say Aspin’s critics, it is not European merchants but a handful of wealthy exporters and a single Singapore-based trading firm that reap the rewards of farmers’ labours.

Farmers in Banda have to turn their whole crop over to PT Perkebunan Pala Banda, a state company that sets the price and a production target. The company takes half the target amount for free and pays for the rest.

Pala Banda’s Haryanto, who oversees the husking and drying of the nutmeg on Banda Neira, says he pays 800 rupiah (45 cents) a kilo (2.2 pounds) for ‘wet’ nutmeg.

The women crouched on the floor using knives, spoons and house keys to peel off the mace, itself a precious spice used in soups and baked goods, get paid three cents a kilo of peeled nutmeg. That is about 15 minutes work.

Nutmeg’s domestic price, once it has been dried for 14 days in the tropical sunshine shrinking to a quarter of its weight, is 3,500 rupiah (two dollars) a kilo.

By the time it reaches overseas customers such as Coca Cola who use it in their soft drink, the price has risen to 6,000 dollars a metric tonne, or 10,000 rupiah (about five dollars) a kilo, says exporter and former Aspin head Jantje Worotitjan.

Indonesia produces 75 to 80 per cent of the world’s nutmeg.

Aspin insists its sole export agent, First Pacific Commodities, a Singapore-based firm controlled by Indonesian businessman Ibrahim Risjad, is essential to maintain prices.

But Bandanese farmers say they would be better off if allowed to export directly themselves. And, they say, they deserve every advantage they can get.

Last year the volcano that rises out of the sea in the middle of the Bandas erupted, and hot ash blowing across to the other islands, especially Ai, devastated the nutmeg trees and wiped out two years production.

The attitude of the farmers is at best fatalistic. "Nutmeg is full of ups and downs. We will survive. After all, even the ants survive," said one Ai man.

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