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Tobacco Mecca

Indonesia's East Java Continues To Produce Fine Tobacco Despite its Troubled Economy
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

Listen to the tobacco. The massive warehouse is silent except for the sound of tobacco leaves in motion. Hundreds of young women build and dismantle piles of tobacco that have just arrived from the fields located around the city of Jember, in Indonesia's East Java province. The freshly dried leaves lightly crackle, like pieces of tissue paper being folded into gift boxes at a department store. The workers are sorting the tobacco leaves by quality, color and texture--an initial classification before fermentations begin. The women sort the tobaccoslowly and methodically, working almost as if they are in a trance. They do not look at one another. No one speaks.

"Tobacco is a very special product," says Sin Teguh Wanamarta, a young, Dutch-trained physician who now works with his father, Eddy Dharsan Wanamarta, processing and trading tobacco at their company, PT. Ledokombo. "We forbid our workers to speak while they work. Otherwise, they may make a mistake. They must work meticulously. The tobacco must be handled with respect." Chinese Indonesians, the Wanamartas are two of a handful of key tobacco men in and around Jember who buy, process, pack and ship tobacco throughout the world.

The diligence displayed by the thousands of laborers in the fields and warehouses of Jember underlines Indonesia's staunch work ethic. That belief has helped sustain workers' spirits in spite of a free-falling economy since the autumn of 1997 that has made life very difficult for the 5 million inhabitants of this tobacco city and the 220 million citizens of Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation. For instance, the price of rice, a staple of the Indonesian diet, increased nearly seven times over a six-month period last year while the local currency, the rupiah, dropped to one-fourth its value during the same period. A kilo (2.2 pounds) of rice now costs close to 4,000 rupiah (about 35 cents), when not so long ago it was about 600 rupiah. That's a lot of money for people who only make an average of 5,000 rupiah a day and eat about five kilos of rice a week, say Indonesians interviewed in Jember. It leaves very little for a family and other living expenses.

"It's amazing that more people do not riot considering their situation," says one tobacco worker in Jember, who added that a few tobacco drying barns had been burned in September in protest. (Most of the protests that made the international news last year occurred in the capital of Jakarta or other major cities.) "We have lost everything we have worked for. It is so difficult for us to survive. But because we continue to work shows that we are very stable people."

The economic woes of Indonesia are hard to imagine while looking down at thousands of acres of tobacco growing in the warm afternoon sun. It's a scene that has existed for centuries. Lives, economies and governments may change, but tobacco growing continues. Indonesia is one of the oldest producers of quality cigar tobacco in the world, with a leaf-growing history dating back to the late 1700s. As one drives down the well-manicured streets outside of Jember in late August, it's difficult to see a house without tobacco drying in the sun. This is the first tobacco crop of the year--there are usually two--and most of the drying tobacco is a type locally called kasturi. It usually is used for cigarette tobacco and locally produced clove-flavored cigarettes. There are almost as many tobacco drying barns around Jember as there are mosques in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.

Although Indonesia makes cigars, most are small and of uneven quality. The only first-rate premium cigar operation here is owned by the Sweden-based Swedish Match company, which set up a factory three years ago to produce a brand called Montague. Its plant in Pandaan, about a half hour's drive from Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, was established with the help of Cuban rollers from the Partagas factory in Havana. It is extremely well organized. If you have ever wondered what a modern, well-financed Cuban factory would look like, the Swedish Match operation is it.

"The Indonesian workers are so meticulous," says project manager Sander Van Hattem, who ran a small factory in the Dominican Republic before coming to Indonesia. "They are motivated workers. It's not just money here that motivates workers like it is in the Caribbean. They have pride in their work. They are slower than rollers in other countries, but their quality is excellent." Van Hattem plans to make about 3 million cigars in Pandaan over the next two years.

With such a strong heritage, it's strange that Indonesian tobacco still lacks respect in the premium cigar world, particularly in the United States, where many consumers and industry insiders consider the tobacco second-rate. Their attitude largely stems from an ignorance of the quality of top Indonesian cigar tobacco; the country produces thousands of bales of excellent quality wrapper, binder and filler from Java and Sumatra.

The largest island of this multi-isle nation, Sumatra boasts a rich wrapper tobacco that is the basis for the Sumatra-seed cigar tobacco now grown in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua and other regions. But because there's not enough quality wrapper to use in premium cigars, producers set aside almost all the Sumatran tobacco grown today for use in machine-made cigars in Europe.

Instead, it is the tobacco grown in East Java, particularly near Jember, that is important to premium cigarmakers. The best of this tobacco is to cigar smokers what Jamaica's Blue Mountain is to coffee drinkers or France's grand cru Pinot Noir is to oenophiles.

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