Indonesia: Pepper revival in Berau’s karst zone

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Green and lush: A view of a pepper plantation in Berau, East Kalimantan.

Coming from the fruits of a climbing plant that belongs to the betel family, pepper has for centuries brought blessings, as well as disputes around the globe. In a small village in Biduk Biduk district, East Kalimantan, pepper is reawakening as a commodity promising welfare.

A strand of pepper berries was hanging amid lush leaves, still yellowish green and not yet ready for harvesting. Kisman, a local plantation owner, carefully lifted the fruits and cleaned the wooden column on which the plant climbed.

“This is needed to prevent fruits from rotting,” he said.

Growing pepper plants, according to him, requires proper maintenance in order to avoid plant diseases. Although rarely affected by pests, they are very sensitive to weather conditions. Excessive amount of sunlight, for example, will make the fruits turn yellow and rot.

Kisman also shifted several stone chunks at the base of the plants to allow their roots to penetrate soil and absorb trace elements.

“Pepper plants grow on karst stones and I have to assure the availability of trace elements so they won’t get starved and wither,” added the 56-year-old man.

Pepper plants in the district were mostly abandoned by locals after they were hit by wilt disease 15 years ago. Back then, Kisman was among the few farmers who strived to cultivate the remaining plants.

“I gathered some seedlings from long neglected plantations,” recalled Kisman, who has been a pepper farmer for 13 years.

In his own 2-hectare plantation, three kilometers from his village home, Kisman grows the crop with the support of wooden columns. Thriving plants are climbing from between karst lime stones to top parts of the columns. He diligently removes weeds from the bases of the wooden posts.

Pepper was first known as a commodity used for preserving meat coming from India, which later developed into a prized product during the Middle Ages and dominated the spice markets of Europe and West Asia. Indonesia emerged as a source of this commodity in the world through its Sumatra and Java pepper.

Kalimantan as a newcomer in the pepper business has at least demonstrated its positive signs of revival to catch up with current marketing progress. On the world market, pepper from East Kalimantan is known as white pepper from Samarinda.

According to the East Kalimantan Plantation Office, the world market price of pepper was plummeting in 1982, which caused a drastic production slump, as farmers were unwilling to plant the crop. Only during the past five years that the government has made effort to restore farmers’ welfare through

pepper planting.

The efforts have quickly showed some fruitful results. In 2013, East Kalimantan province became a home for 9,460 hectares of pepper plantations producing 6,818 tons of dry pepper seeds. At least 9,343 farmers were involved in the replanting drive.

In Berau regency alone, there are 1,676 hectares of area producing 30.7 tons of dry pepper seeds annually. Kisman, as one of Berau’s 2,068 farmers, contributes 300 kilograms annually to the regency’s total output.

Pepper fruits are harvested every six months while a bumper harvest only takes place once a year. Dry pepper seeds are directly sold to Samarinda, Balikpapan or Tanjung Redeb, where land transportation is the best choice for the present time.

“Farmers should be smart in doing pepper business. Prices may vary from Rp 150,000 [US$11.25] to Rp 215,000 per kilogram,” he said.

Many farmers hope the government can set up a pricing regulation as farmers cannot control the volatility of the pepper prices in the market. Kisman said he hoped the pepper price could be maintained at Rp 200,000 per kg, otherwise most farmers would suffer losses.

He immerses his harvests in the clear limestone water of Labuan Cermin Lake for 20 to 25 days until the fruit flesh decomposes and gets separated from the pepper seeds. The wet pepper seeds are later dried under the sun usually for three to five days depending on the duration of sunny days. In the rainy season, the sun drying process can last for two weeks.

Dry pepper seeds can be processed into pepper powder and packaged for further marketing. In this way, farmers enjoy value-added production and can involve a lot more workers. In the karst zone extending from Talisayan to Sulaiman Bay in Berau, pepper grows along with other crops.

“Agriculture can develop properly and pepper plants flourish in this area. But I wonder what we can do as the government is planning to build oil palm estates and a cement plant, which poses a threat to us,” revealed Kisman, who hailed from Sulawesi.

In June 2016, the Berau regency administration issued a location permit for an oil palm plantation of PT Kebun Sawit Nusantara through the decision of the provincial Investment and Licensing Agency. It covers an area of 17,021 hectares in Biduk Biduk district.

Kisman believes that the pepper plantation will provide a better life for locals in the district. That is why he keeps encouraging other farmers to plant the commodity.

Omek, 37 years old, another pepper farmer who regrets the plans to develop the oil palm plantation and cement plant, said the spice was a local commodity they could rely on to improve their welfare. It grows well along the coastal zone of Biduk Biduk district, which also offers other potential industries such as coconuts, marine products and ecotourism.

Sulaiman Bay village secretary Risno said he was afraid the presence of the palm oil and cement plant companies would give rise to social conflict and environment. He explained that local residents feared that the vulnerable ecosystem of the karst zone would be affected when it faced environmental disturbances such as tree felling. The presence of trees on the upper karst layer helps sustain the limestone’s preservation of water.

“So, when the water is disturbed, the karst cover will certainly be affected, while its formation has gone through a very long process, lasting even for thousands of years. Just imagine if such damage is made within a short time. Everything will be ruined,” Risno said.

In the meantime, farmers like Kisman and Omek can only hope that the government will keep its commitment to support the development of pepper plants in Berau’s karst zone.

— Photo by Syafrizaldi

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