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Hill rice farming in Sabah, East Malaysia
In a Dusun ethnic community in Bundu village in the Keningau district of the state of Sabah in East Malaysia, traditional hill rice cultivation is still practised.


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Hill rice farming system in Malaysia


This paper is an attempt to document and understand traditional hill rice agriculture in an ethnic community in Sabah, Malaysia, and to provide insights into how it can be practised and integrated with the present-day agricultural systems. It looks at the productivity of hill rice cultivation in a traditional farming community.

The study was carried out in a Dusun ethnic community in Bundu village in the Keningau district of the state of Sabah in East Malaysia. This village was chosen because its communities still practise hill rice cultivation. Three farmers were involved in recording the amount and use of their farm produce for one farming season to study the productivity of their farming.

Bundu is a cluster of four villages located at the district boundary between Tambunan and Keningau towns. The nearest town is Apin-apin, located about 14 km away, and Tambunan and Keningau are about 30 km to the north and south, respectively. People in Bundu depend on subsistence farming for livelihood, using both alluvial silt and hilly areas to grow wet and dry rice and other food crops. As land suitable for wet rice cultivation is limited, most farmers practice hill rice cultivation, whereby each family opens-up about 1-2 hectares of secondary forest every year.

Among vegetables, ginger has become very popular among farmers because of the good price and high demand outside Keningau. Selling handicrafts made from rattan and bamboo from the surrounding forest is also an important source of income. Rubber is a new source of income for those who have titled land.

Like other indigenous groups in Sabah, the people of Bundu still maintain much of their community values and practices. The practice of helping each other in terms of labor (known as gotong royong) is still common – for example, in clearing, planting and harvesting rice and ginger. Generally, the community maintains a close relationship with the forest, farm land and streams. Some have extensive knowledge of the use and care of these resources. Traditional medicines derived from the forest are widely used for minor injuries and sicknesses.

However, the recent trend towards the large-scale opening up of privately owned secondary forest for ginger plantation is not only threatening the river-forest ecosystem but also the food security =of the community. Besides, the oversupply of ginger could depress the market price of this currently profitable commodity.

Hill Rice Cultivation

Hill rice cultivation in Bundu and the surrounding areas is determined by the local dry and wet seasons. Preparatory farming work starts in June, planting in August and harvesting in January. Field preparation involves the clearing of secondary forest areas by cutting, drying and burning as shown in Table 1. The ash from the burned trees is an important source of nutrients. The farmers in Bundu usually return to previously opened-up forested land after a fallow period of about 5-7 years.

Each farmer has usually one farm for one planting season. The farms of the three farmers involved in this study are from cleared secondary forest, left to lie fallow for 7-10 years so the forest trees grow large. Each farmer opened up about 1 hectare, based on family needs and capacity.

Table 1. Hill rice cultivation cycle

Activity Month Note
Clearing undergrowth June Clearing undergrowth and small trees with a long machete.
Work is shared by all members of the family.
Felling big trees July Work is mostly done by men using axe and chainsaws.
Burning felled trees July - August The perimeter of the farm is cleared to prevent the spread of fire to surrounding areas.
This work is usually carried out with the help of other men.
The weather should be dry, at least for a few days before burning.
Planting rice August- September Unburned trees are gathered and burned before planting.
The entire family helps in the work.
Other food crops are also planted.
Weeding End of October to November Mostly carried out by women.
Other food crops are planted in between the rice plants.
Tending December January Farmers do other off-farm work like house repair, produce handicrafts, sell farm produce or seek temporary employment outside.
Some of the men usually go on hunting trips.
Harvesting January - March All members of the family help
Neighbours come and help too.
Threshing and winnowing March - April Threshing, by feet, is usually done by men.
Winnowing done by women.
Storing April - May Rice is usually stored in a permanent hut near the farmer’s house.
Rest May Time for farmers to celebrate with rice wines, dances, songs and traditional games.
Preparation for the next cultivation cycle.

The farmers also plant other food crops at different periods of the rice cultivation cycle (Table2). The most common food crops are cassava, sweet potato, maize, vegetables, sugar cane, tobacco and short-life fruit trees such as bananas and papayas. Vegetables include bayam, cucumber, short and long beans, winter melon, white and red gourd, chili, ginger and several leafy vegetables. Several wild leafy vegetables such as tutan and sorongki are available from the forest, and they carefully look after these plants until they are ready to be harvested.

Table 2. Timing of planting other food crops

Timing Food crop
Before rice planting Corn, tobacco and leafy vegetables
During rice planting White gourd, red gourd, cucumber and melon
After rice planting Ginger, cassava, sweet potato, long and short beans, banana and papaya

Farmers mix vegetable seeds with the rice seeds before planting. Crops such as ginger, cassava banana and papaya are planted after the rice has been harvested. Food crops such as maize, dawo and bayam are planted first along the periphery of the farm. Vegetables such as the white and red gourds are planted together with the rice seeds.

All food crops are well looked after. Weeding is usually done manually once or twice during the rice-growing period without using chemicals. The weeds are not thrown but used as cover to prevent soil erosion and maintain soil moisture and fertility. In any case, weeds tend to be minimal when the right field is selected, depending on the length of the fallow period. The size of the trees should be large enough to suppress and eliminate weeds.

These other  food crops are collected in stages during the period of rice cultivation. The first to be harvested are  bayam, tobacco and maize, followed by cucumber and  the wild vegetables, tutan and sorongki. Only then winter melons and  white and red gourds will be collected. The collection of these vegetables continues for several months even after the rice has been harvested, together with the collection of bananas, papayas, ginger and chilies.

As mentioned earlier, the rice is harvested with help from other farmers. This is also an opportunity for the other farmers to collect some  vegetables for their own consumption. The rest of the farm produce is collected from time to time by the owner with the help of the family.

The yield is used to meet the daily food requirements of the family. The rice harvest is just about sufficient to meet family needs until the next season but vegetables are generally in surplus, and are sold in the local market or given to needy neighbors and relatives. Some of the products   they generally sell are cucumber, white and red water gourds, tutan  and batad (melon family). The amount of farm produce obtained depends on the performance of the crops in a particular season. It is greatly influenced by the type and size of the field, the amount of crops planted, and the extent of labor invested.

Cash Value of Farm Produce

Going by the records, the three farmers, Walter Lugas, Tikin Gobili, and Biana Ujil, harvested 2,240 kg, 1,400kg, and 490 kg of rice, respectively, during the 1997-98 season. The rice had an estimated market value of RM 3 per kg at the time. They also sold the surplus vegetables and other products in the market. The three farmers also sold 1000kg, 200 kg, and 400 kg of ginger, respectively, in the market.

Based on the market price (at the time of the study) of hill rice, cassava, vegetables, fruits, ginger and other products, and the average farm production of the three farmers, a rough estimate of the cash value generated from the farm could be made (Table 3). Overall, the estimates showed that about 1 hectare of land generated  a value of about RM 3,000 from all the produce in one planting season.

Table 3. Estimated cash value of farm produce

Crop Estimated market price Average amount Estimated cash value (RM)
Hill rice 1 kg @ RM 3 200 kg 600
Cassava 1 kg @ RM 0.50 1000 kg 200
Corn 1 @ RM 0.25 100 25
Sweet potato 1 kg @ RM 0.50 35 kg 100
Tobacco 0.02-kg pack @ RM 2 1.2 kg 120
Leafy vegetable 1 bunch/ 0.5 kg @ RM 1 15 kg 30
Banana 1 bunch / 10 kg @ RM 5 30 kg 25
Papaya 2 kg @ RM 1 20 kg 10
Groundnut 0.3 kg @ RM 1 0.5 kg 3
Cucumber 1.5 kg @ RM 0.50 90 kg 30
Ginger 1 kg @ RM 2 700 kg 2000
Chili 1 kg @ RM 3 3 kg 10
Cucumber shoot 0.5 kg @ RM 1 5 kg 10
White gourd 2 kg @ RM 1 200 kg 100
Total     3263

Farmers’ Views

The farmers in the village said they would continue to plant hill rice despite the fact that it had been negatively perceived by some groups. They did not have alternatives to support  their families as they had no land suitable for wet rice cultivation. They were aware that hill rice cultivation required hard work and the yield was lower than from the same size of  wet  land.

To compensate for the lower amount of the rice harvest, a variety of other food crops were  planted together with rice. They could not do this in a wet field. For some farmers, these food crops were vital for their well being, as these saved them from working elsewhere to earn the money otherwise needed to buy the foods from the market.

One of the major problems they faced was the presence of pests and diseases that attacked the rice  and other crops. Despite these problems, hill rice cultivation still provided most of their food requirements. It was in fact part of their culture, and was an integrated way of using and managing the ecological resources around them. And social relations in the community were strengthened  by the process of  labor and farm produce exchanges.

Productivity and Sustainability

The yield from a farm depends on several factors -- favorable weather, soil fertility, pest problems, availability of labor, etc. Not all farmers plant the same food crops with rice. Some plant a wide variety of crops for sale while others plant crops they need most for consumption. Therefore  the total produce tends to vary from farm to farm.

The cash obtained by the three farmers in this study came from their surplus, mainly from vegetables. The amount is not significant because much of the produce is consumed by the farmers the year round. They can earn considerably more if they sell all the farm produce from a hectare of  marginal hill land, though the amount will still be slightly less than what  they can get  if they use the land for commercial crops like  rubber.

Some of the farmers in Bundu own small rubber plots in their titled land, and their minimum income from the same size of  land is about RM 330 a month (compared with an average of around RM 270 for the three farmers in the study). But in Bundu, apart from growing ginger and fruits, other alternatives for land use are quite limited. The large-scale plantation of ginger, which is becoming popular, gives a fairly good cash return to the farmers.

However, devoting an entire plot of land to ginger alone has its disadvantages as farmers then become dependent on the market for food supplies. This will put pressure on the government to increase food imports. It will also have implications for the state’s food security.

Hill rice cultivation is commonly referred to as shifting cultivation due to the wrong perception that farmers shift aimlessly from one place to another in search of primary forest  land. Hill rice cultivation is not practised in isolation but is integrated in its  use of the natural resources available, such as forests and rivers. The forests are equally important to the community as sources of food, medicine and building materials. The farmers also know very well that without the forest, they will not be able to grow hill rice because the fertility of the land depends on the healthy re-growth of secondary forest. Once this interdependence is lost, there is a danger that more forest cover will be lost.

The traditional farming system also minimizes soil erosion as the farmers take special care  to choose sites which are not too steep, keep the surrounding areas  fully vegetated, open up only a small size of secondary forest at a time, and use the land for only a short period of time. In contrast, commercial ventures usually open up huge portions of land disregarding the physical structure of the land. Road networks are built everywhere, which contributes to soil erosion and the instability of the slopes.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The study shows that hill rice cultivation is a productive activity, where, apart from rice, several other essential food crops are grown to optimize productivity of a given plot of land. This not only maintains the diversity and vitality of the land but provides for the food requirements of the people. Its continuation in its current form is inevitable as farmers have limited economic alternatives. Its role in and contribution, direct or indirect, to economic development and food security in the state should also be taken into account when deciding on how to optimize the use of marginal hill lands.

Meanwhile, this traditional farming is beginning to undergo changes due to the increasing population and changing perceptions of natural resource use and management. Research and development efforts should support and revitalize indigenous knowledge and practices of hill rice planting including sustainable use of natural ecosystems. Some fragrant varieties of hill rice are potentially marketable in the local and regional markets if only the farmers can produce a surplus.

[PACOS (Partners of Community Organisations) TRUST is a community based voluntary organisation which is based in Sabah, East Malaysia to help raise the quality of life of indigenous communities. This paper is  part  of  a series of reports  published  by the Community  Biodiversity Development  and Conservation Programme  (CBDC), set up by non-government organizations, development workers and  formal research institutions, to strengthen  efforts in community-based  conservation, and  proper utilization and management of plant genetic resources. It was also published by East Asia Rice Working Group (EARWG) in “Rice Farming Best Practices from Selected Asian Countries” in 2006.



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