For the Catholics of St. Joseph Freinademetz Church in Wajur, producing brown sugar makes life sweeter. In this lush and fertile corner of West Manggarai, East Nusa Tenggara, coffee, vanilla, cloves, cacao and more can all be grown, but these are seasonal crops. Brown sugar is a year-round staple, so many villagers have been gathering and producing it since it was introduced to the island in the 1940s, during the Japanese occupation. This is not the light, crystalline cane sugar that most people are familiar with. More fragrant, richer and rounder in taste and much more solid in texture, it comes from the juice that naturally forms on the tips of coconut flowers. At sunrise and sunset, the producers shin up the tall coconut palms – which are everywhere in the district - to tap the juice. Then they mix it with emulsifiers and spices such as ginger, heat and stir it till it thickens, pour it into pots then simply leave it to solidify in the sun. The result is a distinctive, natural product which is rapidly growing more popular, thanks to booming global demand for exotic ingredients, and which brings its producers an estimable living. “I’ve been producing brown sugar for 10 years,” says Matias Dandung. “I got the skills from my father.” His efforts bring him around one million rupiahs ($116) a month, which he says “helps me pay the school fees for my five children and my family’s daily needs.” His neighbor Philiphus Mahan, earns nearly $8 a day from selling sugar. “I can produce 20 bars a day, and three bars earn me just over a dollar,” he says. Father Apolinaris Antonius, the parish priest, estimates that 90 percent of his 6,000 parishioners are farmers and sugar producers. “Their donations to the parish and even to the diocese of Ruteng come from brown sugar,” he says. “It is an economic power in the parish. Many people finished their studies because their parents produce brown sugar.” In recent times, Ruteng diocese and the parish have started actively supporting the producers by establishing a cooperative that will help them develop the industry further. “It has been running for two years now,” says Father Burhanling, one of the organizers, who is hoping the West Manggarai authorities will support the initiative by helping to develop the farmers’ skills. “Integrated action is needed,” he says, “so the brown sugar industry can really expand and it can be enjoyed by more and more people.”
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