Pulau Seram Plantation Visit

On the 19th of May, I took a trip with several other cacao-nuts (Yoshino and Tashiki of Dari-K and Thomas of BT Cocoa) to the eastern-most part of Indonesia that I’ve ever been to – Pulau Seram in Maluku. The goal of this trip was to visit a large private cocoa plantation, and explore the potential for partnerships or collaborations.

I had a number of reservations before the trip. In the world of palm oil and deforestation, large plantations have a negative reputation of not being the most sustainable forms of production (to put things lightly). Plus I was not sure how working with a large corporation fitted our mandate to help smallholder cocoa farmers. But nevertheless, I went with an open mind, and a goal to learn.

I’m used to traveling long distances using several different forms of transport to get to plantations, but this trip set a new record. It took me almost 24 hours to get from my house to the plantation, via car, plane, car, boat and car again. I don’t think anyone particular enjoys long car rides along tiny winding roads, but being the only girl in the entourage, I also had the added challenge of rationing my water intake cause I didn’t particularly feel like choosing between trekking into spider infested waist-high forest growth or outraging my own modesty. After the long journey, it was dark by the time we got into the plantation late Sunday night, and I was a very camper to see luxuries such as AC and heated water at our base.

The next morning, we set out to learn about the plantation, starting with a presentation on the history of the place and the lay of the land. The 3,000 hectare site was previously owned by a different owner who attempted to grow cocoa here but unfortunately failed to make it work. Olam took over the plantation and has began a massive rehabilitation and replanting program. About 2,000 hectares of the total area has been earmarked for planting cocoa, and so far, some 900 hectares of that has been planted.

We began the farm tour in the nursery. The nursery itself was 5 hectares, which is double to triple the size of most smallholder plantations I’ve been on. There, women expertly grafted selected clones onto 3 month old seedlings. The purpose of the grafting process is to propagate or create many seedlings of the same varieties. These varieties have been “imported” from other parts of Indonesia, and have been selected for disease tolerance and productivity. It was interesting to see that even though 3 clones were originally selected and planted, only 2 performed well and one was highly susceptible to diseases. The team there only discovered this after 3 years of planting, going to show that it’s really hard to predict how a clone will perform in a specific area, until it reaches maturity in situ.

The plantations had the most productive cocoa trees I’ve ever seen in Indonesia. The trees were planted in neat rows, with shade trees providing just the right amount of protection from the sun. Each tree held between one to two dozen maroon cocoa pods, almost all free of disease, just a number of weeks shy of ripening. Even more surprisingly, I was not being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I’m actually not sure if that is a good or bad thing – if that’s a testament of how well sanitized the plantations are, or the amount of pesticides being used.

Regardless of what your stance on organic farm management is, it is hard not to be impressed by how well managed the plantation is. Each section of the plantation has a team leader, and each team has sub-teams that have different tasks such as harvesting, pest management, pruning, and so on. Monitoring, data logs and checklists are commonplace and it takes almost military precision and coordination to get the 500 or so workers doing the right tasks every day. One of the plantation managers previously worked in an oil palm plantation, and he said that managing a cocoa plantation was far more challenging.

Indonesia’s cocoa production has been steadily decreasing in the last decade or so. This is in spite of the many efforts by the government, multi-laterals, donors and the private sector to increase smallholder productivity. But we are all fighting a battle against Mother Nature and the Invisible Hand. Climate change, monoculture and decreasing soil health are causing diseases to run rampant in cocoa plantations. Couple that with attractive (also sometimes short term) alternatives of other easier to plant crops such as papaya, oil palm and pepper, and it’s no wonder that so many farmers are cutting down their cocoa trees to make way for other crops.

So I have a huge deal of respect for anyone trying to make cocoa work, like the plantation managers here.