Errrm, well, still setting up for the real post of “Matt & Nutmeg-omania,” but it’s coming and this will give so much more context anyway (also, two posts in one night, so it’s a bonus). Have a good night and enjoy the wonderful words and pictures of Matt!
GUEST POST: MATT STYSLINGER
How often do you think about nutmeg? It might be stashed in your kitchen somewhere, nearly as full as the day you bought it for a winter novelty drink or dessert. But when did you last cook a dish designed around the bittersweet spice? You wouldn’t think it, but nutmeg—native to remote islands in Indonesia’s Maluku Province—was once one of the world’s most valuable commodities and played a prominent role in history.
The Banda Islands in Maluku are a tiny idyllic archipelago that once produced the entire world’s supply of nutmeg. The collection of lush, tropical islands is closely clustered around an active volcanic island called Gunung Api (fire mountain), which looms over the surrounding Banda Sea, Indonesia’s deepest. Banda still produces high quality nutmeg from trees (Myristica fragrans) planted amongst huge Kenari nut trees planted by the Dutch.
Banda’s location was a closely guarded secret of Arab traders in the Middle Ages, keeping the spice rare and expensive. Among others, it was desired by medieval European elites to flavor and preserve meats. In the 16th century, nutmeg was believed to ward off the plague, helping to drive up European demand for the exotic spice. In the early 1500s a Portuguese expedition finally discovered Banda and began direct export of nutmeg to Europe opening up the competition. A single cargo could easily pay for an expedition with enough profit to bring enormous wealth to those who organized it.
The Dutch and British fought brutal battles to gain control of Banda’s nutmeg. The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC), among many other tragedies, hired Japanese mercenaries in 1621 to slaughter the entire native population of Banda, in retaliation for a local attack on a Dutch fort that was encouraged by the British. Slaves were brought in from other parts of what is now Indonesia to man the VOC’s nutmeg production.
The Dutch eventually gained full control of the islands, and most of Indonesia, until the end of World War II. The British traded away their last foothold in Banda, an island called Run, to the Dutch in exchange for New Amsterdam—now better known as Manhattan!
We visited Banda during the Eid holiday in August via a 12-hour ship ride from Ambon, where I had been working in the Mercy Corps Maluku office as a Leland International Hunger Fellow. The history of the spice trade is visible throughout the islands, with ruins of Dutch and Portuguese forts and colonial-era houses mixed in with the quiet Indonesian towns. I visited a nutmeg plantation, ate and drank nutmeg jam and coffee, climbed the volcano, and snorkeled colorful reefs that drop off like a living wall straight into the Banda Sea.
Maluku was long known as the Spice Islands, and it was here that Christopher Columbus had hoped to reach by sailing west from Europe. While the Dutch and the British battled for control over nutmeg in Banda, the Portuguese and the Spanish fought over clove, native to the islands of Tarnate and Tidore in Northern Maluku. A similarly tragic set of events surrounded clove production in the 16th and 17th centuries. Eventually, these islands too—as well as their clove trees (Syzygium aromaticum)—were controlled by the Dutch until Indonesian independence.
Today, Indonesia is still the largest producer of nutmeg, and one of the top producers of clove. Maluku Province remains an important hub of Indonesian spice production. But the economic value of the Spice Islands has long since dwindled. Today’s Malukan spice farmers earn lower than optimal profits from their yields, which have not retained the luster of the region’s colorful and exotic history on the international market.
Spice farmers in Maluku suffer from lack of technical knowledge, limited access to inputs that could improve the quantity and quality of their production, and lack of market access. Much of Maluku’s spices are bought at minimum prices by regional wholesalers, who sort by grade and resell to global markets at higher prices. The protracted conflict in Maluku from 1999-2002 between Muslim and Christian communities that displaced thousands of people led to a stagnating economy, further affecting the ability of Malukan spice farmers to prosper.
Mercy Corps Indonesia’s Spice up the Deal (SUD) project, which began implementation in 2011, aims to foster systemic market changes to improve socio-economic conditions for poor spice-producing communities on Ambon and Seram islands in Maluku Province. Following the Making Markets Work for the Poor framework, SUD addresses value chain development and builds linkages between farmers and businesses that support them through five levels of intervention.
SUD will facilitate development of medium and small business services—that provide inputs, training, and market information—to create improvements in quality and quantity of Malukan spice production. It will also strengthen relationships between farmers, traders, and exporters and increase the Government of Indonesia’s ability to benefit the nutmeg and clove sectors. Mercy Corps will continuously assesses the market and adjusts project accordingly.
Key to the success of SUD will be raising the market visibility of Maluku spices through labeling and branding that captures the history and mystique of their origin. By raising the value of their spices among spice traders and consumers, poor Malukan spice farmers can reclaim some of the prominence that so shaped their history.