Saturday, October 19

The pineapple farmers of Sungai Adong

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Julian working to improve the plankwalk leading to his home.

The landing shed for pineapples grown by the squatters.

SMALL boats with modified outboard engines stream in with loads of pineapples while several housewives wait at a nearby shed for an on-the-spot buying spree.

Next to the shed is a muddy road with a puddle yet to dry up in the morning sun. The weather has not been kind to the pineapple farmers as it has been raining for many days, causing the temperature to drop as low as 22 degrees Celsius. Some of the women are wearing long sleeved T-shirts.

This is the place where discerning housewives at the Pujut area in Miri get their supply of fresh pineapples direct from the Pujut Lorong Tiga Squatter Area – home to 600 squatters from different racial backgrounds.

Not many locals know about this special enclave along the Adong River despite having tasted the sweet pineapples farmed (and supplied to Miri city) by the squatters.

About 30 years ago, Kayan, Iban and Kenyah families migrated from the Upper Baram to work in the oilfields and construction sites in Miri. They brought along their young children – and even their elderly parents.

When Shell started its re-engineering, many of these migrant workers left to seek employment elsewhere but some remained to work in shipping yards, construction sites and other general jobs.

Many of the original migrant children have grown up and while some got highly educated, others only managed to reach SPM level and found work in hotels and restaurants. A new generation has arrived and the upcoming one is below 10 years old.

Most of the womenfolk, especially those who are illiterate and in their 50’s, are farmers or itinerant foragers of jungle produce, looking for nipah palm, oil palm, rattan, nibong, coconut shoots and fern tops. They are the main suppliers of pineapples and jungle products for Miri.

On their off-days, some of the men fish in the Adong River and deliver their catch to the Padang Kerbau market. Others look for odd jobs during their free time to supplement their incomes.

These are hard-working people. Once or twice a year, they return to their longhouses in the Ulu Baram or Saratok and for some, as far as Kuching, to harvest rice from their ancestral lands.

Better home needed

Julian (not his real name) who works for a shipping company, is trying to improve his family home at the Pujut squatter colony.

The Berawan from Mulu said as his children were growing up, the family needed a better home with windows, good walls and rooms where the young ones could study.

“I’m collecting some old wood to repair the rotting plankwalk so that my family and neighbours can use it safely,” added the father of three.

Julian repairs his house during his off-days. His relatives who are working full time in different companies, help him to put up a new wall.

He looks for pieces of wood to repair the plankwalk because, like all the others in the area, he cannot afford new timber.

According to him, during flooding, the water can rise to a few inches above the plankwalk.

With more than 600 people living in this simple squatter area, life appears caught in a time warp. Water supply is by private piping – and untreated. Electricity comes from generators, owned by individual families. Few TV’s are found here.

The children go to nearby schools but some do not attend pre-school at all, according to a recent survey.

A school teacher said the children were well-behaved and keen to learn but pointed out that many of them went straight to Year One.

“Their families aren’t aware of the importance of pre-school but probably, they also cannot afford early childhood education. So the children are facing problems of catching up with the others when they enter primary school,” she added.

Some of the families do send their older children to boarding schools in Long Lama and Marudi. The younger children attend the nearby SK Pujut.

Julian also said the houses all bore a number – L/S XXXX – which means they have been surveyed by the Lands and Survey Department. He hoped after settling down in the area for over 20 years, he and his family could at least claim the small piece of land their house is built on.

Hardy cancer patient

Meanwhile, a Kayan woman from Long Bedian drove her boat into a stream to transfer her pineapples to the shed where the housewives had gathered. She has been growing pineapples all her adult life, and with her husband, supply the tropical fruits to the Tamu Muhibbah.

“When my husband is not around, I use our boat to pick pineapples alone at the farm. We need to earn some money,” she said.

Although a cancer patient registered with the Miri Palliative Care Association, the Kayan woman seems very determined to carry out her responsibilities as a wife, mother and grandmother. Nurses from the Association visit her at least once a month to provide palliative care, and from time to time, she goes to Miri Hospital for check-up.

Despite her condition, she is always very cheerful.

She and her husband can collect about 150 ripe pineapples per week. Between harvests, the family fish in the Adong River. Her husband repair roofs and does odd jobs. Since diagnosed with cancer, she has been cutting back her workload.

Pineapples are grown in Upper Adong River by many of the squatter families. Besides farming, the womenfolk forage for palm shoots like pantu, nibong, coconut and rattan which are very popular among Mirians. Pantu is the true organic vegetable of Sarawak.

On a good day, most of the womenfolk can pick fern tops, paku and midin – besides palm shoots. They bundle the paku and midin with the help of their families and sell the jungle produce in the Lutong or Padang Kerbau market in the evening. On weekends, they sometimes sell direct to the consumers by the roadside in Lutong.

New bridge

A bridge is being built across the Adong River, not far from this squatter colony, linking Tudan and Senadin areas or roughly all the Kuala Baram areas to Pujut.

Piling is now being carried out and the structure of the new bridge is probed up by numerous stilts in the early stage of construction. The work is making it dangerous to navigate in the river under the bridge but most of the womenfolk are up to the task of driving their motorboats to the farms on their own.

The Javanese wife of a Kenyah who has been living in the area for a number of years, cheerfully allowed photos of her family to be taken. She met her husband at a timber camp in the ulu and now lives with her family at Pujut Lorong Tiga Squatter Area.

She attends the local church while her children go to Sunday schools. Life in the squatter colony is good and she is learning to be self-sufficient. The river provides fish for her family, water to wash and clean and there is also electricity from their own generator.

“Marrying a Kenyah man who provides for the family well is a blessing from God,” she beamed.

She said when her children were older, she would try to bring in a second income by working as a cleaner or a cook.

She is happy to note that so many families from different races are co-existing harmoniously in the area and she herself has made friends with the Ibans, Kelabits, Berawans and the other races.

Previously, many of the womenfolk were left in their longhouses or settlements upriver. But now, they prefer joining their husbands in Miri and are trying their best to cope with urban living. Some are already working in hotels, restaurants or even transport companies.

Help for squatters

Some Miri political leaders have expressed interest in helping this small squatter community. While campaigning for votes during the recent elections, the political parties involved learned about the plight of the squatters.

One suggestion that came up was resettling the families to another area equipped with proper amenities such as electricity and water supplies.

A good example of squatters resettlement in Miri was when the Pujut 7 bridge was constructed and several of the affected families were resettled by the government to another area. But back then, only a few families were involved.

Here in Lorong Tiga, there are over 100 squatter families. Low-cost houses are beyond many of them. If the prices are maintained at RM130,000 per unit, it is still too high. Even with a basic salary of RM800 or what the government calls minimum wage, a general worker cannot afford such a home. Low cost houses should be as low as RM40,000 per unit.

The Pujut Lorong Tiga Squatter Area is a micro society set up over a generation ago because Miri then needed a suitable workforce. Wooden homes sprang up when no proper housing was provided for the lower strata of employees whereas the senior staff were given proper housing like the Piasau Camp and a big rental allowance to go with it.

Today, the Pujut Lorong Tiga Squatter Area is occupied by a community already well established and close knit, and the hardships are shared. Perhaps, their plight indicates the absence of social balance and if they pose a problem, surely a humane solution can be found.

The area is thriving because the squatters are resilient, self-reliant and determined to slog for a better future not only for themselves but their children as well.

Being a significant part of our human resources, they deserve a little help to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

Children sitting on the staircase of a wooden house shared by extended families.

The Adong River acts as the main sewage system.