Not only rice
By: Cristina Eghenter
Woman holding ‘benamud’ (millet)
Green and fair products and the agro-biodiversity of the Krayan Highlands
The Highlands of the Heart of Borneo offer some enchanting views. The typical landscape is one of wide valleys interlaced with traditional paddy fields, bamboo stands and fruit trees embraced by gentle slopes covered with dense forest. The scenery is almost gentle. People and nature seem to have worked together well to shape the landscape in beautiful and sustainable ways.
The rice is the most popular and significant product of the highlands in the Heart of Borneo. Over the centuries, local Indigenous Peoples have transformed the bottom of the valleys in rice fields and created a self-sustained agricultural cycle integrated with water buffalos husbandry. The traditional ways can fulfill subsistence needs and produce surplus for rice trade across the border to Sarawak. The product is ‘traditionally’ organic.
Adan rice is the finest among the local rice varieties still cultivated in the Krayan and other parts of the Highlands. It comes in three different varieties: white, red and black. This rice is famous for its small grain and fine texture, and pleasant taste. The Indonesian government has secured the white variety with a certificate of Geographic Indication (GI) in 2012 as ‘Beras Adan Krayan’ or Krayan Adan rice. The black variety has a sweet aroma. Similar to the fate of several other local varieties, black rice was being slowly replaced by new and high-yielding varieties over the years. However, rising market interest in this variety is reversing the fortune of black rice in the Krayan. Rice is the staple food. The local cuisine has developed a variety of ways of cooking rice as soft rice (luba laya); porridge-like rice; rice cakes; liquid risotto-like rice dishes (biter) mixed with all sorts of vegetables or fish or palm shoots or ginger flowers.
As we zoom into the mosaic landscape of the Highlands, while the rice fields remain the dominant feature, the terrain shows more agro-biodiversity, which is a characteristic of traditional and healthy natural agricultural systems. This is largely a product of intense agroforestry, local enrichment and experimentation, and the traditional knowledge of the local people. Along the edges of the paddy, sorghum (dele arur) is still cultivated. Fields of hill rice are interspersed with patches of millet (benamud), increasinly appreciated by buyers in Sarawak and Brunei. Along the banks of the Krayan River, fruit trees, often in groves, contain an astonishing variety of tropical fruits, with durian fruit having the largest number of local varieties.
Agrobiodiversity, the diversity and locality of cultivars and genetic resources, have been a way to build resilience, adaptability, and reduce vulnerability to seasonal and climate changes in the Krayan Highlands over time. And while in the past agro-biodiversity was the basis for a local production and consumption system, increasingly, market interests and cultural revival seem to keep certain traditional varieties alive, and the latter become more dependent on economic values. Nowadays, the challenge is how to use market mechanisms in ways to value and sustain the local agro-biodiversity. Initiatives like Green& Fair products of WWF, Slow Food and Ark of Taste, demand for organic and natural products, health concerns, education, and several other means try to ‘twist’ the market and encourage consumers’ interest for local products that help maintain agro-biodiversity and preserve sustainable, enchanting landscapes in the Heart of Borneo.