Almost four centuries ago in 1602, Dutch merchants laid the foundation of the VOC - United East Indian Company. It had as main goal the monopoly of the very lucrative spice trade of the Far East. The valuable spices, nutmeg and clove, were then grown exclusively on the 'spice islands' of Ambon and Banda, the main islands of the Moluccas.
The farmers on those islands were forced by the VOC, with help of their private army, to grow nutmeg and clove. At Banda, the use of slaves from other islands of the Dutch Indian Archipelago was needed to replace the island's population which was decimated by the many resistance wars against the VOC.
The prices of those spices were artificially kept high by regulating the numbers of the trees. When the supply was too high, the farmers were forced to cut down part of their trees.
The end of the fabulous profits for these spices came at the end of the eighteenth century when some French and Arab adventurers smuggled a few clove trees out of the Moluccas and brought them to Mauritius and Zanzibar. Soon the Zanzibar product influenced the world clove market. The extreme prices came crashing down and have never returned.
Although the Indonesian clove cannot compete anymore in Europe with the much cheaper African product, for the local Indonesian market it remains an important trading product. The demand for the dried flower buds, which give the typical Indonesian kretek-cigarette its special penetrating aroma, is still growing.
The production of the kretek (the name comes from the knispering sound of the burning clove in the cigarette) has doubled in the last ten years.
In 1993 the kretek production was 145 billion cigarettes, and it is expected that this will increase by 15% per year. The demand outstripped the production. This sounded promising, but in fact, started the decline of the fortunes for the clove farmer. The kretek industry was given permission by the government to import the much cheaper Zanzibar clove.
By decree the clove farmers can sell their harvest only to the Agency for Clove Trade, which is headed by the youngest son, Tommy, of President Suharto. The Agency regulates the import of Zanzibar as well.
In 1987 a kilo of clove could fetch a price of 7.200 Rupiah. A year later the price had dropped to 5.700 Rupiah and to 4.500 Rupiah in 1991. The last two years the price dropped even further and a farmer was lucky to sell his product for between 2 and 3 thousand Rupiah.
There are already farmers who would rather burn their crops, as was the case a few centuries ago!
DATE: November 1995
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