Spicing Up an Old Indonesian Trade

By webadmin on 04:00 pm Dec 05, 2012
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John McBeth – Straits Times

In many ways, Robert Van Buchem is of an earlier era, a Dutch spice merchant who, instead of a sailing ship, jets around the far-flung Indonesian archipelago buying up nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper and cloves.

Five centuries ago, when they were much in demand for potions, perfume, incense and food flavoring, Indonesia’s high-priced spices turned what was then a loose collection of sultanates and kingdoms into a hot spot of often bloody colonial rivalry.

But even today, at a time when the Indonesian government is actively pursuing a nationalist policy of food self-sufficiency and enforcing value-add on its minerals and other commodities, not all that much has changed – at least in the way the spices are grown.

From North Sumatra’s highlands to the lush Maluku islands, small-scale spice farmers continue to form the backbone of a business, mostly unsuited to plantation cultivation, which makes up just 5 percent of Indonesia’s total agriculture output.

Niche markets don’t appear to interest a government fixated on staples like rice, maize, sugar and soya beans, and on palm oil and other industrial plantation crops where the big corporates are planting much of their money.

Van Buchem’s Q-SpicIng remains one of only a handful of Indonesian companies that clean, grind, sterilize and package spices for the high-quality food processing industry, mostly in the United States and Europe.

“Many companies just export the raw material, which is a pity because of the low cost of processing,” he says. “If you can work with the farmers and help them improve quality, there are a lot of opportunities.”

Apart from a degree in tropical agriculture, Van Buchem had no experience with spices until 2006, when he elected to leave the Dutch baby-food company that brought him to Indonesia and strike out on his own.

He is, however, well aware of Holland’s dark history in the trade, beginning in the early 17th century when the then premier European trading power used the newly formed Dutch East India Company (VOC) to set about annexing the archipelago.

Ruthless VOC head Jan Pieterszoon Coen led an armed assault on Maluku’s Banda islands in 1621, massacring thousands of its inhabitants and employing Dutch planters and imported slave labor to establish a monopoly on nutmeg and mace.

Coen later took over Jayakarta and renamed it Batavia (Jakarta). But French and then British traders ate away at the VOC’s domination and, in 1799, the graft-ridden company was disbanded, leaving The Hague to embark on 150 years of direct rule.

Married to an Indonesian, Van Buchem is quick to distance himself from his forebears.

“We do sustainability, we do organic, and we try to contribute something to Indonesia, which was not the case in the past — to put it mildly,” he says.

For all the passage of time, Food and Agriculture Organization figures show that Indonesia is still the world’s largest producer of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and vanilla, and the second-largest for pepper. But crop figures have been dropping.

Nutmeg has plunged from 10,000 tones a year in the mid-1990s to about 6,000 tones today, bringing down with it the output of mace, the similarly tasting but slightly more peppery spice extracted from the nut’s seed covering.

Nutmeg takes seven years to fruit and is difficult to grow, as the Dutch found when they sought to cultivate the spice in other parts of Indonesia. Mostly it is confined to a few eastern islands boasting rich volcanic soil and abundant water.

Banda is no longer the epicenter of the trade.

That has shifted to the equally pristine Celebes Sea island of Siau, 130 km off the northern tip of Sulawesi, whose 50,000 inhabitants now produce about 40 percent of the country’s total crop.

Pepper is also in decline, so much so that the embarrassed Indonesian delegation was the only one not to present a paper at the recent International Pepper Community in Sri Lanka, attended by the six main pepper-growing nations.

Starting from scratch in the early 1990s, Vietnam currently ranks as the world’s largest pepper producer with 110,000 tones, well ahead of the 45,000 tonnes grown last year in Indonesia — a reversal of what it was before.

This is a pity as local pepper has a global reputation for quality.

Van Buchem gets most of his pepper from Lampung in southern Sumatra, where he is in the early stages of a project to help about 60 farmers attain a higher degree of sustainability in exchange for their commitment to supply only to him.

Indonesia’s variety of cinnamon is known as cassia, which is priced at $1,000 a ton, compared with the $15,000 a ton for what gourmet chefs and even the industry itself consider to be the “true cinnamon,” grown almost entirely in Sri Lanka.

Van Buchem buys most of his cinnamon from the 5,000 to 6,000 small-scale farmers living on the forested slopes of Mount Kerinci, bordering West Sumatra and Jambi provinces, the source of much of the 50,000 tones Indonesia produces each year.

Cloves are only a small part of his business. While Indonesia grows significantly more than anyone else, mainly in Maluku, Java and southern Sumatra, only several hundred of the 80,000 tones are exported. The rest goes into the manufacture of kretek cigarettes, which according to folklore traces their origins back to East Java in the early 1880s as a way of delivering soothing eugenol to the lungs to alleviate asthma.

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times