Nutmeg Cultivation in West Papua: A case study

Native to the Eastern islands of Indonesia, nutmeg has been a prized commodity throughout the ages and an important part of the historic spice trade. Today, Indonesia remains the greatest exporter of nutmeg worldwide ($137m as of 2017). Across the vast archipelago are six regions as the primary producers: Maluku islands, North Sulawesi, West Sumatra, Nangroe Aceh Darussalam, West Java and Papua. In Papua, the province of West Papua province alone produces 14% of the national production, at around 33, 637 tonnes. Within West Papua, the Fakfak regency produces 80% of the provincial yield. Astonishingly, all of the nutmeg produced in Fakfak is produced by smallholders, meaning they play a vital role in the production of nutmeg both regionally and nationally.

The native nutmeg species cultivated in many parts of West Papua is M. argentea, or Pala Tomandin, as it’s locally called. As the global market standard was developed based on the Bandan nutmeg species M. fragrans, grown in neighbouring Maluku, buyers consider this species as low-grade as it does not meet that standard. As a spice, it earns farmers about 1/3 of the price of high-grade nutmeg. What remains largely untapped however, is the market for Papuan nutmeg derivative products. Nutmeg butter and essential oil contain many sought-after chemical compounds used in a wide range of industries, from cosmetics to biofuels. In the face of manifold challenges, the question arises of how to assist smallholders to increase their capacity, and tap into this market.

Yet, smallholders of nutmeg plots in West Papua face many challenges for improving the productivity and quality of their nutmeg cultivation. First and foremost, the supply chain from smallholder to ultimate buyer is long, and has many actors. As a consequence, smallholders have virtually no bargaining power and incur the biggest effect of market shocks. They are therefore more inclined to prioritise other livelihoods, including fishing, seaweed cultivation and/or other plots. Secondly, the demand for Papuan nutmeg is limited, being purchased mostly as an adulterant for Bandan nutmeg. Lastly, indigenous farmers’ relationship with the native nutmeg goes beyond being agricultural- it is culturally revered and protected. Land allocation and plot layout is determined by customary rules and institutions. Hence, nutmeg cultivation within these land allocations is guided by these customs.

By creating an alternative market for this nutmeg, there is less pressure on smallholders to compromise their customary practices for their livelihood. By re-purposing nutmeg to, for instance, an integral source for local or national oleo-chemical industry, the demand for this commodity will shift. It also has potential to restructure and/or truncate the supply chain. As a result, smallholders will be more empowered and have more agency over their own production. An example of this re-purposing may be seen with nutmeg’s fixed oil content. Roughly 40% of the nutmeg kernel is fixed oil, or nutmeg butter. Of this, 76.7% is a glyceride compound called trimyristin. Currently, Indonesia is a net importer of trimyristin, which is incredible, given the abundant natural resource available through nutmeg supply. Trimyristin can be de-esterified into myristic acid, a C14 fatty acid. Fatty acids with carbon chains between 12 and 14 are considered excellent surfactants, detergents, conditioners, and solvents in many industries. So then, the intention is to facilitate this re-purposing- in terms of processing, storage, transport and supplier/buyer relations- and selling the product to regional oleo-chemical companies who may further distribute it. This involves developing a strong, district-level, multi-stakeholder platform to guide this process.

Protection of indigenous customary rights is almost necessarily a corollary of environmental conservation. West Papua has 9.7million hectares of land, retaining more than 90% of its forest cover. It is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, from the highland forests of the Arfak mountains to the coral reefs of Raja Ampat islands. It is also one of the youngest provinces in Indonesia, delineated in 2003, and has since been under national pressure to accelerate socio-economic development. In 2015, the provincial government nominated West Papua a “Conservation Province”, later retitled a “Sustainable Development Province”. The projections for socio-economic development are hence aligned with both sustainable rural and urban development and empowerment of indigenous peoples. Should smallholders in Fakfak begin to experience an increase in demand and value for their nutmeg products, and perhaps some bargaining power, they might be inclined to improve their practice, and exert more agency over the production. It is aspired that by increasing the value of this native forest commodity, by creating economic alternatives, the livelihoods and opportunities of West Papuans will be improved. By acknowledging the rights of indigenous Papuans to their lands and forests as well as strengthening their institutions, it will ensure that the forests can be sustainably managed into the future.

Amelia Hawkins is a student at the University of Western Australia and a participant in the Agriculture Professional Practicum as part of the ACICIS Study Indonesia Program.

INOBU’s work on nutmeg in West Papua is funded by the Agriculture, Livelihoods and Conservation Program of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation with additional support from Earth Innovation Institute through the Forests, Farms and Finance Initiative (funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) and the Sustainable Tropics Alliance (funded by the German International Climate Initiative). * Amelia Hawkins