Spice Island Saga: Bringing Fair Trade to the Birthplace of Globalization

There was a time when the Spice Islands – a sprinkling of small islands at the arse end of the Indonesian archipelago – was the most valued real estate in the world. These were the only islands where nutmeg and cloves grew, and those spices were more prized than gold or jewels. Since the first millennium, Arab traders and their Venetian agents controlled all spices headed for Europe. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French searched for, invaded and colonized the Spice Islands. But it was the Dutch in 1600 who first systematized world trade through the creation of the VOC (Dutch East India Company). After 150 years of brutal Dutch control, the French and English spirited away nutmeg and clove seedlings, replanting them in their colonies as diverse as Zanzibar and Grenada. The Dutch monopoly was broken and the Spice Islands slowly receded into history, the forts and spice factories being reclaimed by tropical forests and the decay of time.

It was said that sailors knew when the Spice Islands were near – they could smell the sweet scents of nutmeg and cloves far out to sea. But as I approached Ambon on a leaky, rusty interisland ferry all I could smell were the diesel fumes and the clove cigarettes of the passengers. This was my second journey to the fabled Spice Islands in a year. I wanted to see if it would be possible to create a direct fair trade relationship with spice farmers, thus reversing the tide of history and bringing respect instead of subjugation. I visited Ambon, Seram, Banda, Ai and Run, the southernmost of “the Spiceries”. Ambon had been the administrative seat of the Portuguese and then the Dutch. Banda and Ai were the only places on earth where nutmeg grew. Run, the size of an American shopping mall, was the only English colony, eventually traded to the Dutch in the mid 1600’s in exchange for Manhattan! (Note to self – never use a Dutch realtor).

I met with small farmer groups, governors, processors, mysterious Chinese traders, priests and imams. I explored the crumbling Portuguese fort on Banda, finding two musket balls in the dirt (hey, once a treasure hunter, always…). I hiked nutmeg forests bursting with the peace-like fruit, ate a snot-like sago palm concoction with the locals, lectured on fair trade and development at the local university, had a clandestine meeting with Tia, a sympathetic female customs officer, who told me how to get around the Malay near monopoly on export, and had an incredible adventure.

I haggled with small boat owners to take me from island to island, where the farmers shared their struggles – no credit, no market info, no direct access to buyers, abusive middlemen. This was how the coffee world was 20 years ago. Would it be possible to bring direct fair trade to the forgotten birthplace of globalization? The distances between there and here are enormous. The infrastructure for trade (processing and export) is either non-existent or tightly controlled by traders. One rather scary, large trader told me in threatening terms that it would be dangerous for the farmers – and for me – to try and change the system.

Yet change is possible. I had several meetings with Ghair and Riyahd Ollup and their family. They are Ambonese who left for the Netherlands decades ago and have returned to try and do some good for their native land through spice development. We visited several fledgling coops, comparing notes and stories about the difficulties of organizing farmers away from an abusive but known system. The project, which for three years has received major financial support from Mercy Corps and Ford Foundation, has yet to find an American buyer. It does deliver more money to the farmers, but its structure creates a kinder, gentler dependency on PT Ollup, not the farmer empowering structure of fair trade. It is a good and well-intentioned beginning. Yet my experience with such top-down projects tells me it will only go so far, with the real benefits going to the multinationals that buy the spices for a little more money and then make marketing hay out of their noble commitment (selling the spices at an outrageous mark up). This is the result of programs based on economics, not trade justice.

On the most distant islands of Banda, Ai and Run, I met farmer groups eager to go direct. I made a small but significant purchase under my first attempt at fair trade. We are giving away these nutmegs and cloves to our customers* as a pre-holiday thanks for supporting this far-flung adventure, and to help you share hopefully in an historic moment – bringing fair trade to the birthplace of globalization.

Add them to your pumpkin pie, mulled cider and other holiday fare. Let the tangy tastes and aromas conjure up the hopes of the farmers in a distant land.

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