Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop

Soil Conservation and Indigenous Farming by Chan Zi Xiang

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Chan Zi Xiang, Langit Collective (Co-founder and Chief Financial Officer)

Langit Collective is a social enterprise that primarily works with paddy farmer communities in Sabah and Sarawak. It was first started in 2015. However, the team really started to learn about agriculture in 2017. Aside from agriculture, they also learn the language and traditional knowledge of the local communities. 

The Lun Bawang farmer communities are based in Long Semadoh, Sarawak. It is a highland which is 800m above sea level. The average temperature there is around 16 to 28 degree Celsius. The temperature difference is big between day and night. 

The Lun Bawang communities are mostly subsistence farmers. They plant crops for their own consumption. Therefore, the way they farm is very different from the way of conventional farming. The communities started to plant wet paddy 70 years ago. Before this, they implemented the hill paddy system, which is also known as swiddening, slash and burn or shifting cultivation. There are still people practicing this method. However, wet paddy is the main crop. 

Heirloom crops

Basically, heirloom crops are ‘’what you see is what you get’’. It is not hybridised. Instead, it is open-pollinated. We can collect the seeds from the plant and propagate them. The properties of the next generation will be similar to its parent generation. In contrast, a hybridised seed may lose its desired properties in the next generation or generation after that.

The farmers in Long Semadoh do not buy seeds from the store. Instead, they plant more than 30 varieties of heirloom rice which have been passed down for more than 70 years. They acquired the varieties from the local regions and this goes back hundreds of years. The rice produced is black in colour, but it is not the black glutinous rice that we usually see. 

Job’s tears is also one of the heirloom crops in Long Semadoh. Job’s tears is native to Southeast Asia. It has two varieties. One is edible; the other is wild and not edible. Seeds of the non-edible variety can be used as beads to make bracelets. This plant is now purported to be the new Quinoa. Yet, most of us do not know that it is native to Malaysia. The Koreans and Japanese use this plant in their skincare products due to its whitening properties. 

The another heirloom crop is the foxtail millet. It is not native in Malaysia, but has been naturalised for a long time. The local foxtail millet is very fine and glutinous, which is different from the millet we usually eat. The millet that we commonly consume is imported from countries like China and India.   

It is a saddening fact that most of the Malaysians do not know the existence of these plants. Even among the Lun Bawang communities, there are less and less people planting these heirloom crops. As these crops are annuals, their germination rates drop drastically if they are not planted immediately. Because of this, the communities have lost some of the varieties as they no longer possess the seeds. In fact, these heirloom crops are the farmers’ asset. This is also where we can find new ways of fooding in this era. 

Aside from Job’s tears and foxtail millet, there is a more commonly-known heirloom crop: pineapple. The Sarawak pineapple is quite famous and has been naturalised since a very long time ago. None can remember where they got the pineapple from. According to Zi, the pineapple tastes extraordinarily good. Once you taste it, you will never go back again. The fruit is not available elsewhere as it is produced at a place four hours off-road from the nearest town, Lawas. 

The heirloom crops are very diverse. For example, there are more than 30 varieties of rice being cultivated by the Lun Bawang communities. Unfortunately, the Malaysians nowadays hardly recognise these varieties. We probably hear of foreign varieties e.g. Basmati rice and are able to name few local rice brands e.g. Cap Rambutan, but not the local varieties. Maybe some Kelantanese can remember the purplish rice that they use to cook nasi dagang, which is known as beras dagang. Even then, we do not see much being planted anymore. Most of the farmers in West Malaysia are using hybrid seeds that are sold commercially. 

One good thing about heirloom crops is their huge biodiversity.

The Lun Bawang farmers can tell you that among three types of black rice that they produce, which type is suitable for making kuih while which type is suitable for cooking porridge etc. The white rice that they produce has at least 7 to 8 varieties, and each has different flavours and culinary uses. This is just like a treasure trove and we have no idea that it still exists in Malaysia. 

As these heirloom seeds have to be planted every year, they are actually more resilient than the introduced crops or varieties. They acclimatise to local weather patterns and environmental changes. So, the crop plants that are being harvested are actually survivors. From an evolutionary point of view, they are the fittest ones. Zi is confident that when the other seeds do not do well, their heirloom seeds will not have any problem. 

As a social enterprise, Zi and his team see the heirloom crop as a specialty. These heirloom plants are so unique to them as well as to Malaysia. They believe that this is the opportunity to bridge the economy gap between urban & rural communities. 

Indigenous farming wisdom

The system that they incorporate is very concerted. There are a lot of features worth mentioning. One is the buffalo. The buffalo plays a very interesting role in Long Semadoh. It is not being used till the land. In fact, the buffalos are released into the fields to roam freely after the harvest. They will eat up the remaining paddy stalks in the field. At the same time, they fall in the mud and trample around. This is where the turning of the soil happens. Of course, they defecate. Their faeces go in and re-fertilise the whole field. 

The harvest is done by January or February every year. Then, the buffalos are released to the fields. They will be in the fields until July. These buffalos clean up the fields so that the soil will be just nice to start the planting. The farmers just need to remove some grasses that grow wildly during the resting period. The whole process is very labour-saving. Tilling is not needed. This is a surprising fact to us as we have always been taught that tilling is compulsory for farming. 

Without any input e.g. fertiliser or pesticide, the soil quality in the paddy field is good enough. It is naturally organic. Furthermore, the yields of traditional farming in Long Semadoh is actually quite comparable to the average yields of typical conventional farming, which consume a lot of chemical inputs. With much lesser input cost, the farmers in Long Semadoh gain good-quality rice to sustain themselves. They even feed their livestock when there is an excess of rice. 

Another interesting farming method is minimum intervention. The farmers in Long Semadoh do not uproot the pineapple plants after the first harvest. Instead, they leave the plants in soil and let them fruit again and again. Although the fruits subsequently shrink in size, the flavour actually improves. The farmers normally sell the firstly harvested fruits but keep the latter produce for their own consumption. 

The swiddening or slash-and-burn technique is often blamed for haze or greenhouse gas emission. However, it is unfair to accuse this traditional farming practice without understanding its actual process. Swiddening is part of the communities’ culture, and the way that it is being done is almost impossible to cause the kind of catastrophe. Farmers have been practicing swiddening for hundreds of years, while the haze issue only arises in recent decades. Also, the swiddeners may be used as scapegoats by many big-scale agriculture companies, especially the oil-palm companies. 

In the drier months, the farmers chop down big trees and clear the particular forest area. They dry the chopped materials before torching it. The whole process is done by a single person with a chainsaw. Each family will work on just a piece of land, so the swiddened area would not be large. As they torch the dry materials, they control the fire so that it does not spread to non-targeted area or land of other farmers. 

You may see the lush vegetation as a forest in Long Semadoh, but to the locals, it is their kebun. The forested land was probably opened by their older generation several decades ago. The same plot of land would not be re-visited for five, ten or even twenty years. Again, minimal intervention is involved as the swidden is left without adding any input. The farmers let the land regenerate itself before coming back to cultivate it. 

So, there is a natural system of applying the technique. And, as the land is cultivated by families, they do not consume much carbon. The farmers do not even use electricity, and they barely travel. Their carbon footprints are probably smaller than any of us. 

Aside from swiddening, they practice intercropping by collecting a cocktail of seeds. A single patch of land may be crowded by amaranth, mustard, corn, pumpkin, and many other crop plants. The farmers grow the plants altogether without beautiful raised beds. The crops mature and are harvested at different times.  There are some local varieties of plant. For example, the Brassica juncea variety which is known as Ensabi, Don Abi or Don Sadai. The local cucumber is similar in size to a huge lemon. It is very juicy and tastes like a bland melon. There are plants that rely on swiddening practice. These plants sprout only when the forest canopy is removed. One of the examples is the Don Likad plant. It has hairy leaves which are used as gloves or food wrappers. Another plant, Don Ipong, is used to cool the body.

Balanced ecosystem

In Lun Bawang, there are plenty of pollinators that help to flower the crop plants. These insects come from surrounding untouched forests. With the help of these beneficial insects, the communities get an abundance of fruits throughout the year. As they hardly export the fruits, the excess fruits just grow wildly in their gardens or farmland. 

“When you take care of the ecosystem, the ecosystem will take care of you.” This is how Zi describes the farmers’ mindset. After learning the language of local communities, Zi found that they have names for all insects, but do not have a word for pest. The concept of pest is not valid when you have a balanced ecosystem, as the insects do not cause serious problems as what they do in conventional or monocropping farming. 

This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

Watch a recorded version of this online workshop here: