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Education, Empowerment, Devotion.

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.

K.O.K is an informal group of Kelantanese farmers who, without reservation, claim that they want to save the world. Boasting more than 80 active members, K.O.K adopts a surprisingly simple mode of communication; K.O.K members, mostly in their 20s and 30s, ask questions, give answers, discuss ideas and exchange pictures through WhatsApp. In other words, they have literally zero presence on social media. So, how did I find out about this relatively elusive group of driven farmers? It all started with a jet-lagged me, a spirited farmer and a purposeful voice.

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

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