A SMALL group of Kelabits from a farming community in the Ukat river valley of Bario founded Pa Ukat more than 80 years ago.
The leader Tama Akup realised the valley was fertile for planting small-grained wet padi and set out to start a village in the area for his people.
According to the locals, Tama also discovered a salt well during one of his hunting trips.
The baskets, carvings, and other cultural artefacts, kept by the families, attest to their century-old history. Today, there are over 200 Kelabits, Chinese, Lun Bawang, and other races living side by side in Pa Ukat.
Former pastor Tom Gatun told thesundaypost, “Here in this valley, we’re all sort of related — cousins, uncles, aunties, grandfathers and grandmothers.
“I’m Lun Bawang and my wife is a Kelabit who inherited the land from her ancestors for us to farm.”
Passion for agriculture
Tom and Sharifah, owners of a modern farm in Pa Ukat, a stone’s throw from the Pa Ukat SIB church, have been serving as missionary pastors in Pa Adang for more than 15 years. Both have a great passion for shepherding (spiritually) and agriculture.
“I’m not qualified in agriculture on paper but I’m passionate about growing crops.
“I share what I have learnt about the modern methods of growing vegetables and fruits — strawberries, figs, lo han guo (Buddha’s fruit), hami melons, and other fruits — with the people, not just my fellow villagers and Penan neighbours. I also show them how to rear stingless bees for honey,” Tom said.
For the past few years, Tom and Sharifah were the sole couple to have taken up the government’s challenge to set up greenhouses in Pa Ukat.
Today, universities send their scholars to research with them.
The Sarawak government also offers them some grants. They now have four greenhouses and will construct two more soon.
The greenhouses are needed because the vegetables and fruits — capsicums, lettuces, long beans, melons, Japanese cucumbers, and strawberries — they are growing are not producing fast enough to meet local and tourist demand.
Sharifah explained, “We sell vegetables in Bario town and when tourists come in large numbers, we just don’t have enough. So, hopefully, with the additional greenhouses, there will be enough supply.”
According to former headmaster Kalang Akup, aka Lawa Paren, the grandson of Pa Ukat founder Tama Akup, Tom and Sharifah are role models to the farming community in the valley.
“They are reaping the fruit of their hard work,” the 70-year-old said.
Tom has been showing the locals how to use hydroponics to grow vegetables.
Fertigation is part of his farming regime. Using this method, he has produced several rows of constantly fruiting strawberries. The plants are well managed on elevated rows.
Several fig trees are also fruiting and Tom hopes to grow more figs to supply the homestays in Bario and perhaps even Miri.
“I don’t think it’s too difficult growing figs here in Bario because the climate is suitable. I grow two kinds of figs — green and pink ones. They’re very popular.”
He has a few amazing lo han guo trees. The first fruit was the size of a baby’s head.
Former construction worker
Grandfather Ngitun is now 88. He was a construction worker in Miri during his younger days.
He left Bario to find work at construction sites in Pujut Two and Three under different towkays, doing cement work and bricklaying.
According to Ngitun, in the 60s, Miri was just starting to grow and skilled construction workers were needed.
His strong suit is woodworking, being a natural craftsman.
When he returned to Bario, he planted rice and fruits in his garden and reared buffaloes on the hillside, a property he acquired over 50 years ago.
He built his house by hand — plank by plank, pillar by pillar, all from wood he obtained from the surrounding jungles.
It is said in his younger days, he could spear a 200kg wild boar in one stroke.
Ngitun enjoys cultivating new fruits. Over the years, he has grown custard apples, avocados, and mangoes.
Today, he is self-sufficient from the yields of his rice and pineapple farms as well as his vegetable gardens around the house.
The gritty grandfather was one of the first to start bee farming in Pa Ukat. His honey bees are producing more than enough for his family and the market.
He still had a herd of buffaloes roaming in the jungles on the day we visited.
“My buffaloes will come home when they need to see me,” he said, laughing, in English.
Ngitun can be said to be the lord of his manor!
Douglas Munyie Bala is the orchid man of Bario. He has been collecting wild orchids from the highlands for years. Today, his garden is well-known for more than 20 species of rare wild orchids.
Douglas also collects exotic wild plants to beautify his homestay garden.
He told thesundaypost, “I treasure all the orchids, big or small, colourful or plain, found all over and outside Bario.
“If I can propagate well, I can be a good breeder. But it will take time to learn good techniques. Now, I’m giving my collections a natural home. Tourists at our homestay enjoy photographing my orchids.”
In the past year or so, Douglas and his wife Millie have been growing strawberries in their garden and producing enough for the Bario market and their guests.
He will delve into growing medicinal plants too as he is interested in learning about their healing powers.
Pa Ukat background
Pa Ukat is a small valley surrounded by lovely hills. A small river, the Ukat, flows through the valley.
About 100 years ago, the grandfather of Kalang Akup (Lawa Paren) arrived in the valley to set up a village with his relatives. They put down roots, hunted in the area and grew rice. Today, Pa Ukat is an established Christian village with 200 residents.
However, there is no school in the village.
In their time, Kalang Akup and his peers had to walk for hours to attend the Bario Primary School.
Kalang, an English teacher who trained at Rajang Teachers’ College, said education is very important to the Kelabits, adding that his peers and many older than him are literate in English and Bahasa Malaysia.
Many Kelabits remember how the colonial government officers came to Bario – even on foot — to encourage them to go to school.
In 1958, the colonial governor Sir Anthony Abell reached out to them, bringing several men and women from the village to Kuching for special nursing courses.
A few years ago, the villagers had to walk one hour to reach Bario town to catch a flight. Now, it takes 20 minutes to reach the airport.
Today, the road has also been paved and cars can reach the village. The children go to school easily in Bario. The farmers can sell their crops in town every day, using their motorbikes, the most common transportation in this rural settlement.
While nearly every family plants rice to be self-sufficient, the villagers have also been growing passion fruits and pineapples for many years.
Rice, however, is still the staple and sold to visitors and friends in and outside Miri.
Bario or Adan rice, which is wet padi, is said to very tasty and it is highly prized.
The women of Pa Ukat have been making pineapple jams for sale outside Pa Ukat. Those with surplus passion fruits make juices and sell the fruits in Bario town.
Now that modern farming has come to the village, the people are even more enthusiastic about planting new crops, even for family consumption.
The government is hoping more Kelabits will become agropreneurs although the villagers are still waiting for treated water supply. They now depend on rainwater and gravity feed water supply from the Ukat River.
Global warming will have an impact on farm produce in Bario. So it’s paramount for the farmers to increase food production, not only to attract visitors but also feed the local population.
Everyone must be assured of food security, stability of land use, and ownership. At the same time, farmers must be better informed and adopt new farming technologies.
The efforts made by the people in Pa Ukat regarding food production have been positive. The villagers’ mission and vision to increase food production using new technologies are commendable.
Pa Ukat will continue to grow as a modern village with lovely greenhouses spreading towards the hills on the western side of the village.
As the setting sun casts shimmering silver on the water of the wet padi fields, and a buffalo and its herder walk home towards the glinting white roofs of the greenhouses, one feels assured the village is safe with sustenance sprouting from arable soil tilled by the hands of the hardworking people.
The village wakes up at 5.30am for morning prayers six days a week. A new dawn begins at Pa Ukat. The villagers are keeping their faith and God is provident.