We are too much depending on other for Rice- Do we realize that ?

by Sidi Munan. Posted on February 20, 2011, Sunday

MY favourite grocer at Kota Sentosa shook his head saying, “Haven’t got, boss.”
Since last month, the Beras Nasional 15 has disappeared from the market, he said, pointing to the Chrysanthemum variety. Only RM38 per 10kg bag bah!

I replied, “I see.”

Actually I didn’t.

I still didn’t understand why the rice went out of stock until Monday evening when I heard it over the radio.

One official from the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism was explaining the situation: the restaurants and eateries had allegedly snapped up all the rice, and there was nothing the authorities could do because there was no regulation to prevent these businesses from buying the subsidised rice too.

Gahat Mawang rice

Earlier in the day, the headline in The Borneo Post screamed, ‘Bright future for 80,000 padi planters’.

It was the officials from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation talking about the results of research done by Mardi on hill padi in Gahat Mawang. Though the research project will only be completed at the end of August this year, the results are already known to them.

“Through the research we can now enable the smallholders to increase the yield from their farms. If they produce more than they need for subsistence, they can sell and improve their income,” the chairman of the taskforce on food security of the ministry was reported to have said.

He revealed that the project was in line with the economic transformation programme to achieve a high income economy because the PM and the CM want every Malaysian to earn better income, adding that “the transformation programme is not empty talk because we are serious in helping everyone from the big corporations to the smallholders”.

Asked if there would be similar studies carried out in other areas in Sarawak, yes, there would be studies done in Sri Aman, Kapit and Sarikei soon.

Such is the wonder of science that results of research are already known before completion, like the sex of a baby is known before its delivery. The variety has even been christened ‘Gahat Mawang Rice’.

Thirty years ago, I heard of research on planting padi on terraces. Not a word about its success or failure ever since.

While flying by helicopter over the Lower Batang Lupar, our first Prime Minister had a bright idea: there, down below is a vast country, the next rice bowl of Malaysia. Excitedly, he announced this to reporters waiting for him at the old Kuching Airport.

This was sometime in 1965.

Since then talk about this rice bowl has cropped up from time to time whenever VIPS visit the Lupar.

While waiting for the Gahat Mawang Rice to be marketed, may we ask what has happened to the many padi schemes in the state? How productive are they and when can we be self-sufficient in rice?

Millions of ringgit have been poured into the drainage and irrigation of those schemes from Tanjung Purun in Lundu to those in the northern region of Sarawak.

These schemes were part of the self-sufficiency policy in rice because Sarawak has been a net importer of rice since the end of the Second World War. According to the Sarawak Annual Report 1951, we imported some 31,709 tons of rice that year to feed a population of 546,385 (Census 1947). Now to feed a population of 2.1 million (2001), the state needs some many more tons of rice — you work it out for yourself.

How successful is that policy?

Month of dry spoons

This period — December, January and February — is dubbed by rural padi planters as ‘bulan begantong senduk’. It’s that time of the year before harvest, in fact a time of hunger. For the fishermen, it’s a period of rough seas and incessant rains (landas) and time to take a rest from sea fishing. For these fishermen, all would be well after the Chap Goh Meh; for the padi planters, however, harvest time will not be until March or early April.

This is the time to resort to the BN and its disappearance from the grocer’s at this critical juncture adds insult to injury.

Some explanation I heard over the radio ran something like this: The government has classified rice consumers into two broad groups: the lower income are to eat the subsidised BN 15, while the higher income earners, restaurants, and eateries, ought to buy the fragrant variety imported from Thailand and Vietnam. For the past couple of months, these eateries have allegedly snapped up all the rice meant for ordinary mortals.

Hence the shortage.

And there is no law to prevent these food outlets from buying the staple food of the lower income groups. Even if there is such a regulation, it would be almost impossible to impose unless you employ the Japanese style of food control by allowing the lower income groups to get the rice direct from the government’s godowns.

That’s the explanation. I see.

But I’m more interested in getting my BN immediately rather than waiting for the new brand discovered by Mardi. Too old to wait too long.

Rice producers stockpiling

The news about scrambling to stockpile by many rice producing countries does not help; the poor harvests in Thailand and Vietnam — two sources of Malaysian imports — do not make good reading.

Spare a thought for those farmers in Baram

In Sarawak, at this time of the year, paddy fields are murai (blooming) but many farmers in the Baram have experienced bad floods and their fields were destroyed.

The Penans and the longhouse folk in the Baram, especially in the Tinjar-Bakong areas, are in for a long ‘begantong senduk’ unless help comes between now and the following harvest in March 2012.

Once there were green fields

Though the country has been a net importer of rice, mainly for people in town, most rural people, especially those farmers in the Lower Batang Lupar in Tanjong Bijat, Stumbin and Banting, used to have enough rice, even spare for sale, unless there were bad floods, long dry spells or bad attacks by pests (empangau) or rats or sparrows (pipit banda).

But now there is a scramble for land for oil palm plantations at the expense of land for padi cultivation. Those farmers in the Lower Batang Lupar are lucky to sit on fertile land; in the rest of the state, the terrain is either hilly or not suitable for wet padi, which yields more than the hill variety does. Hopefully, Mardi’s research on hill padi will translate into real grains soon.

Have we enough land for rice cultivation, swamp and hill varieties, on a large scale?

You would remember seeing acres and acres of green fields of rice at Siburan and Beratok. No longer – now most of the area has been developed for housing estates.

In the past, you saw vegetable plots everywhere; now you don’t. The vegetable cultivators have moved to the Batu Gong area and even that area will be converted into housing estates in no time.

Driving along that offshoot of Penrissen road on the way to join Jalan Stephen Yong was pleasant at this time of the year, admiring the green fields turning yellow with beautiful grains and flags of all colours acting to scare away the naughty birds. No longer – shop houses have now taken over a large area opposite the junction to Kampung Sudat and more houses are being built there on padi land.

Other competitors

The padi farmers have other competitors, more formidable: the oil palm plantation owners, some of whom have even encroached on peat swamp land. In the 1970s, estate crop developers were not allowed to plant oil palms on such areas. Nowadays anything goes.

This is development, we are told.

Before I get overwhelmed by the thoughts of expensive rice as a result of the shortage in the market and of a scramble for stockpiling by rice producing countries, I must stop for my porridge.

As a state, when will we ever be self-sufficient in the staple food?

Contribution of Mr. Sidi Munan- Borneo Post Online

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