Where to Next? Women in the Papuan Nutmeg Supply Chain

The women are in the nutmeg hamlet

“If my kids ask, whether it is their nutmeg? I usually reply: No, this nutmeg belongs to mom and dad, what you have is school. So, your treasure is school. Whoever goes to school, they will receive nutmeg, if they don’t go to school, they are not allowed to pick nutmeg.”

[a mother in an FGD in Pang Wadar, February 26th, 2018]

Amid the Indonesian government’s efforts to revitalize this country’s power as a nutmeg trader, it is appropriate to examine the role of women in the nutmeg supply chain. The Inobu-AKAPe study conducted during 2018 in Fakfak District, West Papua, studied both the empirical reasons and policies that underpin the importance of women’s roles. The results of the study also revealed some of the challenges ahead and provided a number of recommendations that need to be considered in strengthening the leadership of the Regional Government in addressing a number of problems in the nutmeg supply chain. Consequently, this brief will briefly reveal the domestic problems faced by women, their participation in the nutmeg supply chain, and the challenging aspects of policies on the nutmeg supply chain as the starting point for framing discussions on nutmeg for the market, farmers, government and other stakeholders.

Many stories related to Fakfak and nutmeg women are layered and complex. This brief is merely a drop in the ocean. So, it does not intend to generalize the problem. It is solely to highlight the situation and make it meaningful by finding a solution together.


Women in Fakfak Regency, West Papua, who play an important role in the nutmeg trade

Many women in Fakfak marry young, including those whose parents have nutmeg forest gardens. The issue is not merely because of money, but the fact that not many families consider education as an option to improve social status. After graduating from elementary school, some women did not continue their education to the higher level. There are not many options in the village, besides waiting for marriage. As a result, many of them had children at a young age. Similar with the story of early marriage in general, there is no guidebook for being a mother at a young age. Therefore, the struggle to raise children is not an easy issue. They face the double duty as a housewife who takes care of all the domestic work and as a mother of the children.

NGOs categorize and criticize this dual role as a matter of tradition. According to this criticism, the tradition of having women restricted to domestic roles infringes their rights and abilities, which should be equal to men. Repetition and replication of this tradition lead to gender inequality in various social structures, especially public spaces such as weak participation by women at the level of collective decision making. However, Fakfak and perhaps other parts of Papua have not known the gender revolution that changed women’s awareness unlike their colleagues in other, more liberal countries. In contrast, cultural traditions are very influential and effective through imitating their ancestors, passing the baton by transferring it from one era to the next. Changing traditions cannot be done in a blink of an eye. Education that is expected to change such awareness is not evenly distributed. And more uneven for women. Therefore, the problem now is the limited access of women to various forms of basic services. When women are of school age, they do not have equal access to opportunities as men. When they become housewives, they have difficulty carrying out the multiple roles effectively because basic services such as maternal and child health services as well as public transportation are not adequate. Public transportation is very critical when they face infant health problems.

In terms of economic opportunities, women are also involved in supporting the household economy, especially in post-harvest nutmeg management. As will be discussed in the following section, women also mobilize their abilities to earn alternative income while performing their two other roles. Involvement in the nutmeg household economy, in this case, is one of the external roles that women have, meaning that they are no longer solely confined to the two traditional roles. They are involved in the nutmeg supply chain that connects them to the broader chain of trade interactions, not only within Fakfak but also on the national and global scale. This external role is what we highlight when discussing the role of Papuan women in the nutmeg supply chain.

This economic approach does not exclude tradition and culture but encourages the development of policies and the orientation of market players to streamline the role and awareness of women in the nutmeg supply chain.


Nutmeg seeds with mace

The nutmeg economy relies on women. Long before users can smell the rich aroma of nutmeg and mace, women were the strategic actors who determined the productivity and quality of nutmeg. Even though they are not given land rights to nutmeg forest gardens, women have the right to consume nutmeg, which enables them to participate in the nutmeg economy. Culturally, nutmeg also traditionally had feminine characteristics. Baron van Hoevall, in the nineteenth century, in his personal record had observed folklore that nutmeg was mythologized as being human, in particular, a beautiful woman (Turner, 2008). Until now, this belief still manifests in a number of cultural practices and local languages in the nutmeg villages in Fakfak.

Nutmeg management involves several aspects of management, some of which are undertaken by women. Currently, farmers inherit their nutmeg forest gardens from their parents. Only a few are new plantings. Older farmers, aged 50–70 years, can still remember when they planted nutmeg. In the discussions in Pang Wadar village, these farmers stated, there was no strict distribution of roles between men and women in planting and maintaining nutmeg. Everything can be done regardless of gender. But there is one activity that women may not practice: women are prohibited from climbing and picking the nutmeg. That role is for men alone.

During the post-harvest phase, women (mamas) are more actively engaged. This stage is the most crucial part in managing the nutmeg to be sold into the global market. Here the level of cleanliness, including the practices of storage, drying and sunning the harvest nutmegs, until they are finally sold, depends on the role of those mamas. The management equipment used is still traditional, from knives to storage areas, and they use practices taught to them by their elders.

Nutmeg is dried using smoking or sunning techniques. Women work collaboratively with men to ensure perfect smoking. The smoking technique is learned by imitating others or continuing traditional practices. The smoking process uses firewood, but more often uses coconut fiber because the ignition results are considered better.

After drying, nutmeg is sold to local collectors. There are several major collectors along with traveling collectors that collect nutmeg in Fakfak. Some mamas are involved in the sale of nutmeg because they are more trusted by their families to be able to save money than men. The income is used for household purposes, occasionally paying debts at the store, and school fees.

Nutmeg Cultivation and Culture

Nutmegs in the Fakfak region, West Papua

Based on the Inobu-AKAPe survey in Pang Wadar village in 35 nutmeg hamlets in 2017, the average area of nutmeg forest gardens per household is 2.5 hectares per household. The smallest forest garden is only 0.3 hectares, while the largest forest garden reaches 31 hectares. There is no clear information concerning the year of nutmeg planting. Nutmeg farmers aged between 50–60 years stated that nutmeg forest gardens have existed before they were born.

In summary, it can be said that nutmeg-owner families learn how to cultivate nutmeg from previous generations. Planting nutmeg is alluded to as “marrying” women. When planting, farmers ask permission from the land and the ancestors, through saying a prayer:

“I shall plant, my life is in you, you shall feed me for the rest of my life. The sun rises, you shall grow as well …”.

In Pang Wadar, all farmers admitted that they shared their cultivation knowledge with their children, either by tutoring them or by inviting the children to nutmeg farms to observe their ways of managing nutmeg. This traditional knowledge can also be a combination of historical influences, both from informal information from traders, other farmers, and even the Dutch Government. An indigenous elder recalled how the Netherlands had imposed strict rules regarding the standards for harvesting nutmeg. Farmers were only allowed to pick those fruits that were already harvestable. Those who violated it were arrested and imprisoned. It was the Dutch era. The situation is different now. Although some training is provided by plantation office to provide farmers with information about modern nutmeg cultivation practices, farmers rely on the knowledge that circulates within a family. Each family might have substantively different knowledge (Inobu, 2018). For example, the method for determining the sex of nutmeg seeds. Although traditional knowledge suggests techniques that depend on visual assessment, the results shown by farmers in one lineage tend to have more in common than answers from farmers of different lineages. Some believe that female seeds can be determined visually. For example, fresh seeds with mace without a bulge present at the bottom of the seed that also have a flatter bottom part are considered to be female. Others believe that female plants can be identified after germination; these are the seeds where only the two first leaves emerge from the cotyledon.

The government has provided some modern technical knowledge to farmers, but the adoption of these practices is often constrained by capital and, once again, tradition. Regarding capital, for example, sufficient capital is needed to buy equipment and build a place that specifically controls nutmeg quality. Regarding tradition, changing knowledge through encouraging the use of modern techniques are difficult to implement immediately. Not all communities can make changes quickly. Efforts to encourage new practices are often questioned because they are not in line with common practice, costly, and mostly lack demonstration plots that can be directly visited and shown to farmers.

The Plantation Agency has already promoted epicotyl grafting techniques in Pang Wadar village and other villages. This technique has an 80% chance of success in early attempts to determine the sex of nutmeg seeds. Across many generations, farmers have been worried about determining the sex of seeds. Traditional visual techniques are not always convincing. They have to wait for up to 5 years to know exactly the sex of a nutmeg tree. Because of this, top grafting techniques should be an option. Three of the five farmers surveyed in Pang Wadar have been trained in top-grafting techniques. Following the training and until now, not a single farmer has applied the technique. They view the method as too complex, requiring greater investment and maintenance and there are no examples of successful farms that can be observed immediately. Instead of adopting this technique, they felt more comfortable to resume traditional agronomic practices.

To increase nutmeg’s added value, several NGOs have helped the establishment of small and medium-scale enterprises training women to be skilled in producing processed nutmeg products such as sweets and syrup. Many women became involved with the reason of helping their husbands to seek additional income. These mamas have the skills to produce syrup, sweets, nutmeg sauce and other products, though with some flaws here and there. Sometimes, if there is extra demand, they are requested to produce more. The challenge is, these enterprises are organized with an industrial labor ethos. These mothers are skilled as workers but they do not understand the market. These groups are organized like factory workers with a mobilization approach instead of an organization. After 5 years of existence, they do not know how much value their work actually produces. A more basic question, they do not understand the market demand for nutmeg products. Mamas are only informed that their market is limited, so they cannot produce more. However, they themselves have never been given sufficient information about the nutmeg supply chain, why organizations need to be established and how to manage the organization in a participatory manner, including during planning, implementation and evaluation. The enterprises that are currently running are trapped within an organizational structure built on the labor of mamas rather than their active participation in determining the direction of the organization.

In reality, these enterprises are tied to short, project-based interventions and therefore there is not the time or will for improving the organizational governance. These organizations then stagnate, and the mamas labor is then exploited by a handful of elites.

A Nutmeg Standard

Nutmeg seeds along with mace

Since the colonial era, farmers cultivated nutmeg because it has economic value and that value is determined by the market. The market demand for nutmeg products is not static but always dynamic, following consumer demand and regulations. Together, these demands determine the standards and requirements for nutmeg and its derivative products. Hence, the quality and properties of nutmeg are increasingly evaluated against market standards. One of the most common standards is food safety. All standards have a set of requirements, especially regarding sanitation. Indonesia has developed the standard for nutmeg seeds through SNI 0006–1993 which regulates the percentage of water content, moldy seeds, whole-form dead insects and restrictions on the presence of mammalian feces, other animals, and foreign objects. In addition, visual properties and fungal contamination are also regulated. For example, the nutmeg mace or flower standard (SNI 01–0007–1993) still provides very limited tolerance for mammal and other animal feces. Unfortunately, as acknowledged by the Ministry of Agriculture itself, these standards are intended more for Banda nutmeg. There are no specific standards for Papuan nutmeg.

For the European Union Market, the General Food Law (Regulation (EC) No 178/2002) regulates the requirements of food safety laws in the European Union, including: (1) contamination of mycotoxins, salmonella and pesticides, and (2) tolerance limits for aflatoxin (toxic compounds caused by fungi). Especially regarding aflatoxin, the European Commission has issued Commission Regulation (EC) No 165/2010 which regulates the tolerance limit for contamination of aflatoxins in capsicum ssp, pepper, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, and all spice products with a mixture of these commodities. It was stated that the tolerance for the aflatoxin B1 category was only 5.0 μg/kg and 10 μg/kg for all aflatoxins (aflatoxins B1, B2, G1 and G2). Aflatoxin B1 is the most toxic aflatoxin compound due to the potential to stimulate cancer, especially liver cancer.

Currently, sustainability standards are being developed to trace commodities to their sources and examine where their production is tied to environmental damage and pollution. The standard is also intended to examine the extent to which the production of commodities cause social conflict and human rights violations. Farmers are requested to meet these standards so that their products are eligible to enter the market. One of the demanded indicators of sustainability is no deforestation. In fact, many nutmeg forest gardens in Fakfak are in state forest areas. In Pang Wadar, some of the nutmeg forest gardens are inside areas classified as Limited Production Forest Areas. This fact certainly makes it more challenging for farmers to comply with sustainability standards, in addition to complying with other applicable standards.

Future Orientation

Nutmeg hamlet in Fakfak

Social issues

Fakfak has shown that nutmeg cultivation is a tradition, yet it is struggling amidst social changes that may marginalize these traditional practices. The role of women in transferring knowledge of nutmeg cultivation across generations is affected by these social changes, especially when not many young people return to the nutmeg forest gardens as they tend to be university-oriented — seeking white collar work (opus spirituale) instead of hard labor as farmers (opus manuale). A mother’s advice to her children is not merely a way for a mother to encourage her children to pursue higher education, but also a reflection of her views and awareness that nutmeg will be difficult to rely on in the future. Uncertain prices amid increasing household needs has reduced the value of nutmeg to Papuan families. This is the most serious social challenge to the survival of nutmeg forest gardens in the future. If it’s not nutmeg, then what the alternative should be?

At present, nutmeg is still the main commodity for the local economy of traditional farmers in Fakfak. The character of nutmeg farming means that it does not require much maintenance, allowing farmers to find additional sources of income. This has also become a challenge for nutmeg cultivation. The smaller the cultivation intervention, the lower the quality of nutmeg. If this continues, the quality of nutmeg will continue to decline in the future.

The Role of Local Government

As the above mentioned various cultivation standards take effect and slowly demand that farmers to take extra measures, this will affect customary practices and traditions. Therefore, the local government needs to support farmers so that the requirements in these standards can be gradually met. In terms of policies, there are already two provisions at the national level related to nutmeg standards, namely: The Decree of Minister of Agriculture (Kepmentan) 320/2015 and the Regulation of Minister of Agriculture (Permentan) 53/2012. The substance of these two rules has not targeted Papuan nutmeg. In addition, the nutmeg standards should account for social aspects, including supporting the role of women in the nutmeg supply chain. The technical provisions in these two rules should address these social issues before addressing the technical requirements for certification.

The Local Regulation of Fakfak District 6/2016 has addressed local issues related to Papuan nutmeg. In line with this policy, the Local Government actively promotes new cultivation practices for nutmeg. Unfortunately, these efforts have not been consistently implemented so that the successful pilot initiatives can be replicated elsewhere. In addition, policies have to facilitate changes in the basic attitude of farmers so that they value new cultivation practices, which are needed to meet the urgent demands of the market economy. Traditional cultivation practices are insufficient for the demands of the current market, which requires more from the management and processing of nutmeg harvests. The role of the mamas is very important in meeting these new demands. Interviews conducted by AKAPe and Inobu have shown that the mamas have stronger willingness to change their cultivation practices and have a strong capacity to replicate the examples of successful cultivation practices.

A strong women’s organization should support the strengthening of women’s roles as important and strategic actors in managing nutmeg. Farmer organizations or groups need to be supported intensively in order to work independently and strengthen their organizations so that they can meet market standards. In addition, it is also necessary to specifically regulate the roles and rights of women in the nutmeg supply chain. This would be helpful for mobilizing farmer groups that currently rely heavily on women.

Therefore, there are at least three things that need to be supported by the regional government: (1) to strengthen groups of women’s nutmeg farmer groups to become agents of changing cultivation practices. Institutional support can require women’s groups be prioritized when allocating funds for farmer groups, (2) to provide learning spaces and pilot locations at the district level for women’s groups to share knowledge about issues such as cultivation practices and processing nutmeg, (3) to bring buyers and groups of women together so that they can learn about the standards needed by buyers and if necessary agree on long-term purchases that can sustainably grow the nutmeg economy.

Along with this support, it is necessary to find the right format to consolidate and improve community knowledge. It is important to emphasize that imitation is an important ethos that determines the transfer of knowledge of nutmeg cultivation across and within generations. Therefore, creating successful and visible pilot plots are very strategic and central to improving cultivation practices. This view was expressed by nutmeg farmers. They also treat the tradition of imitation as part of the process of learning from previous generations and passing this knowledge on to the next. One or several techniques are learned by imitation, which are then further developed based on individual experience, especially by learning within the family. Local governments should develop many pilot plots, examples, and other visible initiatives that will make it easier for people to imitate new practices. Programmatic interventions should be directed to encourage new methods and techniques, instead of merely expanding the area of nutmeg forest gardens.

Nutmeg in Forest Areas

In the future, the central challenge of traceability of the nutmeg supply chain is legality. Many nutmeg forest gardens are currently in state forest areas. Thus, legal scenarios need to be discussed to solve this problem. One of these legal scenarios is recognizing these areas as being owned under customary law. This is important to ensure that traditional institutions continue to control and manage these forest areas. State institutions may collaborate with traditional institutions to ensure that the forests continue to be protected. Through maintaining nutmeg forest gardens, forest cover is also preserved.

Social forestry programs are currently being promoted in Fakfak. This should be carefully studied prior to implementation. These programs should strengthen the bond between the community, its land and natural resources. Bonds between Papuans and their land and territory are real and expressed through traditions and stories. Adopting the government program of Village Forests risks creating conflicts over tenure. The central issue is that the forests are recognized as state forests rather than customary-owned forests. The implication is that in terms of management, it removes the authority for managing the forests from customary communities and assigns it to the government, in particular Ministry of Environment and Forestry. In this capacity, the government could propose appropriate forest management techniques and methods. But the Village Forest program is more than just positioning the government as a regulator. This scheme indicates to indigenous peoples that the forests they have owned under customary rights, are now under the direct control of the state. Hence, legally the government has the authority to regulate the area, not indigenous peoples. A number of supporters of this program argue that the Village Forest program strengthens the rights of indigenous peoples. However, the presence of nutmeg forest gardens, which have existed for hundreds of years, reveals that this perception of the program misleading; it is not the factual reality of land tenure. Such rationales must be abandoned because they prevent us from finding the right solutions for equitable resource management in Papua. It is customary rights, instead of Village Forests, that have to be recognized to strengthen the management of nutmeg in Fakfak. * Sulistyowati Irianto