Steamy Sarawak's main export adds spice to life

For some people, pepper may just add a tang to a meal -- but in steamy Sarawak it's the spice of life. Sarawak, on the northwestern coast of Borneo, grows 20 percent of the world's pepper, ranking fourth after Brazil, Indonesia, and India, government statistics show.

Peppercorns are the equatorial east Malaysian state's main farm export, bringing in $40 million a year, marketing officials say.

That's nothing to sneeze at in a region where world recession has battered commodity prices, reducing income from traditional cash earners like timber, rubber, and palm oil. Pepper prices are riding high after being in the doldrums in the early 1980s because of over-production.

The pepper vine, trained up poles at least 7 feet high, takes two or three years to bear the minute green berries that dry into peppercorns. So farmers cannot take immediate advantage of price increases.

But properly dried pepper can be stored without noticeable loss of flavor for up to 10 years, so the farmer can also release old stocks to cash in on an upswing.

Prices are high now, because many growers ripped out their vines when prices fell and started growing cocoa, officials and traders said.

Most of the pepper goes by boat to Singapore for transfer to larger ocean-going vessels that ship it around the world to Japan, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. Marketing officials say Malaysia's pepper exports are likely to stay this year at last year's 16,500 ton level, having fallen from 23,500 tons in 1983.

Traders say pepper is a highly speculative crop because of the lack of a central market or production controls and because large stocks can be off-loaded when prices rise.

But the traders seemed unconcerned, seated by their scales in shops in sleepy Kuching near the slow, brown Sarawak River that bears the state's produce away to tickle diners' palates worldwide.

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