SRI-Mas Newsletter

 


Getting to know Kelantan through a Rice Farmer's Perspective

We first met Puan Salwati after our delicious dinner in Min House Camp. She came with two other young men to meet our team and Kimberly from e-homemakers to discuss the potential of agrotourism in Kelantan. She seemed to be quite good at rallying the youth to actively contribute to their community as was exemplified by the eagerness in the young men’s faces. It was a brief encounter but she definitely gave a good first impression. She looked much younger than what I had in mind.

We managed to spend more time with Puan Salwati the following day as one of the main agenda was to visit her organic paddy field and learn more about its processes. We were given coordinates for where to meet her, which we used and subsequently got a tiny bit lost. However, with the help of Aby who had been to Puan Salwati’s place before, we eventually managed to get there. It was not long before Puan Salwati emerged in her Kancil.

She encouraged us to call her Kak Ti and to skip the formalities. It just seemed to be natural for her – dressed in her humble track pants, slippers and a hat to protect herself from the heat. A mother of five children, she has been engaged with SRI-Mas in developing her organic rice farming for the past five years.

At her rice field, she shared with us her knowledge of organic rice farming and how simple it can be to go organic. Yes, it may be more labour intensive but when you keep the long term vision in mind, it can really motivate you to go the extra mile. Kak Ti has no problem in keeping that vision.

She proudly brought us to one of her two blue barrels and started to explain the role of snails in a rice field. They would usually eat and destroy young rice plants but Kak Ti would meticulously go through her field and pick out the snails and store them in these blue barrels and they would in turn be her compost. So she takes the pests and makes them into food for her plants – there’s genius in the simplicity of it. She lifted off the cover of the barrel and it smelled absolutely awful. She mixes many different organic materials and let’s it continuously ferment under the hot sun with the aid of brown sugar too. She humorously explained that if humans are repelled by the smell, it’s inevitably good for her plants as it keeps all the pests away too.

We then walked about a hundred meters away to Kak Ti’s second patch of paddy. It was wetter than the previous one and here Kak Ti showed us how to ‘melandak’ (weeding) which is to aerate the soil. Fun fact: landak in Malay is porcupine, and melandak would be porcupine-ing – apt because the tool we used to ‘melandak’ had spikes on it like the back of a porcupine. She handed us the tools and proceeded to hop into her field and demonstrate the process.

The tool itself was quite cool as it was handmade and innovated by the farmers themselves. It was quite heavy but very efficient in getting the job done. Kak Ti mentioned that it usually only takes about 20 minutes for a professional farmer to finish weeding the same area that we worked on – but it took four of us almost an hour to complete the same task under the very very hot sun. It is not an easy job and safe to say, we definitely learnt to appreciate more about the hard work people do just so that we can comfortably get the food on our plates. Rice is hard work.

Around noon, we followed her to a place in Cabang Empat to see bigger fields owned by Pak Azman who was preparing to venture into organic rice farming too. We inspected the area and Kak Ti pointed out to us the stark differences between conventional rice farming and organic rice farming. Not only would you get healthier rice, but the system would also ensure a higher yield boosting the local economy. Kak Ti’s ultimate vision is to provide enough rice so that the local communities would not have to depend on external sources. The food they grow is the food they eat.

As it was getting hot, Kak Ti led us to Pak Azman’s house where we were welcomed by his wife. In typical Kelantanese style, she proceeded to pick a few rambutans and mangosteens from her own trees and served them for us. True hospitality. We spent some time chit chatting before we headed back to Min House Camp where our next activity was waiting for us: collecting lokan!

After collecting more fatigue than lokan, we returned to the boat where Kak Ti was gracefully waiting for us. We then set back to Min House Camp but stopped the boat in the middle of the river to conduct an impromptu interview with Kak Ti on her thoughts about agrotourism.

Overall, our meeting with Kak Ti proved to be inspiring. She opened my mind about what it means to be a strong woman – you don’t have to be wearing nice dresses sat in your luxurious office acting like you rule the world. Kak Ti is a very strong woman, and she does her best at whatever it is she can do. She proudly calls herself an organic rice farmer and an activist – and she has every right to be proud. I can’t wait to see what she does next!

#puansalwati #kelantan #agrotourism #farmingthefuture

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A Johorean Farmer Stays Ahead of the Game

From left to right: Me, Izzad, Encik Sulaiman and Dr. Anizan

Some of you may have heard of the famous Malay folklore, later adapted into a 2004 award-winning film- Puteri Gunung Ledang. Gunung Ledang, or Mount Ophir as British cartographers decided to name it later, stood tall in the southern state of Johore, overlooking the ancient port city of Malacca to the east. While the mountain is shrouded in mystery and legends, at its foot, far away from the world of constructed realities and romantic myths, one farmer's fight for truth and justice is based on nothing but learnt facts and a clear conscience. His name is Sulaiman bin Wagiman.

Yes, Santa Claus just decided to retire in Malaysia, get tanned, ditch his red velvet suit and shave.

I met Encik Sulaiman for the first time soon after I came back from Alor Setar. As the sole practitioner of SRI in Johore, he was keen on helping SRI-Mas with our study onarsenic levels in rice.

6 years ago, Encik Sulaiman started a new chapter in his life; he shed the title of "businessman", picked up a bag of seeds and began farming. A couple of years down the road, the 56-year-old farmer is now the proud owner of 5 acres of oil palm trees and 3 acres of paddy fields. Moreover, he has been practising SRI for 3 seasons now, calling the undertaking "a good challenge".

Encik Sulaiman's oil palm trees and paddy fields

A good challenge? Indeed, some would cite increased labour requirement as one of the biggest reasons they shy away from SRI. To illustrate, instead of applying chemical herbicides to remove weeds, farmers that practise SRI usually resort to mechanised weeding. Now, before you start picturing a man in a blue overall operating a combine-like machine, stop. Mechanical weeders look rather modest to say the least. Since under SRI, soil is frequently aerated, mechanical weeders are mostly small enough to be pushed through the supposedly empty lanes. "It only takes 2 hours for me to spray herbicides across my fields, but 1 week for me to unroot those pesky weeds one by one manually," said Encik Sulaiman.

“It only take 2 hours for me to spray herbicides across my fields, but 1 week for me to unroot those pesky weeds one by one manually"

Encik Sulaiman is on the phone, sounding like a boss.

Being an entrepreneur at heart, Encik Sulaiman loves a good challenge, especially when he has his eyes set on the the long-term benefits of SRI; he wants to leave our children with safer and healthier foods and a sound environment. I suppose at his age, the man has seen enough of the damage done by public and private entities with myopic attitudes towards our societal and ecological wellbeing. Greed, ironically, makes us all poor.

But change never comes easily. While the agricultural sector of our country, or of any country indeed, is built upon the hard work of our farmers, they have been, intentionally or otherwise, groomed into quiet recipients of subsidised inputs- seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. According to Encik Sulaiman, even when they realise that yields are stagnating, pest outbreaks are becoming more frequent, soil and water are heavily polluted, few of them will ever break the silence.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. While Encik Sulaiman is no caucasian-looking alien flying around town in his underwear, he certainly takes the whole good vs. evil dichotomy quite seriously.

S for Sulaiman.

“Agriculture was to be thoroughly modernised, no, industrialised; the more you put into it, the more you get out of it."

The Green Revolution was accredited for significantly reducing hunger in Asia and Latin America, albeit controversially. The demographic circumstances in which the movement arose justified the need to breed high-yielding varieties (HYV), distribute subsidised chemical inputs, improve irrigation and so on. Agriculture was to be thoroughly modernised, no, industrialised; the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Just like any other industry in the economy, farmers were thrust into a massive production line; on one end, they were given, or sometimes sold, subsidised seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, while on the other end, they were expected, or rather expecting, to get higher yields than they usually would.

However, when policymakers and private actors fail, or refuse to take into account the negative externalities of an economic activity as resource-intensive as agriculture, the rosy picture that they paint for farmers suddenly comes with a higher price tag. Apart from the well-documented environmental impact, this industrial mode of agricultural production often creates and accentuates the power imbalances that permeate our food systems. Players in the agricultural input markets are driven by profit, understandably, and their sales are boosted by subsidies given to them by the government to ease the burden of farmers. Hypothetically, what happens when a seed company's revenue is determined by the number of bags of seeds they sell, not by the yields they guarantee to get? What happens then, when only a handful of these companies are licensed by the government to operate?

Under SRI, Encik Sulaiman has learnt from our trainers the way to select seeds; seeds are soaked for 24 hours or so prior to seeding so that non-viable ones can be eliminated. Instead of taking things for granted, Encik Sulaiman decided to run a simple experiment with the seeds that his fellow farmers bought from seed companies in the area. A quick test indicated that, for every bag of seeds he purchased, almost a third of it would be subpar. Since plant density is greatly reduced under SRI, farmers are encouraged to identify the best seeds they can find and allow them to grow with minimal competition. This knowledge-based intensification method emphasises the need for educational and participatory agricultural extension; farmers play apivotal role in relaying best practices to fellow farmers and researchers.

As Encik Sulaiman set up the experiment again, this time in the presence of DoA officers and other farmers, he demonstrated his findings and photographed the evidence for future reference. "I can never expect change to come easily, but what I can do is to continue learning and educating, even if it means going against the flow", Encik Sulaiman said, seemingly in anticipation of something bigger heading his way.

Encik Sulaiman's recipe for change:

First, learn from the best

Then, be a role model. Work it, Encik Sulaiman. You know you've got it.

P/S Encik Sulaiman's theory of change is simple: practise what you preach and the truth will prevail. It's no wonder then, that Encik Sulaiman's story takes on a rather similar tone to that of K.O.K; Integrity is best complimented with knowledge. Winston Churchill once said,"The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is." The fight for truth and justice may at times seem unwinnable, but remember, even in the darkest of times, the first ray of light is all that it takes to break the dawn.

#enciksulaiman #johor #sri #thevipseat

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Kelantanese Farmers Take Hold of Their Destiny

Organic greens for sale at pasar seringgit (one-ringgit market)- Kamal

A month ago, I was sitting in the backseat of a four-wheel drive headed to Kota Bharu. I was anxiously staring at the clock that had just struck nine. “I’m gonna be late for the meeting,” I thought to myself.

The capital of Kelantan was a 6-hour drive away from Jerantut, Pahang. Both cities were at the mercy of the largest floods in recent Malaysian history, and SRI-Mas is currently exploring the possibility of having local communities cultivate bamboo along the Pahang River. This form of vegetation is proven effective in preventing soil erosion that oftentimes causes heavy sedimentation in rivers and streams. Moreover, this type of ecological engineering can further contribute to the improvement of food security and community development through the adoption of agroforestry. All of this certainly sounds exciting, doesn’t it? However, the truth was, I was travelling to Kota Bharu on a slightly different mission; I had scheduled a meeting with Kumpulan Organik Kelantan, or “K.O.K” for short.

My first encounter with Puan Salwati was a rather refreshing experience. I had just flown back from Paris the day before and decided to take an overnight bus to Alor Setar in order to attend the First Southeast Asian Regional Conference on System of Rice Intensification (SRI). The next morning, a sleep-deprived me was somehow appointed as a rapporteur and, well, let’s just say no amount of caffeine could have saved me from the sleep-inducing effects of technical jargon. Just when I was about to give in to drowsiness and take a short nap, a panel discussion that featured farmers who were pioneering the adoption of SRI in Malaysia was set to begin. I took a gulp of water, trying hard to stay awake.

Being a major in Agricultural Economics, I wanted to know more about how farmers made decisions in real life; when public concerns about food safety, environmental degradation and rural poverty were changing consumption habits, I wanted to know how farmers would adapt to new socioeconomic realities.

“I practice SRI, or for that matter sustainable agriculture, because I want to save the world in my own way,” uttered a female farmer who had a distinctively Kelantanese accent. Her message clearly resonated with the audience as they gave her a reassuring round of applause. Later, she briefly mentioned her involvement in bringing together Kelantanese farmers in the cause of organic farming, and everybody could tell she meant business. That was Puan Salwati and the party of farmers she mentioned was no other than K.O.K.

Even though K.O.K strictly maintains a non-hierarchical structure, Puan Salwati was seen as the undisputed moral leader of K.O.K. Probably due to her influence, what really stood out about K.O.K was their no-nonsense approach to ethics in food and agriculture. In order to learn more about the group’s aspirations and challenges, I asked Puan Salwati if she could arrange a meeting with K.O.K members for me. On such short notice, I was glad that four members could show up. During our meeting, the eldest among them, Kamal, told me that farming was an “ibadah.”The other members, reasonably younger, nodded in agreement.

Kamal produces organic vegetables now. He stopped using chemical fertilisers a year ago when he felt that he had attained an adequate understanding of organic farming. For him, going organic was a matter of conscience; he couldn’t bear the thought of putting on the market produce that was laced with chemical residues. Understandably, many farmers around the world share his preocupation.

Presenting a money box made of bamboo to a workshop participant- Puan Salwati

It hasn't been easy for Basyir, Bukhris and Fariq though. Small-scale organic farming requires farmers to pick up skills such as composting for fertilisation and pest control, as well as creatively marketing their products. While the Department of Agriculture (DoA) offers guidelines on how to operationalise organic farming, community-based support groups such as K.O.K become instrumental in disseminating knowledge and in enhancing access to market. K.O.K members are encouraged to organise workshops and develop learning programmes for others. This is their modus operandi: educate to empower. Doing away with heavy bureaucracy, K.O.K is a practical yet close-knit community that strives to familiarise society with safer, healthier and environmentally friendlier methods of crop production.

Puan Salwati organises a composting workshop- Puan Noriah

Representative from DoA attends the workshop- Puan Noriah

My meeting with Kamal, Basyir, Bukhris and Fariq was decidedly a brief one. I kept them around until midnight when they told me, quite bashfully, that they had to take off; they'd have to wake up early in the morning to work their fields. Embarrassed by my lack of consideration, I hastily snapped a photo of our gathering before we called it a night.

Days later, I suddenly recalled something of a personal fascination about the history of Kelantan. While the state was renowned for being "a prime stronghold of traditional Malay culture, crafts and religion,” I was more drawn to the Kelantanese people, or rather to the rebels within. From the deep-seated aversion to colonial rule shown by Tok Janggut to the collective will of the people to vote against the ruling coalition again and again when others dare not, the Kelantanese people hardly ever get complacent with the status quo, for better or worse. Perhaps K.O.K is just anothermanifestation of such a defiant psyche in these challenging times? No matter what, SRI-Mas is proud to have K.O.K fighting alongside us for a better Malaysia.

P/S K.O.K is currently planning to launch a project that allows nature-loving urban-dwellers toexperience farming during the weekends. Also, if you’re interested in supporting K.O.K, we have good news for you: they are now looking into home delivery as a way to establish more intimate producer-consumer relationships. So stay tuned as we’ll be posting updates on Facebook!

Visitors to Min Homestay Camp help to rebuild Sang Kelulut's (Stingless Honey Bees/ Meliponines) favourite hideout- Puan Noriah

#puansalwati #kelantan #sri #strengthinunity

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