Central to this project is the aim to create enabling environments, and the improvement of production practices which improves livelihoods and provides protection to the environment.
When COVID-19 arrived in Sabah in March 2020, and everyone was advised to stock-up for lock-down, people from the Tinuhan and Lapasan Ulu communities in Tuaran District were alarmed to hear at their local supermarket that there was a limit of 10kg rice/family. Newspaper articles reminded us that Sabah now produces only 25% of its rice, and Vietnam, one of our major suppliers, announced it was halting exports. Anyway, where would kampung people get money to buy rice under extended lock-down?
Tuaran was once a major rice producer: the community wondered, why not plant our own rice to feed ourselves? With that initial line of questioning and a group of enthusiastic Sabahans, the Projek Padi began in June 2020 housed by Forever Sabah and with a special grant from Yayasan Hasanah.
Although the communities were hesitant at first about engaging with an NGO, the Projek Padi team was able to connect with 43 former-paddy-farmers in Kampung Tinhuan and Kampung Lapasan Ulu, the largest number we could afford, and assist them to revitalize their abandoned paddy fields, fence against buffaloes, and plant paddy. The Drainage & Irrigation Department quickly stepped in to restore the canal and drainage networks and the seeds of 32 traditional varieties were sourced from farmers in Kota Belud, Tuaran and Kudat.
The project pursued 4 main goals:
Firstly, to support rice production to improve community incomes and food sovereignty while helping increase Sabah’s self-sufficiency level (SSL) for rice, by helping farmers find cost effective solutions to the hard work and risks of restoring fields and growing rice.
Secondly, to assist farmers to transition to more sustainable methods through sharing new ways of planting paddy, particularly using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) methodology, making organic fertilizers, compost and so on, so as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the use of agricultural chemicals.
Thirdly, to advance understanding of sustainable rice production, by using citizen science and local knowledge to assess the successes and challenges of our rice farmers with the assistance of rice specialists and others.
Lastly, our fourth goal is to story-tell, to tell and spread the story that you are reading now. It is important that the work that we have done does not go unnoticed because how do you revive something you don’t know about? So, if you’ve made it this far with the story, thank you.
Under this project 43 farming households managed to grow an amazing 28 tons of 34 heirloom varieties of rice. This meant a 230% return on farmer, grant and public investment, and an average household income of RM 8,485. Farmers who used organic production was valued 40% higher, worth over RM 3,000 more per acre, because yields were higher, prices were higher, money was saved on chemicals, and with SRI less seed was needed.
The farmers of these communities have shown that they can make meaningful contributions to improving Sabah's Rice Self Sufficiency Level (SSL) from its current stuck level of just 25%, while improving their lives. On average participating farmers produced enough rice to meet their yearly needs plus 40% extra; In Kg. Tinuhan 72% of participating farmers exceeded the 100% SSL level of 80kgs/rice/household/year.
For details of the project outcomes and of findings on how to advance rice sustainability according to the community's citizen science see this presentation the team made to the farmers on April 1st 2021.
To better understand the rate of return on investing in restoring padi production in Sabah under this project we measured what this cost and the results in Kg. Tinuhan to produce this graphic:
After growing and harvesting enough rice to meet their own needs, the farmers have branded for sale their surplus rice (2,175kg of a dozen varieties worth RM 36,361) as ‘Wagas Dati’, meaning our rice in the Dusun language.
What is next?
Moving forward with ensuring food sovereignty in Sabah, we hope to reach more rice farmers in 2021-2022 to rekindle the spirit and joy of rice planting and revitalize more land.
We want to make ‘Wagas Dati’ a replicable example of rebuilding local economies by recognizing the true value of responsibly grown, traditional rice varieties compared to commercially grown imported rice currently sold at lower prices, a cheapness that is reflected in the heavy use of chemicals and unsustainable production practices. Let’s instead acknowledge the true value of rice, by meaningfully sharing our Ringgits, with pride in our local farmers.
Most importantly, we hope to re-engage the younger generation in rice, dispelling the perception that rice growing means drudgery in the lands for little economic return. Not only do we want to make farming easier and safer (through mechanisation, fewer chemicals and innovative techniques), but we also want to build a broader economy around rice. This opens diverse ways for young people to get involved in any and all stages of rice, whether in research, bringing high quality local products to market, managing supply chains, starting eco-education and agro-eco-tourism businesses, and really anything you can think of.
Rice has always been central to Sabahan identity and ways of life. Youth energy is necessary for our viable future with rice