Thursday, August 6

Saban farmers take MCO in stride

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Houses on stilts for storing rice.

THE Sungai Bayung links up with Sungai Puak-Banga, which in turn flows into the Baram River, the second-longest river in Sarawak, in the northern region of the state.

Situated on the upper reaches of the Baram River is Long Banga, a rural village in Marudi District, Miri Division.

The village with a population of less than 1,000, is fortunate to be on the Twin Otter route of MASWings Service in rural Sarawak, although it can also be reached on foot and by river from Marudi, and overland from Miri — not all that out of the way for a rural settlement near the Sarawak-Kalimantan border.

A farmer finds wild ginger flowers on her farm.

Long Banga is named after a special fruit tree, which produces the crystal fruit or kasai. In Saban language, the fruits from these trees along the bank of Banga River are called banga.

Good harvest

After the good harvest last year, many Saban farmers in Long Banga had been looking forward to a new season of rice planting. Many had planned to bring more of their fallow land under cultivation.

Hill padi planter Ludia Apoi is ready for a larger padi farm now that her son is almost of school-going age.

She told thesundaypost in Miri before the MCO she was planning to clear more land with the help of friends and relatives.

As in 2018 and 2019, her gotong-royong group comprised eight people, who will take turns to clear the land this year.

Ludia and her friends are full of expectations. They had already cleared some of the land in February and early March.

The wild bittergourd found in Long Banga.

“Usually, in March and April, we Sabans start working on our farms, which have been overgrown with bushes after the previous year’s harvest.

“Some will open up a new area or an area left fallow for a few years,” she said.

The clearing will take an average family two or even three months to complete. Usually, the farmers will go for gotong-royong as it’s cheaper.

They bring their younger children to the farm with them and the whole family will sort of have a picnic during the clearing period.

As plants, bushes, and even trees grow very fast in the tropical climate, the farmers have their work cut out. They don’t use any machinery — just parang and maybe a small chainsaw.

Farmer Asan Tajit said last year’s harvest was late — just before the outbreak of Covid-19, adding, “The community celebrated Christmas and a fairly good harvest. Then they waited.”

A farmer tends to her coffee plants.

About 50 to 60 families still plant rice on an average of three acres each.

“They don’t measure their land the way urban people do,” he chuckled.

According to him, most of the villagers plant Adan rice or wet padi on 20 per cent of their farmland.

Hill padi takes up the rest as Long Banga is hillier than most of the farming areas in the Baram.

Hill rice or wet rice

The Sabans grow rice mainly for themselves and their relatives in the cities. They don’t gain much from planting padi – at the most, an average of 300kg per acre.

While modern Sabans may find it easier to buy rice from supermarkets, those in villages will continue to grow their own grain.

Some living in the cities may take some time to return to Long Banga to help their families on the farm — usually at different stages of the rice farming cycle.

For Ludia, who has worked for many years as a tailor in Kuching, it’s important to keep the Sagan heritage alive. Her close women friends are on the same page and, together, they will continue to work the land handed down by their ancestors.

Movement Control Order

A husband and wife team on the way to their farm.

Paulus Balan who has been in Long Banga since the school holidays started, said the good online connectivity in Long Banga is a godsend.

“Through it, we can play our role to help contain the outbreak. We prevent people from outside from coming in and everyone in the village is doing social distancing.

“At night, we don’t go out or visit people in large groups. We abide by the rules,” he told thesundaypost via a messaging app.

Felicia Muller is a staff member of the Long Banga STOLport.

According to her, most of the farmers started clearing their land in February before the MCO.

“Yes, our airport is open and the Twin Otter flies in and out — without any passengers,” she said laughing, before adding, “It’s good we have these routine flights — you never know when there’re emergencies.”

Villagers cross a bridge on the way to their farm.

As for Ludia, she communicates through WhatsApp and Facebook. She continues to farm following the closure of a homestay business.

This year is no different. She clears the land alone or participates in community gotong-royong.

She said help from the community was a blessing, especially when her husband is working offshore and now stranded abroad due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

“My target area for this year will take about two to three months to clear. We’ll cut through the bushes and allow the undergrowth to dry in the sun, slowly slashing through swathes of the jungle before the burning starts. We’ve been practising this way of farming for generations.”

For the Sabans, burning of the land will be in July and planting in August.

A farmer looks for bamboo shoots.

Hopefully, by then, the Covid-19 situation will have improved further and more MCO restrictions can be eased back.

Foraging and fishing

While clearing their land, Ludia and her relatives will also forage for jungle vegetables for dinner and meals the following day.

Sometimes, they cook rice and other vegetables, using bamboo stems, while working on the farm but usually they bring food from home.

According to Ludia, wild mushrooms are still plentiful in Long Banga. And, indeed, it would be a bonus for the women if they were to stumble upon clumps of mushrooms on the way to their farms.

This is also the season for fish to spawn in Long Banga. As the river provides much-anticipated sustenance for the village, Ludia and her friends look forward to a good haul of fish and roe.

Husband-wife team

One of the most impressive farming practices I have seen for the first time in Long Banga is husband and wife farming as a team.

Actually, this has been the customary practice of the Sabans in Long Banga for generations.

Couples use only hand tools such as parang and cangkul and the process can be very slow — not that they mind. Farming together keeps the family together.

Nowadays, with their Japanese-made motorcycles, the villagers needn’t have to walk to their farms. This saves a lot of time since walking can sometimes take up to one hour. Every family tries to get a bike while some own four-wheel drive vehicles.

Long Banga villages include several clusters of houses and longhouses.

In the old days, there were some original longhouses and individual houses but now, a lot more of the latter have been built on one bank of the river for a growing population.

The primary school stands on the other bank and many of the pupils are boarders. As a few are not entitled to full boarding, their parents have to fetch them home after school.

One farmer lamented this had disrupted their daily farming routine.

DIY supermarket

Any first-time visitor to Long Banga will get to see how the village’s special ‘DIY supermarket’ works, and come away marvelling at the whole-hearted trust the villagers have for one another in their unique way of doing business.

The farmers would put their vegetables and fruits on a long table by a roadside hut and hang a cash-tin above the price-tagged bundles of produce.

A buyer looking for some greens in a hurry would stop, sample the offerings and pick what he or she needs, then put the right amount of money into the cash-tin before pushing off.

At the end of the day, when the farmers return to check on the day’s transaction, they will invariably find the payments in the cash-tin to be correct.

That’s how the farmers sell their produce to the village community when they have surpluses.

The system is based on honesty and it works for the Long Banga villagers because they do not snatch or pinch
even when nobody is around and they always pay for what they buy.

Fruits are plentiful in Long Banga. The crystal fruit or banga (kasai) is high in demand from urban folk and priced at about RM12 per kg in Miri. The fruit appears native to this area.

Bananas are grown everywhere in the village and there are several varieties.

Another fruit found in abundance is the ice cream fruit. When ripe, the pods open up to reveal a white creamy flesh, wrapped around several hard seeds. It tastes like ice cream, hence its name.

It is believed this fruit could have been brought to the village some 50 years ago from Kalimantan. It is also grown in Bario.

Villagers carry bamboo cuttings home on their backs after foraging in the jungle.

Long Banga is also embarking on coffee cultivation with the support of the Agriculture Department. Some of the farmers are planning to grow the seedlings on the hill slopes they own.

Summing up the feelings of the villagers, Ludai said, “In Long Banga, we are relatively isolated. We go to our farms, come home and we do social distancing.

“I walk to my farm alone, sometimes with a friend, keeping far apart. Even our special supermarket can be operated without anyone assisting buyers.

“We hope we can beat the virus and families can be reunited and enjoy a healthy and less restricted lifestyle. As farmers and food producers, we have to carry on within the limits set.”