Change typically doesn't come fast or often in the Kelabit Highlands in the interior of Malaysian Borneo. "Go slowly" is both a motto and a way of life here. For centuries, even millennia, locals have gathered and grown their own foods in the dense tropical jungle. Rice is a staple for the Kelabit people who inhabit this land, and this region is renowned for a slow-growing variety that shares a name with the area's biggest town: Bario.
This Bario rice, grown in cool weather at high elevations, has always been planted and harvested by hand — until now.
In the last few years, a Malaysian agricultural company called Ceria has introduced mechanized farming to the Kelabit Highlands through a joint venture with the local community and the state government, signed in 2011. Bario rice— a medium-sized grain noted for its sweetness — historically yields just one harvest a year, but Ceria has said the modernization of production here will dramatically increase yields.
Ironically this change is partially driven by elders who hope modernization might help save their rice-based heritage. The majority of Bario youngsters leave for higher education and jobs in cities across Malaysia—or beyond. Many of their parents prefer to stay behind. But the rigors of rice farming become too difficult in older age. Aging Kelabits say Ceria offers them the chance to remain in their homeland, eat home-grown rice, and avoid the strenuous labor. But scientists also see deeper implications for Kelabit culture, which is changing more quickly than ever before.
Sina Rang Lemulun, a widow in her 70s who runs a homestay in Bario, says her children are scattered from the Borneo coast to Australia. "They will never, ever come and jump in the mud, and start to plant rice," Lemulun says. She doesn't want to leave home — but farming is too taxing for her to handle alone. So she signed a deal with Ceria. Company workers will prepare, plant and harvest her fields, and will take 70 percent of the yield. She'll maintain her longhouse home and eat her traditional meals — minus the back-bending work. "With Ceria, I have very high hopes," my quality of life will endure, she says.
In recent years, many families have abandoned their rice fields, according to Lian Tarawe, a local guesthouse owner and tour guide. "The elderly farmer is getting older and cannot till the land," Tarawe says, pointing to neglected paddies filled with weeds. "The land is going back into jungle." Part of Ceria's strategy for boosting production is to plant these unused fields, and Tarawe and other proponents of the change say they're glad the paddies will be productive again.
The Ceria project includes several miles of irrigation pipes connected to seven dams; new facilities for drying, milling and storing rice; and a network of farm roads capable of handling tractors, bulldozers and excavators. All this — in an area that had few motorized vehicles until just a few years ago. Before that, turboprop plane and days-long treks through thick jungle were the only means of transport to and from Bario. "The Kelabit Highlands have experienced perhaps the most rapid period of change over the last 10 years," says archaeologist Lindsay Lloyd-Smith with the Cultured Rainforest Project (CRF), a research project on the interactions between people and the rainforest in the Kelabit Highlands.
But not everyone welcomes this transformation. "We used to do — and live on — traditional farming," but now the government wants mass-produced rice, says local elder Jenette Ulun, whose family has run a seed-saving project to promote traditional cultivation. Hand-planted Bario rice is "the best," Ulun says.
Italy-based Slow Food International thought so, too. In 2002, it established a Bario rice project under its Presidia program, aimed at saving economically viable traditional foods from the threat of extinction. But the project ended in 2011, around the same time Ceria began its work in the Highlands.
Yet some scientists think the very notion of "traditional" Bario rice is a bit misleading. The "traditional" wet rice fields of pre-Ceria Bario "were themselves a very recent development," Lloyd-Smith writes in an email. The Kelabit first constructed permanent paddies in the 1950s and 60s. Before that, rice was grown in smaller plots "that were made each year, and continually changed and remade ... What looks and feels 'traditional' is often very young."
Lloyd-Smith thinks mechanized farming "is simply the latest part of an ever-changing story of people's relationship with the land." In his mind, "the underlying concern is not who does the work, but rather who has control ... This situation is now completely changing." For the first time, an outside company will at least in part own and control local rice and the various stages of production.
The company's involvement in farming could alter villagers' connection to their land. And that connection is a longstanding component of Kelabit culture, according to CRF anthropologist Monica Janowski, who has studied the tribe for decades. "Mechanized farming will create a greater physical, psychological and spiritual distance between the Kelabit and the land they work," she writes in an email. "I regard this as unfortunate, as the bonds with the land and the environment are, I think, very important."
Commoditizing rice also changes the culture. "Rice had a profound social and spiritual significance for the Kelabit, and was the basis for their sense of community," says Janowski. "It is regarded as essential to human life, and eating it together as essential to human community."
In the past, Kelabit villagers could gain status by owning rice and feeding others. Today, status is "less about food" and "focused on simple cash," says Lloyd-Smith. "Status is still achieved through economic means," but what people value in Kelabit society is changing, he says. "In a way, this sums up what the mechanization is all about: money."
Karen Coates, a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, reports regularly on food and development. Follow her @RamblingSpoon. Reporting for this story was made possible, in part, by the International Center for Journalists.