Bario rice – a rare grain


THE acres upon acres of lush green padi stalks,  swaying gently in the breeze, are long gone.

This once picturesque scene in Bario has been replaced with the sight of abandoned rice fields overgrown with long grass and weeds.

Ten years ago, more than 500 acres were covered with luxuriant cultivated plots – today, only half that appears to be planted.

There is now an acute shortage of Bario rice. The decline began as early as the 90s regressing slowly to its present dire stage. The shortage is especially felt in the Kelabit highlands.

Gone are the days when good friends and relatives were given Bario rice as a token of friendship by the Kelabits. The staple, once found in abundance, is now a scarce commodity.

Even the Kelabits are having their rice rations brought over from Miri.

Only local padi farmers are still enjoying Bario rice but many prefer selling the grain for extra cash.

“It’s a now cash-oriented society,” said Gerawat Gala, president of Rurum Kelabit (Kelabit Association)

“The locals are more inclined to venture into businesses that bring immediate cash.”

This is evident with homestays sprouting like mushrooms after the rain. More and more Bario locals are turning out to be accommodation operators with soaring visitor arrivals, given the two daily flights to the highlands.

Long process

Planting Bario rice is a long process, taking six months of labour, and apart from the long wait, there is only one yield per year.

PREPARING THE LAND: An abandoned padi field being cleared. The process takes only a couple of days by machines but a few weeks with the 3Ts method.

Farming this particular rice has been part of the culture of the Kelabits since time immemorial.

Despite the hostile terrain, they are able to cultivate the land and produce one of the world’s finest grains that has become the icon of the highlands.

But times are changing. The older generation who tilled the land from sun up to sun down for the love of it, are getting too old to farm. The educated younger generation are more likely to work in the office. They see no reason to farm – it’s not only laborious but returns are small as well.

Besides, the methods used by their ancestors are outdated and do not produce a high yield.

“Those who still farm hire helpers but this is very expensive, making it impractical,” Gerawat explained.

There are plenty of Indonesian workers for hire but they don’t come cheap. Each section of the farming process costs a few hundred ringgit — and after harvesting, the cost can easily reach RM1,000 or more. And that’s being conservative!

Not worth it

Former padi farmers, Shep Bala and his wife Rita, worked on tilling their land until recently. Shep stopped because it has proven financially unfeasible.

“The cost is more than the returns,” he said, pointing out that padi farming is also labour-intensive.

Rita farmed until 2010 when Shep persuaded her to stop. She is now running a homestay full time.

“Farming is long hard work and the revenue at the end of the day isn’t worth it,” she said.

According to Shep, operating homestays is monetarily more rewarding than planting padi. Besides, none of  his school-going children has shown any inclination to carry on their ancestral practice of farming.

Enjoyable work

Meanwhile, civil servant turned padi farmer, Florence Lapu, 50, works the land not because she has to but because she enjoys it.

She also can not bear to see the family’s two-and-a-half acre farm going to waste.

“Once abandoned, the land is hard to reclaim and refarm,” she said.

Florence is not overly concerned about the cost, saying she farms for personal gratification that comes with the harvest.

“I’m not doing it for money. The yield is not big enough for commercialisation anyway, but it’s okay for me and my parents down in Miri.”

Florence said getting helpers could be very expensive. She spent over RM1,000 hiring Indonesian workers as she has no help from her family members.

Revitalising farming

Despite the bleak outlook, there’s still hope for the famed Bario rice.

Rurum Kelabit together with the Agriculture Ministry, Pemandu (Performance and Delivery Unit) and a private company, Ceria Group, is trying to revitalise padi cultivation in Bario.

“They intend to restore all the abandoned padi fields to their previous state,” Gerawat said.

Mechanised farming, he added, would replace traditional methods to increase yield to at least double the present level.

“Right now, yield is barely enough for the locals, let alone for exports.”

The RM17.9 million project covers a total of 200 hectares within the Bario region. The fund from the Agriculture Ministry is yet to be dispersed.

Said John Tarawe, Bario’s councillor and Rurum Kelabit chairman: “We can now have Bario’s very own pride back without jeopardising our children’s education or having to hire expensive helpers. The machines can do the work.”