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Old traditions for a new market

News story

For generations the Kelabit and Lun Bawang people in the highlands of Northern Sarawak on the island of Borneo have been growing a unique rice using traditional farming methods. Traditional farming typically involves hand tilling and harvesting, and avoids using fertiliser and pesticides.

Highland rice being hand winnowed (removing the dust and chaff from the grain) at Bario in the process of sun-drying.]

With the government pushing farmers to use modern farming methods to increase rice production, traditional rice farming practices are in danger of disappearing.

And the question is now being asked: Should farmers abandon traditions and embrace the age of machine and modernisation?

“Not necessarily so,” says Curtin Sarawak’s Professor Clem Kuek.

‘Adan’ rice, commonly known as Bario, Ba’kelalan or highland rice, is a popular, premium rice grown the highlands region. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity describes it as a medium-grain rice, marble white in colour, and famous for its excellent sweet taste and slightly sticky texture. It is often used to make dessert dishes.

“It’s a very special rice,” explains Kuek. “Its relatively small production output and remoteness from urban centres means that highland rice commands a higher price than other rice consumed in Malaysian households.”

Bario and Ba’kelalan, located in the highlands, and Curtin Sarawak, located in the city of Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia.

Bario and Ba’kelalan, located in the highlands, and Curtin Sarawak, located in the city of Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia.

But with the push to increase rice harvests through mechanisation and the use of fertilisers, highland rice farmers run the risk of devaluing their product.

“It’s simple economics,” Kuek says. “Increasing the supply reduces demand, and therefore the price.” A farmer might produce more rice, but lower rice prices would mean that his or her income would stay the same. It’s extra work, without the corresponding gain.

Luckily Kuek has something else in mind. Rather than increasing production, Kuek believes that an emphasis on quality, not quantity, would deliver a better outcome for highland folk.

Certified authentic and organic from the highlands

In 2014 Curtin Sarawak and the Sarawak Department of Agriculture (DoA) organised a forum with highland rice farmers to discuss how they could better make their rice a low-volume, high-value speciality product with organic and geographical certifications.

Thanks to the traditional way they farm their rice (most notably without the use of fertilisers and pesticides) it is already very close to organic standards – a trait that goes hand-in-hand with marketing highland rice as a niche product. In fact, only a few small changes to protocol would be needed meet Malaysian organic standards.

In the wake of rising popularity of organic food around the world, organic certification would bring a number of benefits to the highland rice farmers. In particular, a geographical certification (a major part of an organic certification program plan) would allow a community to imprint a mark or logo on each pack of rice to guarantee that it is from highlands. In its most developed state, consumers would be able to trace the origins of each package – all the way back to the farm that produced it.

As demand for Bario/Ba’kelalan rice spreads, it is beginning to be grown outside the highlands of its origin, so this type of certification would also allow highland farmers to assure consumers that their rice is a premium, authentic product from their region and preserve their traditional way of farming.

But most significant of all, the proposed scheme places the farmers at the centre of production.

“Rice has been grown there traditionally for a thousand years or more. So why shouldn’t they have charge of it?” asks Kuek. “The problem is that they have not been shown how to manage its supply.”

Until now.

“A major benefit of getting a certification system set up is that it not only ensures consistency in the product, but also places the community right in the centre of the organisation, accreditation and regulation of the whole concept,” says Kuek.

A touch of modernity

While Kuek and the highland farmers hope to keep traditional rice farming practices alive, a couple of concessions to modern technology are still needed – particularly when it comes to getting organically certified.

As Kuek explains, “The first step in producing quality rice is to dry it and bring the water content down to around 20 per cent. If it’s not dry, it’s not stable.

“At the moment highland farmers don’t have access to drying kilns, so they dry rice out in the sun on mats. It is totally dependent on the sun, so if it not out for a couple days the product can get mouldy. You can also get variable drying, so that when you mill the rice there’s a lot of broken grain because some of the grains are not as hard as they should be.”

Highland rice being hand winnowed (removing the dust and chaff from the grain) at Bario in the process of sun-drying.]

Highland rice being hand winnowed (removing the dust and chaff from the grain) at Bario in the process of sun-drying.

With drying kilns the rice can be dried more consistently, and dried to particular temperatures and water content, making the milling process easier and more predictable, which is crucial to developing a premium rice product. A concession to modern farming, Kuek admits, but without it the highland rice plan could not get off the ground.

Plastic packaging is another inevitability.

“At the end of the day, a purely traditional product wouldn’t be packaged in plastic, but that’s what is required for export,” Kuek says. “Modernity is needed to make sure the products meets industry standards: no pests stowing away in the product, meeting packaging standards and graded grain sizes.”

For Kuek it is matter of finding a middle ground where technology and tradition can meet. “The traditional method is really captured in the production part of growing the rice and harvesting it. Once the rice is harvested, modernity takes over,” he explains.

But it is not as simple as just installing the kilns in the community. A major hurdle is finding the power to run them. The majority of highland communities are not connected to the state power grid, and the energy needed to run a kiln is too much for a local diesel generator to produce. Luckily, Kuek has an answer to this too.

As part of Curtin’s mission “to engage communities and transform lives,” Professor Kuek and Curtin Sarawak are also working to bring power to rural northern Sarawak via micro-hydro and solar schemes. It is Kuek’s hope that communal drying kilns can be established at the sites where Curtin Sarawak power schemes are implemented.

Video: The micro-hydro system at Long Russu

By working with the communities to teach them how to run and service the kilns, Kuek aims to engage with communities, get them involved and ultimately have them conduct business on their own terms. He hopes to shift from a model where the highland communities supply their product to a middleman or large conglomerate, to one where they have full control of the most important parts of the supply chain, namely the growing, harvesting and preparation of the rice.

The road forward

While there is some political navigating ahead to get the highland rice scheme off the ground, Kuek remains hopeful. After all, the ultimate goal is to empower the farming community in northern Sarawak. Whether that turns out to be as involved as connecting to the micro-hydro power scheme and creating a new, organic branded product, or simply uniting a community (no small feat no matter where you are in the world), it seems that the future of rice farming in the Sarawak highlands is full of possibilities.