Citizen science helps rice farmers to move forward


Lauzim bin Pantai, a paddy farmer from Kg Tinuhan. – Photo by Forever Sabah

KOTA KINABALU: A food security project that saw communities from two villages in Sabah yielding 28 tonnes of rice from 32 varieties is set to scale up, with learning from collective work by farmers, civil society and government paving the way for improvement in project management and problem solving.

Programs with Kg Lapasan Ulu and Kg Tinuhan in Tuaran are being expanded to include nearby Kg Wangkod and Kg Timbou to increase participation in Projek Padi to 121 farming families with 194 acres seeking to regain their food sovereignty and improve livelihoods.

Facilitated by Forever Sabah (FS) with a Yayasan Hasanah Special Grant supported by the Prihatin Economic Stimulus Package, Projek Padi revitalized paddy land, improving livelihoods while exploring new farming methods.

Through the initial phase, the community learned to map their land, identify rice varieties including lost heirlooms, track agronomic practices and measure harvest outcomes.

Citizen scientists from these villages worked with participating farmers to monitor harvests and to assess the results of organic and System of Rice Intensification (SRI) methods.

“Although the long-established way of planting and managing rice planting seems easier, it is not comparable to SRI and organic methods as the latter produces more yield for us.”

Lauzim bin Pantai, a Tenghilan-local farmer observed: “With citizen science, we’ve also found out which organic materials can be used for repellents and insect traps without the use of chemical pesticides.

Indeed, the planting rice with SRI is complicated and hard work at first, but when it’s in practice, it will become a habit of our rice cultivation – and we definitely want to flourish with what we learned last year.”

Of the 28 tonnes of rice produced, 26 tonnes were eaten by the villagers or stored to cushion the impact of future Covid-19 related economic shocks, and two tonnes were sold at between RM12 to RM21 per kilogramme depending on the variety.

The surplus rice has been branded for sale as Wagas Dati, which means “our rice” in the Dusun-Tindal language.

Forever Sabah Chief Executive Facilitator Cynthia Ong is encouraged.

She told us: “There is definitely more work to be done. Ensuring the food security of rural communities in ways that are economically viable and sustainable is an on-going process.

Cultivating paddy will remain an important project focus and we hope to expand the scope of the project’s engagement to further improve the socio-economic well-being of the community.”

She also added: “Regenerative agriculture, livelihood enhancing catchment management and eco-tourism are all on the cards.”

The next phase of Projek Padi scheduled to run from this year to 2023 will see the development of Wagas Dati as a self-sufficient marketing enterprise, and will include buffaloes by restoring grazing reserves in partnership with the Department of Veterinary Services and even explore buffalo riding eco-tourism for locals and visitors alike.

One lesson learned is the value of making local rice something “cool” and building in value-added activities, so that youths become keener on getting involved.

Another lesson is that the rice farming tradition can best be revived by innovating techniques to improve farming practices.

There is also a need to grow local talents in marketing of traditional and organic rice varieties, that fetch premium rates compared to imported rice.  Artisanal rice needs and deserves a price premium.

Project coordinator Betroychiper Hongsui stated that “The findings and observations that we’ve made and documented so far have definitely been useful for our rice cultivation community moving forward.”

In partnership with Kivatu Nature Farm a total of 13 trainings were held over the first rice season reaching 88 per cent of project households as well as an exchange visit to witness the climate-friendly “System of Rice Intensification” in action at Kg Tambatuon in Kota Belud.

Students from Guwas Koposizan College including eight Temiar Orang Asli from Perak gained hands-on training, and 33 Forever Sabah and PACOS Trust staff used the project to learn with farmers how to restore Sabah’s rice self-sufficiency, which is currently at less than 25%.

The training has helped guide the farmers towards more environmentally friendly cultivation of their fields.

Successful rice production has also drawn burgeoning farmer interest and reconnected the older generation with youth.

Betroychiper Hongsui (right), Projek Padi’s Project Coordinator, discussing with the community farmers. – Photo by Forever Sabah

The project citizen science team calculated from detailed studies of farmer’s yields and costs that the additional value per acre of organic farming was as much RM3,360 per acre while the ability to grow over 30 heritage rice varieties is in line with sustaining agrobiodiversity under the Convention of Biological Diversity.

Betroychiper observed in closing: “One hope is that our results can be disseminated throughout Sabah to increase awareness of health, the environment and being self-sufficient.”