Planting the Seeds of Change


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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