Seeds of revolution in Grenada

SUN JOURNAL

Nutmeg: The island's tradition-steeped cooperative farm system faces a challenge from two men who say they want to modernize the industry and keep profits at home.

January 12, 2002|By Mark Fineman | Mark Fineman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GRENVILLE, Grenada - For half a millennium, the aromatic little seed of the Myristica fragrans tree is said to have cured everything from boils and backaches to strokes and the plague.

Arabs and Indians swear it's an aphrodisiac. Malcolm X smoked it in jail when he ran out of marijuana.

Wars were fought over it - including one that rendered the obscure New World island of Manhattan to the British. Today it's in toothpaste, perfume, sausages and soap - not to mention countless cups of eggnog.

And on this tiny island, where it's dubbed "black gold," nutmeg has become both a metaphor and the prize in a raging debate over growth, modernization, globalization and economic survival.

The clash, like similar conflicts in agricultural economies throughout the developing world, pits tradition against innovation. And its outcome could reduce the price of not only the little seed but also the myriad everyday products it's part of.

On one side is a farmers' cooperative that has provided hand-to-mouth nutmeg growers with a steady but meager income for half a century. To most Grenadians, the cooperative is a symbol of nationalism, patriotism and stability during the last half of the 20th century, after the country had attained independence.

Opposite are a dynamic entrepreneur and an ardent young chemist struggling to usher the nutmeg industry and the nation into the 21st century and to provide more young Grenadians with a reason to remain on the island.

Caught in the middle is the island itself - a tropical paradise about twice the size of Washington, D.C., tucked into the southeastern corner of the Caribbean. Grenada appeared on many people's radar screens in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan sent in Marines to topple its Marxist, pro-Cuban government. But the island is also the world's second-largest producer of nutmeg. In the largest, Indonesia, a separatist insurgency on the remote islands where the spice tree originated has reduced production, providing a boon to Grenada's exports in recent years.

Exporting millions of pounds

As a result, Grenada now supplies well over one-third of the world's nutmeg: 5.4 million pounds from the island sold for nearly $20 million worldwide last year. And more than one-third of Grenada's 100,000 people depend on the crop.

Never mind that Grenadians use only a pinch of it: as a garnish on rum punch, a folk remedy for achy joints and the key ingredient in a line of syrups and jams.

As in ancient times, nutmeg's greatest value lies in the billions in profits its complex insides have brought to manufacturers, agents, brokers, processors and retailers outside the lands that provide it.

A detailed chemical analysis of nutmeg's hidden riches done for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization by Grenadian scientist Dilon Daniel documents its wealth of trimyristin and myristic acid. These are not only the stuff of its narcotic and erotic legends but basic ingredients of the world's cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food industries.

The status quo is embodied by the Grenada Cooperative Nutmeg Association, a powerful collective with roots as broad as those of the Myristica fragrans. The association was a pioneering model of progressive Third World self-determination when it was born amid anti-colonialist fervor in 1947.

The cooperative ended nearly a century of exploitation of Grenada's nutmeg farmers dating to the mid-1800s, when Britain's royal botanist brought the first nutmeg seedlings to the colony from Indonesia. That was about two centuries after Britain formally traded Indonesia's nutmeg-rich Run Island to the Dutch in exchange for then-barren Manhattan Island.

From the start, the association's founders held to a single principle: The nutmeg belongs to farmers, and farmers alone should reap its rewards.

The Nutmeg Ordinance of 1947 became the industry standard for Grenada. Besides creating the association, the law limits its membership to farmers and gives the cooperative the sole right to buy and sell Grenadian nutmeg. The association pays farmers an "advance" based on world market prices when they deliver raw nutmeg and then distributes a "surplus" to them just before Christmas, based on the actual profits the co-op made on the year's total sales.

Call for processing at home

Today, Grenada's top economists and senior government officials say the association, with its 19 buying stations and behemoth processing centers, has become a dinosaur. They say it has cost the farmers and the nation because of its failure to invest in high-tech plants that would process nutmeg locally and thus keep most of the profits at home.

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