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A little cinnamon with your coffee?

Cinnamon agroforest, Kerinci, W.Sumatra
credit: Paul Burgers

Once more valuable than gold, cinnamon was the cause of trade wars between the Portuguese Dutch, French and English who, successively, fought for control of the cinnamon trade in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. Today, the island continues to produce cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) providing four-fifths of the world's production from smallholdings of four to five hectares. Other countries that are significant producers of cinnamon products include Indonesia and Madagascar.

In Indonesia, however, it is not Cinnamomum zeylanicum that is grown but Cinnamomum burmannii. It is, in reality, almost indistinguishable from the taste of even the best grades originating from Sri Lanka, despite the thicker and less delicate nature of the Indonesian cinnamon quills. Whatever its origin, the sweet taste of cinnamon is often associated or combined with coffee but it is in Indonesia that cinnamon and coffee crops are intercropped to provide a sustainable agricultural approach in the forest margins of Sumatra. And, strangely enough, serving the US coca-cola industry as one of the main consuming markets for Kerinci cinnamon.

Life on the boundary

In Gunung Raya, a sub-district on the edge of the Kerinci Seblat National Park in West Sumatra, ICRAF scientists have discovered that farming households have developed a highly efficient and productive multistorey agroforest on steep slopes above the fields where they practise rice cultivation. By integrating forest management with agriculture to produce a combination of local and exotic crops and tree species, they are able to be flexible in their management of resources, resulting in a profitable and sustainable system to ensure a secure livelihood.

The integration of agroforests with rice fields in Gunung Raya demonstrates the highly complex and precise planning, which has been developed by the villagers. The cycle generally begins with the rejuvenation of coffee, either by planting new seedlings or coppicing old stumps. At the same time, families cultivate commercial, annual crops, such as groundnuts, chili and potatoes, which provides immediate ground cover to prevent soil erosion and an immediate and regular source of income. These crops are grown until the coffee canopy hinders growth, at which time farmers plant cinnamon trees in between the coffee bushes. Coffee tends to be harvested for 2-3 years until the cinnamon canopy closes and the coffee continues to grow but is unable to produce berries. The coffee may then be cut down or, if the price of coffee is good, the mature bushes are left in the field so that further crops may be harvested if the cinnamon trees are felled. In this way the farmer is able to maintain his coffee trees for many years or allow the cinnamon to take over. Depending on the family's immediate cash needs, a farmer can also decide whether to harvest some of the branches of any one cinnamon tree or to fell the whole tree. Interestingly, even during the monetary crisis in Indonesia, during which the price of cinnamon bark rose sharply, it was noted that there was no large-scale harvesting, as was expected, as farmers argued wisely that they needed to cut less rather than more cinnamon bark to satisfy their needs.

Harvesting cinnamon, Kerinci, W.Sumatra
Credit: Paul Burgers

In other areas of the Kerinci National Park, a similar integrated approach has been promoted by ForesTrade (see Spices fuel the peace in Guatemala), where farmers were previously clear-cutting the slopes of the park, resulting in serious soil erosion and damage to the rice fields below. In return for agreeing to use organic and sustainable farming practices, farmers are now provided with training, support, and regular pay. Local extension staff have helped the cinnamon farmers to intercrop with coffee and other spices, and ForesTrade currently has contracts with approximately 3,000 farmers in 45 communities around the National Park to produce organic cinnamon, hot peppers, ginger, turmeric and vanilla, as well as other spices, for export.

A prime concern

In Madagascar, cinnamon is not integrated with coffee, instead Cinnamomum zeylanicum grows wild throughout the Madagascar rain forest. However, traditional harvesting for production of cinnamon bark oil has contributed to a "slash-and-burn" culture as mature trees are cut down in order to strip the bark. And, as the tradition of "slash-and-burn" agriculture continues for the cultivation of rice and other crops, less than 15% of the country remains under natural forest (see also Madagascar Country Profile). Yet, under a new conservation programme supported by A-SNAPP, cinnamon collectors are learning how to create new cinnamon plantations, by clearing competing underbrush from previously deforested areas in order to encourage the growth of young cinnamon trees.

Within a year, enough leaves have grown on the young trees to allow a proportion to be harvested for the production of cinnamon leaf oil, another marketable product. Leaf harvest then continues for three years until the trees have reached maturity and some of them can be harvested for their bark. The newly harvested area is then returned to leaf production until the next crop of young trees reaches maturity. As a result, ancient forests containing mature cinnamon trees are left untouched, whilst harvesters are able to maintain their livelihoods.

ICRAF - International Centre for Research in Agroforestry - For further information Email: Paul Burgers
ForesTrade Email
A-SNAPP(Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products)

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