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Zanzibar Loses Some of Its Spice

Once the top producer of cloves, the islands have seen a decline amid government control and market vagaries. Calls grow for privatization.

November 24, 2005|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

PEMBA, Tanzania — It's springtime on this green, hilly island, and the pungent, sweet smell of cloves spices the air.

Zaharan Salim's father, who crossed the turquoise water from Oman to settle here nearly 100 years ago, taught him as a boy that the annual bouquet signaled harvest time. His father planted a small grove of clove trees to support the family, and Salim expanded the plantation into one of Pemba's largest, with more than 2,000 of the tall evergreens sprouting from the fertile soil.

But it's unclear whether the family business will last into a third generation. The groves are thinning from neglect. None of his children is interested in taking over. And even Salim, 75, is turning his attention to more lucrative crops. "There's more profit in coconuts," the graying patriarch said.

Production of cloves, the last viable spice of the renowned "Spice Island," is slowly declining on the archipelago that once dominated the world trade.

Cloves are touted as a cure for a variety of ills, including bad breath, premature ejaculation and toothaches. In the United States, where they flavor pumpkin pie and apple cider, they are evocative of autumn.

In Zanzibar and its sister island, Pemba, the little buds are big business. But annual clove sales here have plummeted by 80% since the 1970s. The semi-autonomous islands, which merged with mainland Tanganyika in 1964 to form Tanzania, were once the world's largest producers of cloves, but now rank a distant third in a market dominated by Indonesia, which supplies 75%, compared with Zanzibar's 7%.

More worrisome, the groves and forests that once blanketed the islands are disappearing, declining from more than 5 million trees in the 1960s to an estimated 1.6 million today. Many died in droughts or have been torched for charcoal, with little effort made to replace them.

"In years to come, some worry the clove industry could be history," said Abubakar Mohammed Ali, executive director of the recently formed Zanzibar Clove Producers Organization.

Zanzibar's clove industry has been crippled by a fast-moving global market, international competition and a hangover from Tanzania's failed experiment with socialism in the 1960s and '70s, when the government controlled clove prices and exports.

Although other crops, such as coconuts, coffee, peppers and seaweed, have benefited from recent free-market changes, the government has kept a tight rein on cloves, Zanzibar's only cash crop, which accounts for 70% of the island's foreign exchange earnings.

Most of the island's exports go to Indonesia, where they are mixed and resold to countries such as India and China. Because of the particularly strong aroma of Zanzibar's crop, it is a favorite for making clove-flavored cigarettes destined for Asia.

Private farmers own most of the trees, but harvests must be sold to the state-owned Zanzibar State Trading Corp. at a government-set price.

Farmers complain that the price is often so low that they can barely make a profit or cover the costs of harvesting, which is still done by climbing trees and hand-picking the buds.

"The price is not fair," said Salim Mohammed, 40, sitting on his porch and sorting out stems and leaves from a pile of freshly picked cloves. "I wish I could sell this myself, but the government always has the last word on price." At the current price of $2.30 per kilo, Mohammed said, he would earn barely enough this season to support his family for the next two months.

Government officials blame a worldwide slump and say they base their offer on market rates, which are about $2.60 to $3 a kilo.

But smugglers, chiefly from neighboring Kenya, have found opportunity in the dissatisfaction with the system. They make furtive nighttime visits to farmers, offering prices that are sometimes twice the government rate. Before sunrise, they quietly sail away in wooden dhows loaded with black-market cloves.

Two years ago, black-market buyers paid $6 per kilo compared with the government-set price of $3.50.

Government police try to crack down on the illegal trade, but farmers say they have no choice but to take the risk. "Selling to the smugglers enables me to feed my family," said Omar Hamad, 65. This season he hasn't seen any smugglers, which leads him to assume that the black-market prices have also dropped.

Some political leaders on the island are calling for quick action to privatize the clove industry.

"This system has been very exploitive of farmers," said Seif Sharif Hamad, leader of the opposition party Civic United Front. "We have to revive the clove industry. It's a symbol of Zanzibar."

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