Saturday, December 3

An agro-biodiversity project at its best – Kampung Sekuduk

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A woman and her grandchild harvest padi in Kampung Sekuduk. – Photo by Chimon Upon

IT was in 2004 and 2005 that I first was introduced to this integrated project whilst attending a school field trip to this kampung. There, conservation is a buzz word and agro-biodiversity techniques are truly well established. The project was sponsored by the Small Grants Programme of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Climate change means that the summer and winter monsoons no longer arrive according to old textbook predictions. Farmers can no longer rely on rainfall at particular times of the year. However, modern water storage schemes do allow these rice farmers a regular supply of irrigation water throughout the year.

Aims of the project

This project at Kampung Sekuduk (Skuduk) trained farmers to use an integrated crop management (ICM) system which aimed to conserve and sustain agro-biodiversity with minimum dependence on agro-chemicals. In other words, the project focussed on environmentally friendly agricultural practices using biological techniques, including green manure, ducks as pest eaters as well as naturally available pest predators to maintain agro-diversity and ecological sustainability.

The objectives of the project were:

  • To conserve and promote traditional rice varieties that would be lost if large-scale commercial agriculture took over. The village currently grows over 50 varieties of Southeast Asian rice for seed.
  • To increase traditional rice yields by practising a sustainable agricultural system with minimum dependence on agro-chemicals.
  • To increase farmers’ awareness of the importance of ICM in the traditional village rice fields, thereby maintaining an ecological balance in the ecosystem.
  • To increase farmers’ awareness of appropriate technology, and thus increase farm income.

What is ICM?

A farmer moves through a paddy field. – Photo by Chimon Upon

The emphasis in this method of farming is to use all possible means to produce a healthy rice crop, providing a financially beneficial yield to the farmer without damaging the local environment.

Good land preparation, appropriate irrigation and drainage, and suitable fertilisation were essential if optimum crop yields were to be achieved. Crop protection in the form of pest and disease control does not in fact increase crop yields’ but reduces losses and the deterioration of rice before and after harvesting.

This protection was achieved using POI techniques:

  • Prevention aimed to reduce the initial build-up of pest infestation by the use of ‘clean’ seeds bought from reliable sources. Crop varieties resistant to common pests and diseases were grown. Crop rotation was practised to help avoid disease – growing the same crop repeatedly in the same soil allows pests to become established. A habitat and refuge for beneficial pest-predators, particularly spiders, was encouraged. Harvesting was done carefully and the proper cleaning, drying and storage of the rice ensured a better yield.
  • Observation allowed farmers to identify when pest control was necessary. The alternative was to have a weekly routine of applying pesticide sprays whether they were needed or not, which wasted money and created pollution. Regular surveys of plant health were important to assess when pests were getting to a level where they needed controlling.
  • Intervention meant acting judiciously with chemicals to reduce the impact of an increasing pest population or fungal infection. It was important to maintain beneficial organisms, particularly pest-predators such as spiders, damsel-flies, and ladybirds. These regularly attack the brown plant hopper, stem borer, and adult rice bug. The introduction of a barn owl breeding programme in this kampung reduced the rice field rat population that normally damaged the crop at harvest time.

Trap crops

Grains of rice grown organically are ready for harvest. – Photo by Chimon Upon

At Sekuduk, trap crops were planted on the field levees (bunds) next to the rice crop. These plants grow taller than the rice crop and take longer to mature, so they are planted before the rice crop. A common trap used was Sesbania – a mimosa-like plant. After the rice had been harvested, this plant was also cut to produce a valuable fertiliser with high nitrogen levels. This ‘green’ manure was scattered onto the rice stubble so that it could be ploughed into the soil before the next crop was planted.

The green manure was supplemented by the addition of nitrates in chemical form and by encouraging a nitrogen- fixing water fern – Azolla- to grow in the wet paddy fields. Other important chemicals which were added were phosphorous, which stimulated root development and earlier growth and ripening, and potassium which increased the weight of the rice grown and its resistance to plant disease. Many other nutrient elements such as boron, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and sulphur are found in the rice stubble and rice husks. These were all ploughed back into the fields with the green manure.

Introduction of ducks

At the start of this project in January 2003, short-tailed ducks were given to the farmers. These ducks played and still play a key role in the micro-ecosystem, acting as natural conservationists and preservationists. They performed three main functions:

  • aerating the soils in the flooded paddy fields
  • naturally fertilising the soils with their droppings
  • devouring pests and weeds such as rumput sambau (grassy weed), rumput rusiga (sedge), and pegaga marsilea (a clover-like plant). These weeds compete with rice plants for light, nutrients and water, as well as harbour noxious pests and pathogens.

Two years later, in 2005, the ducks were culled every four months, providing additional income to each farmer. This practice continues today providing customers in restaurants in Kuching and Serian with sumptuous meals! Ducks for bugs is a fair shout!

Ducks were introduced to the village in 2003 as natural conservationists and preservationists.

Education

The farmers of Kampung Sekuduk are very proud of their achievements and are happy to talk to visiting school groups. Students are taken along the bunds of the flooded paddy fields, so that they can view the stages of crop growth and the crop management schemes and, moreover, see the ducks at work.

Increases in yield

Today, these farmers have more than doubled their rice yields per hectare. They are qualified to produce more than 50 traditional varieties of quality rice for the Department of Agriculture. The farmers fully recognise the fact that bio-fertilisation reduces their dependence on chemicals, and their awareness and knowledge of their environment on the floodplain of Sungai Serin have been enhanced. Rice and ducks provide income, which is supplemented by the growing of large quantities of market garden produce such as peppers, cabbages, beans, and spring onions.

Encouraging the farmers to question traditional pre-2000 techniques, and opening their eyes to the potential of an agro-biodiversity scheme has allowed them to return to farming as a year-round occupation. They no longer have to supplement their income at certain times of the year with part-time jobs. This well tested method of farming – now two decades old – has reduced local rural depopulation.

Next time you eat a bowl of rice, spare a thought for these Sarawakian entrepreneurs from Kampung Sekuduk, who may well have provided you with bug free, first-class rice grown in a sustainable environment! Long may they continue and to receive due recognition and financial rewards for their very considerable efforts.