Women in the Papuan Nutmeg Supply Chain

The role of women is one of the important aspects in nutmeg trade. An Inobu-AKAPe study conducted in 2018 in Fakfak District, West Papua, illustrated both the empirical reasons and policies that underpin the importance of women’s roles.

This paper briefly reveals domestic problems faced by women, which begins with their participation in the nutmeg supply chain, nutmeg policies as market challenges related to farmers, government, and stakeholders.

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.

Stories of Mammas

Many women in Fakfak marry at a young age, 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 raise awareness and improve social status.

After graduating from elementary school, some women did not pursue their education to the higher level. There are not many options in the village, farming or waiting for marriage. As a result, many of them had children at a young age while facing dual role: as a housewife who takes care of all the domestic work and as a mother of the children.

Many parties criticize this dual role as a matter of tradition. 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, 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 instantly. Education that is expected to change such awareness is not evenly distributed. And more uneven for women. When women are of school age, they do not have equal access to opportunities as men.

When becoming housewives, they have difficulty to carry 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. 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.

Harvested nutmegs. Photo: Inobu

Women in Nutmeg Supply Chains

In fact, the nutmeg economy relies on women. From seeds to end users, 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.

Currently, farmers inherit their nutmeg forest gardens from their parents. Only a few are new plantings. In the discussions in Pangwadar 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.

Women in Fakfak District, West Papua, which plays an important role in the nutmeg trade. Photo: Inobu

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 markets. Here the level of cleanliness, including the practices of storage, drying and sunning the harvested 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.

Nutmegs are dried using smoking or sunning techniques. Women work collaboratively with men to ensure perfect smoking. The smoking process uses firewood, but more often uses coconut fiber because the ignition results are considered better.

After drying, nutmegs are sold to local collectors: main and travelling collectors. Some mamas are involved in the sale of nutmegs 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 forest gardens in Fakfak. Photo: Inobu

Nutmeg Cultivation and Culture

Based on the Inobu-AKAPe survey in Pangwadar Village in 35 nutmeg forest gardens in 2017, the average area of nutmeg forest gardens per household is 2.5 hectares. Nutmeg farmers aged between 50-60 years old stated that nutmeg forest gardens have existed before they were born.

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 Pangwadar, all farmers admitted that they shared their cultivation knowledge with their children, either by tutoring them or by inviting the children to nutmeg forest gardens. This traditional knowledge can also be a combination of historical influences, both from informal information from traders, other farmers, and even the Dutch Government that imposed strict rules regarding the standards for harvesting nutmeg.

Farmers rely on the knowledge that circulates within a family. Each family might have substantively different knowledge. 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.

Regarding tradition, changing knowledge encourages the use of modern techniques. However, 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 Pangwadar Village and other villages. This technique has an 80% chance of success in early attempts to determine the sex of nutmeg seeds.

Meanwhile, 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. Instead of adopting this technique, they felt more comfortable to resume traditional agronomic practices, although three farmers in Pangwadar have been trained in top-grafting techniques.

Nutmeg forest gardens in Fakfak District, West Papua. Photo: Inobu

Next, to increase nutmeg’s added value, several initiatives have been implemented to establish small and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs). Training women to be skilled in producing processed nutmeg products such as sweets, syrup and sauce.

Many women were involved with the reason of helping their husbands to seek additional income. If there is extra demand, they are requested to produce more. The challenge is, these SMEs are organized with an industrial labor ethos. These mamas are skilled as workers but they do not understand the market.

After working for several years, they do not know how much the value of their work actually produces. Mamas are only informed that their market is limited, so they cannot produce more.

They themselves have never been given sufficient information about the nutmeg supply chain, why organizations need to be established, how to manage the organization in a participatory manner, including during planning, implementation and evaluation. In sum, mamas do not manage the organization, or determine consciously which way to go.

A Nutmeg Standard

Farmers in Fakfak, West Papua, 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 become a measure taken by the market as a transaction standard. Slowly, nutmeg faced with a number of provisions: quality and qualifications, especially sanitation. One of the most common standard is food safety.

Indonesia has developed the standard for nutmeg seeds through SNI 0006 – 1993 and the updated version of SNI 0006-2015, 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 0006-1993 still provides very limited tolerance for mammal and other animal feces. However, in SNI 0006-2015, there is no tolerance for foreign objects.

Unfortunately, as acknowledged by the Ministry of Agriculture, these standards are intended more for Banda nutmeg [Myristica fragrans Houtt]. There are no specific standards for Papuan nutmeg [Myristica argentea Warb].

Nutmeg seeds located in Fakfak area, West Papua. Photo: Inobu

For the European Union Market, the General Food Law, Regulation (EC) No. 178/2002 regulates the requirements of food safety laws, 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 sp., 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 required indicators of sustainability is no deforestation. In fact, many nutmeg forest gardens in Fakfak are in state forest areas. In Pangwadar, some of the nutmeg forest gardens are inside areas classified as Limited Production Forest Areas. This fact certainly requires cooperation with Ministry of Environment and Forestry so that this issue does not make it more challenging for farmers to comply with sustainability standards, in addition to complying with other applicable standards.

Nutmeg maces are thin red membrane that covers the skin of the nutmeg. Photo: Inobu

Future Orientation

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 sprituale) 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 nutmegs. 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.

Nutmeg forest gardens in Fakfak. Photo: Inobu

The Role of Local Government

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. However, the substance of these two provisions has not targeted Papuan nutmeg, which should provide aspects of the role of women in the nutmeg supply chain.

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 only been implemented in several locations. Replication is needed 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 current market economy.

A strong women’s organization should support the strengthening of women’s roles as important and strategic actors in managing nutmeg. This role is significant, to help mobilize farmer groups that currently rely heavily on women for implementation, towards achieving nutmeg standards.

There are at least three things that need to be supported by the local government. First, to strengthen groups of women’s nutmeg farmer to become agents of changing cultivation practices. Institutional support can require women’s groups be prioritized when allocating funds for farmer groups. Second, 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,.

Third, to bring buyers and groups of women together so that they can learn about the standards required by buyers, especially if there is an agreement on long-term purchases.

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.

Map of the administrative area of Fakfak District, West Papua. Map: Inobu

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.

State institutions may collaborate with traditional institutions to ensure that the forests continue to be protected. Some studies suggest that nutmeg has the character of effective forest cover.

Social forestry programs are currently being promoted in Fakfak. 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, as a nutmeg forest garden.

The government should facilitate the implementation of appropriate techniques and methods in managing nutmegs under a cooperation scheme which are mutually beneficial. [End]

*Bernadinus Steni, Secretary of Inovasi Bumi [INOBU].

This article has been published on Mongabay and can be seen at the following link: https://www.mongabay.co.id/2019/06/29/perempuan-dalam-rantai-perdagangan-pala-bagian-1/ and https://www.mongabay.co.id/2019/06/30/perempuan-dalam-rantai-perdagangan-pala-bagian-2/


Women in the Papuan Nutmeg Supply Chain


Publication Year



Nutmeg, Women, Papua, Fakfak