When Slow Food Isn’t Simple: A Borneo Story

A farmer looks at his rice fields at dusk in the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysia. A logging road has brought many changes to the Kelabit people of the interior highlands of Sarawak in Malaysia. One of the biggest shifts is mechanized rice growing, which is changing how the grain has been grown for generations.  -Photo ©2013/Jerry Redfern
A farmer looks at his rice fields at dusk in the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysia. A logging road has brought many changes to the Kelabit people of the interior highlands of Borneo. One of the biggest shifts is mechanized rice growing, which is changing how the grain has been grown for generations.

The first time we traveled to Bario, there were no roads in or out. We flew into this remote little outpost in the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysian Borneo. The only other option at that time (2006) was a terribly long trek (weeks) through the mountains over difficult, possibly dangerous terrain.

Things change. There is a logging road now (although airplane is still a common mode of transportation). There are cell phones. There are trucks in Bario town. And now, for the first time in the history of the Kelabit people, there are machines for farming rice.

I recently wrote about this shift for the NPR site, The Salt. Here, I wanted to share a few more images (they’re Jerry’s) and insights into the story of this one little community’s tilt toward modernization—and what it means.

A woman replants paddy rice by hand in Bario, in the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysia. A logging road has brought many changes to the Kelabit people of the interior highlands of Sarawak in Malaysia. One of the biggest shifts is mechanized rice growing, which is changing how the grain has been grown for generations.  -Photo ©2013/Jerry Redfern
A woman replants paddy rice by hand in Bario. 

This is a region where locals have always farmed, foraged, hunted and/or fished their own food. The Kelabits, longtime rice-growers, have always planted and harvested by hand. Their rice, a medium-grain variety noted for its sweetness, has a reputation among connoisseurs: it’s good, darn good. So good, the Italy-based Slow Food Foundation supported it through its Presidia program for several years.

And then things started to change. (Actually, they’ve been changing for a long while.) Farmers are abandoning their fields. Villagers are buying more imported rice. Others are farming with chemicals, as they never used to do. In 2011, Bario rice lost its Slow Food designation (although the Foundation still lists it as a noteworthy traditional crop worthy of preservation).

Bario—while remote and lovely, filled with birdsong and pure air—has few jobs and little incentive for many youngsters to stay. And so they go—to Miri (on the coast) or Kuala Lumpur or Australia or the United States.

Still, many of the elders want to stay. They grew up in the Kelabit Highlands; it’s home. They have no use for city life. So they persist—often alone, into older age, when depression sets in. When the bones start creaking and humidity pains the joints. When the prospects of bending for hours beneath the hot afternoon sun just doesn’t hold much appeal.

A woman replants paddy rice by hand in Bario, in the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysia. A logging road has brought many changes to the Kelabit people of the interior highlands of Sarawak in Malaysia. One of the biggest shifts is mechanized rice growing, which is changing how the grain has been grown for generations.  -Photo ©2013/Jerry Redfern
A woman replants paddy rice by hand in Bario. 

Then along came a company called Ceria. It’s an agricultural group that struck a deal with the local community and Sarawak state government to bring mechanized rice farming to Bario. Individual villagers have differing arrangements with the company, but in most cases, Ceria does the work and keeps a (significant) percentage of the yield. Meanwhile, the landowner keeps the land and takes the remaining percentage of the yield.

A massive plastic irrigation pipe straddles two rice fields that are worked by Ceria, the company that brought mechanized rice farming to the Kelabit Highlands. They also brought the irrigation infrastructure to increase the yields of the fields they cultivate. A logging road has brought many changes to the Kelabit people of the interior highlands of Sarawak in Malaysia. One of the biggest shifts is mechanized rice growing, which is changing how the grain has been grown for generations.  -Photo ©2013/Jerry Redfern
A massive plastic irrigation pipe straddles two rice fields that are worked by Ceria, the company that brought mechanized rice farming to the Kelabit Highlands. They also brought the irrigation infrastructure to increase the yields of the fields they cultivate. 

It’s a years-long process to make this shift. It means irrigation pipes, heavy machinery, access roads to individual farms and the equipment needed to level and restructure abandoned paddies that had filled with weeds.

A worker with Ceria manhandles a length of plastic irrigation pipe in a project to bring irrigation water to distant fields in Bario, Malaysia. A logging road has brought many changes to the Kelabit people of the interior highlands of Sarawak in Malaysia. One of the biggest shifts is mechanized rice growing, which is changing how the grain has been grown for generations.  -Photo ©2013/Jerry Redfern
A worker with Ceria handles a length of plastic irrigation pipe in a project to bring irrigation water to distant fields in Bario. 

Is this good? Is this bad? Do we mourn the loss of traditional hand-planted rice? Or do we celebrate the benefits of technology?

There are no easy answers here—there seldom are, when it comes to cultural change. I spoke with several villagers for, and villagers against. I spoke with elders who think the soul of their culture is shifting with this new style of rice. I spoke with other elders who welcome the chance to eat rice grown on their own property—without their own hard labor.

It’s a particularly interesting case, I think, because it shows the complexity of modern-day food movements. As a Westerner with a background of privilege, it’s easy to embrace the buzzwords of these food-minded times: organic, local, artisanal, traditional. These are concepts we aim to bring back to our own food systems here in the United States… right? We fight the mechanization that has, along with it, brought disease and antibiotic resistance, soil depletion and superweeds, runoff and contamination. We don’t want others in the world to repeat the mistakes we’ve made… right?

But…

What about the widows of Bario who are happy to eat Ceria rice grown (yes, with machines and chemicals) on the land they’ve always known?

No easy answers at all. But stories like these continually remind me of that hallmark lesson in anthropology: cultures change. People change. They always have, they always do. We cannot understand changes to our food systems on a global scale without understanding the people who change with them.

A worker with Ceria carries a bag of paddy rice for transplant in Bario, in the Kelabit Highlands of Malaysia. Cherry has brought mechanized rice cultivation to the highlands. A logging road has brought many changes to the Kelabit people of the interior highlands of Sarawak in Malaysia. One of the biggest shifts is mechanized rice growing, which is changing how the grain has been grown for generations.  -Photo ©2013/Jerry Redfern
A worker with Ceria carries a bag of paddy rice for transplant in Bario.

2 thoughts on “When Slow Food Isn’t Simple: A Borneo Story

  1. Wow, Karen, this writing does bring many feelings and many things to contemplate. Change is what life is. One can see both sides for sure.

  2. Thanks, Doña. It will be interesting to see how the Bario community works through these changes and what the place will be like in another year or 5 or 10.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *