Weaving tiny nests and fortunes for Indonesians

According to his rivals, Hendarsyah is the birds' nest king. A 60-ish gentleman with a generous waistline and wispy beard, he sits perched on a stool outside his narrow, three-story shop/house most afternoons.

If his local competitors are right, Mr. Hendarsyah can afford to appear idle: They estimate he makes $75,000 a year collecting the coveted, edible nests of swiftlets, who set up housekeeping in his former shop.

His success shows that while Indonesia's political chaos has critically weakened the economy, not everyone is suffering. In some places, small merchants and commodities farmers are benefiting from the 1998 collapse of the hyper-centralized and corrupt regime of former President Suharto.

"These birds have better homes than a lot of people," grumbles one peddler. Indeed, anyone with a rafter to spare has encouraged the avian invasion.

The swiftlets have a better trick than Rumpelstiltskin - they spin saliva into gold. Their tiny, pouchlike nests are held together by the glutinous spittle of the males.

The nests sell at wholesale in Singapore for $2,000 a kilogram (about $900 per pound) - more than most caviars.

While always lucrative, this city's nest trade has only taken flight in the past three years. In the old days, Mr. Suharto's grandson, Ari Sigit Harjojudanto, had a nest-export monopoly. But with Suharto gone, the merchants of Ketapang have been allowed to sell to the highest birder (er, bidder). "It wasn't worth it before," says Ah Fung, who converted the top floor of his general store into a bird cave last year.

Suharto's fall opened lucrative niches in the economy that were once dominated by his cronies. Suharto's son Tommy had a famous monopoly on cloves, the spice that inspired the Dutch conquest of the archipelago that makes up Indonesia, and the family also once monopolized the orange trade and imports of soy meal, used by almost every Indonesian chicken farmer.

And the value of export crops has soared, thanks to the decline of Indonesia's currency, the rupiah. In addition to cloves, Indonesia is one of the world's biggest producers of cinnamon, pepper, and coffee, crops often grown by small farmers here.

Before Ketapang's strange bird-nest success, this was a fairly typical Borneo trading town, with rows of three-story shop/houses, a raucous market, and a river flowing into the Java Sea to serve as a port.

Then, a few swiftlets made their homes above Hendarsyah's shop. Quickly realizing he was onto a good thing, he did everything to make them feel comfortable - including moving out.

More arrived, and swiftlet mania soon swept through town, with many once-thriving shops abandoned to the birds. Ketapang's skies blacken at dusk, as thousands wheel and dive after their insect prey. Like bats, they nest in colonies, often in large caves, and use echo-location to negotiate their dark abodes.

Birds' nests have been an important Southeast Asian trading item since at least the 17th century. Legend had it that the nests were made from dried sea-foam, a more palatable idea than the truth, and perhaps one of history's first examples of false advertising.

Today, well-heeled diners in Singapore, Hong Kong, and mainland China happily pay $30 a bowl for this dish, believed to be an aphrodisiac and to cure disease.

The nests have always been scarce and expensive, due to a limited number of suitable caves in the wild. In Indonesia, there are only 500 such caves, and the country is the world's dominant producer, with exports of about 150 tons a year, or 70 percent of global sales, according to a local trade group. The other main producers are Malaysia and Thailand.

Though cultivated nests date back to the 1950s, when birdhouses were erected in rice fields and jungle fringes, the urban cultivation of swiftlets appears new.

The biggest to cash in has been Medan, the bustling capital of North Sumatra province, where a shopping mall converted to swiftlet use is drawing complaints about the noise and smell.

In smaller Ketapang, much of the real estate on the dusty main drag has been renovated to the birds' rather finicky tastes. Windows are boarded up, with only swiftlet-sized holes left behind. Stereo systems blare out swiftlet squeaks day and night to attract more birds.

The business remains more art than science. Ah Fung, the general-store owner, says in a year of trying, he's only attracted two nests. He thinks the problem may be his swiftlet soundtrack. Other merchants admit trying spells and charms.

Hendarsyah and other successful merchants, suspicious of outsiders trying to lure away their birds, aren't saying much at all.

Holding court streetside, Hendarsyah repeatedly claims to know nothing about the nests, while swiftlets perform an improbable aerial ballet around his head before disappearing into his building.

"Oh, there aren't any nests there," he says. "These wild birds, they'll just fly anywhere. They're just having a look around." Then he fixes his questioner with a steely eye: "You're not planning on going into business here, are you?"

His caution is probably wise. Ketapang, like much of Indonesia, is an increasingly lawless place. If his neighbors are right about Hendarsyah's lucrative nests, they're a prime target for thieves.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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