Conservation news

Kalaodi, Tidore’s eco-village in Indonesia’s spice capital

  • In 1972, Indonesia’s central government mapped Kalaodi, a village of 454 people, into a protected forest.
  • Locals were upset because the protected status robbed them of the ability to continue their centuries-old tradition of cultivating spice groves.
  • Today, Kalaodi residents are taking the first steps towards restituting past government oversteps.

KALAODI, Indonesia  — August through September is clove harvest season here in this corner of the Maluku Islands. The scent of clove flowers pierces the air over the winding, precipitous roads that lead to Kalaodi.

From the 1400s well into the 1800s, this hamlet on Tidore island was one of the world’s few sources of nutmeg, mace, vanilla, cinnamon and cloves. British, Dutch and Portuguese merchant ships spent months crossing oceans to buy spices here. The Dutch thought they had a bargain in 1664 when the British traded them Run Island on the south end of the archipelago for a swampy, unknown American colony called New Amsterdam that was later dubbed New York City.

Today, the Malukus, and Kalaodi, still feel remote. Locals refer to their township as the community above the clouds. Peering to the east on a clear day, visitors see only the neighboring island of Halmahera. To the west is more water, and Ternate and Maitara islands.

Until 1986, houses in Kalaodi were built solely with bamboo. What cement was used had to be piggybacked in from towns three kilometers away. Only in 1992 was a tarmac road into town completed.

Indonesia’s Maluku Islands. Image by Morwen/Wikimedia Commons

Decisions from the central government feel arbitrary yet have large consequences. For example, in 1972, bureaucrats in Jakarta mapped the village of 454 people into a protected forest.

The 2,513-hectare Tagafura national forest encompasses three subdistricts – Southern, Eastern and Northern Tidore. Kalaodi sits in the middle.

Locals were very upset because the protected status robbed them of the ability to continue their centuries-old tradition of cultivating spice groves. It also disregarded local institutions of nature protection.

Many Kalaodi people moved to Halmahera. And one wise village headman convinced them to set aside some orchard parcels to be maintained collectively. The harvest from these communal lots was used to build infrastructure, said village elder Yunus Hadi. This was a brave move because it came only five years after the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-6 targeted communists who espoused such land arrangements.

Today, with the help of the local branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest environmental pressure group, Kalaodi residents are taking the first steps towards restituting past government oversteps. They mapped locally owned groves to bring to future negotiations with the state.

“Our measurements showed that the size of the town was different from that measured by the government forestry office,” said Ismet Soelaiman, the director of Walhi-Maluku. His team concluded that the village, including all houses and orchards, spans 2,000 hectares.

“Our village has been here for centuries,” chimed in current village secretary Samsudin. “How can the government suddenly arrive and place us within the jurisdiction of a protected forest? Unfortunately, at the time, the people were not wise enough to protest.” Samsudin thinks his village was within its rights to protest.

“This was just after independence. Kalaodi has existed for centuries before independence,” he said.

Samsudin thinks the designation was political, a gambit aimed at pushing villagers out of the mountains and into Tidore city. “Many also went to Halmahera,” he pointed out.

“Three members of every household moved elsewhere to find work,” said Abdurahman, one Kalaodi resident who migrated at that time.

Freshly picked cloves on the island of Tidore. The tree from which the aromatic flower buds come is native to the Maluku Islands in eastern Indonesia. Photo by Eko Susanto/Flickr

The spice village

Kalaodi residents cultivate a diversity of plants. Primarily, they grow nutmeg and clove. But they also harvest bamboo – as a preventative to soil erosion on the steep local slopes. Clove trees are also grown interspersed with cinnamon, durian, areca nut palm and Javanese or kenari almond trees.

“Bamboo roots help us guard against soil erosion. It also offers good building and crafting material,” Abdurahman said. “Nutmeg and clove are our main crops though. Everyone plants them.”

At the end of the season, mace, nutmeg and clove crops are dried on large tarps on the side of the road. Local nutmeg and clove harvests come in the hundreds of tons. “We don’t have a proper count,” Abdurahman said. “But it’s likely that we send hundreds of tons to Tidore. This is because hundreds of local hectares are set aside for growing clove.”

Today, bamboo is rarely used as a building material and more likely woven into broad tolu hats to be worn in harvest season to keep out the rain and sun; or saloi baskets used in the tree orchards. Some of these crafts get sold at the market.

Kalaodi is also famous for its durians. In season, the fruits flood the markets of Tidore and Ternate.

The islands of Maitara and Tidore are seen from Ternate Island in Indonesia’s Maluku archipelago. Photo by Fabio Achilli/Flickr

Forest governance

Since the 1970s, Kalaodi has had a system of community groves in addition to private, individual groves. No new forest has been cleared to make orchards since the village area gained protected forest status.

There is a youth grove, which has 200 clove trees. The harvest from this grove gets used for infrastructure projects in the village. For example, there is a 200-meter-long retaining wall in the village that was built with a few years worth of profits from this grove. There is also a village grove and a mosque grove. These groves are planted and maintained communally and during harvest season, the crop is divided communally.

Kalaodi has four areas, each two kilometers in size, separate from residents’ groves. Each area has its own land management regulations. Locals only retain land rights year to year. The land is owned communally. Only the harvest is owned individually. This is the system of land management the village has functioned under since 1970, said Hadi, the elder. He played a major part in convincing locals to farm communally.

“He instructed local farmers to plant clove seedlings in the 1970s,” according to the current village secretary Samsudin. “We owe the abundance of clove and nutmeg on our lands to Yunus.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Oct. 2, 2016.