Breaking the poverty cycle in rural Sarawak

By Justin Yap

There’s a quiet revolution of sorts taking place among the marginalised communities in rural Lundu and Mambong in Sarawak.

A not-for-profit group calling itself Breakthrough is helping to make families here self-sufficient with the introduction of low-cost “natural farming” methods.

Natural farming, according to project coordinator Jerry Lam, is a form of sustainable farming which makes use of all-natural materials to create inputs such as fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.

“It helps to restore nutrient balance in soil which has been depleted by extensive use of chemicals. This way we are creating and maintaining healthier soil ecosystems which, in turn, promotes better quality plant growth and crop yields.

“Natural farming is low-tech and can be done at home easily and cheaply,” he said, adding that because of its low cost, do-it-yourself-method and self-sustainability, natural farming had the potential to increase farmer’s incomes.

He said that although the “old concept” of natural farming was widely practised in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, it was relatively “new” in Sarawak.

“The old natural farming methods have all but faded away due to the popularity and extensive promotion of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

“We’re now working on changing the local mindsets to farming methods. It’s challenging because many farmers still think using chemical methods is better.

“We have to change their mindset. With fertilisers, you can see fast results but with natural farming, once it’s on, it’s on – meaning when the soil is replenished, it becomes fertile,” Lam said.

By teaching farmers about the benefits of healthy soil eco-systems and natural pest control, Breakthrough is hoping that farmers will be able to see the long-term value of natural farming methods, and not just focus on short-term returns.

Training farmers

The programme is divided into five phases spanning at least 24 months, depending on the initial condition of the soil.

During the first phase, the farmers are taught and trained on how to make natural farming inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

As the ingredients to create these inputs are obtained from plants and other naturally occurring sources, the results are eco-friendly and safe to use.

For example, one method of producing indigenous microorganism (IMO) calls for farmers to place wooden or bamboo boxes containing cooked rice under trees to collect certain microorganisms.

The rice is then mixed with brown sugar and left undisturbed for a period of time. This encourages microorganisms to reproduce and multiply.

Once matured, the resulting IMO-rich liquid is strained into containers and is then ready for use.

In the second phase, farmers prepare the land for long-term natural farming by planting nitrogen- producing legumes.

These plants help to make depleted soil more fertile by reintroducing nitrogen into the soil – a critical component required for photosynthesis and plant growth. Nitrogen-producing legume plants can be used as feed for livestock.

Farmers can also crop the legume plants for mulching which helps to control weed growth, maintain soil moisture and further increase soil fertility.