As you sprinkle nutmeg into your holiday cookies or hot spiced cider this season, think about how that nutmeg got to you.  There’s quite a story behind it.  My friend Matt Styslinger is in Indonesia with Mercy Corps and bring us that story…

How often do you think about nutmeg? It might be stashed in your kitchen somewhere, nearly as full as the day you bought it to include in a winter novelty drink or dessert. But when was the last time you cooked 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. Mercy Corps is working to leverage that history to support today’s spice farmers in eastern Indonesia.

The Banda Islands in Maluku are a tiny idyllic archipelago that once produced the entire world supply of nutmeg. 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 bringing back cargos of nutmeg to Europe. A single cargo of nutmeg 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 set up the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). Among many other tragedies, the VOC hired Japanese mercenaries in 1621 to slaughter the entire native population of Banda, bringing in slaves from other parts of Indonesia to man the VOC’s nutmeg production.

Nutmeg Fruit

The British traded away their last foothold in Banda, an island called Run, to the Dutch in exchange for New Amsterdam in the new world—now better known as Manhattan! The Dutch remained in control of all of Maluku, and most of Indonesia,
until World War II.

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. Eventually, these islands too—as well as their clove trees (Syzygium aromaticum)—were controlled by the Dutch until Indonesian independence in the 20th century.

Today, Indonesia is still the world’s 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, and their nutmeg and clove 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 options for selling their crop. 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. There was protracted conflict in Maluku from 1999-2002 between Muslim and Christian communities that displaced thousands of people. The economy has since stagnated, further affecting the ability of Malukan spice farmers to prosper.

Nutmeg crop: from the seed comes nutmeg, and the webbed coating is removed, dried, and ground into the spice 'mace'

Mercy Corps Indonesia’s Spice up the Deal (SUD) project, which began implementation in 2011, aims to facilitate market changes to benefit 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 connects farmers to businesses that support them.

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.

Key to the success of SUD will be raising the visibility of Maluku spices through labeling and branding that captures the history and mystique of their origin. By improving 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.