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Working on a CBR with Indigenous Farmers in Sarawak

October 17th, 2012

Agriculture has been the backbone to the livelihoods of communities in rural Sarawak for many generations and crops such as rubber, rice and pepper are of prime importance to the household income of these communities. Many other crops, although economically less important, provide a food for a diverse diet, building materials, medicines, animal fodder and the many other elements that contribute to the wellbeing and livelihoods of rural families.

Some of the present day challenges faced by Sarawak farming communities include unpredictable climatic effects, market uncertainties and unplanned development. Despite development ushering in advantages such as electricity, clean water and good roads for these rural communities, these efforts can often have undesirable side effects. If a balance is not achieved between development and conservation one unwanted consequence can be the loss of important genetic resources and diversity. Increased human encroachment due to the increasing area farmed with oil palm and in general monoculture is wiping out a number of traditional crops as traditionally managed fields are destroyed to make way for more profitable ventures. Conservation efforts undertaken at community level can help to maintain threatened crops and varieties and help to ensure that the food basket is secured and long established income generating activities are not maintained.

In any conservation initiative, a Community Biodiversity Register (CBR) has been found to be an important tool that can be used by local communities [1] to document the resources within a community in terms of biodiversity, traditional knowledge and good practices. The information collected also leads to an increased awareness of the available useful diversity maintained by farmers and communities and about the importance of conservation. A positive and indirect effect is community empowerment.  A CBR also contributes to creating a sense of ownership of a community towards their biological resources. It represents a valuable instrument for community conservation and helps to safeguard indigenous knowledge as well as local crop and livestock resources.

The villages of Gahat and Skrang are home to Bidayuh and Iban indigenous peoples. These villages hold an abundance of traditional hill paddy varieties which are cultivated mainly for local consumption and are culturally valued and intricately linked with the social systems of these communities. Other crops such as Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi L.), cucumber (Cucumis sativus), maize (Zea mays), long beans (Vigna spp), brinjal (Solanum melongena), and various different fruits are also grown alongside the hill paddy as ‘catch crops’ [2].

Recognizing the diversity contained within these production systems and their potential to improve livelihoods, in the context of the project “Climate Change and Indigenous Communities: Strengthening Adaptability, Resilience, and Innovation”, the Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research (PAR) together with its partner in Sarawak, Semongok Agriculture Research Centre (ARC), organized a Community Biodiversity Register (CBR) training workshop from the 25-26th February 2012 at the village of Gahat. The workshop aimed at increasing the communities’ appreciation of the genetic resources that they manage, strengthening their capacity to maintain these resources and  fostering exchange of varieties and seeds within and amongst the communities.

Nineteen farmers (community representatives) from the project locations in Gahat and Skrang (namely the Skrang villages of Mujan, Mejong, Nanga Tebat, Murat and the Gahat one of Mawang) and three resource persons from Bioversity International, PAR and Semongok ARC participated in this workshop. The workshop introduced the rationale behind the CBR and its process, with participants gaining familiarity with the related stages leading towards the compilation and management of a CBR.

To complement the information collected through the CBR, a socioeconomic survey was formulated in the communities’ local language (Bahasa Malaysia). Its content  was discussed amongst workshop participants to ensure their ease in dealing with the questions when conducting the actual survey which begun upon their return to the respective communities.

The survey which is currently ongoing involves 204 respondents and is expected to be completed by the end of March 2012.

A related session during the workshop focused on validating data from a previous survey which was conducted in 2010.  Working modalities for each village were also agreed upon whereby a village representative and an assistant were elected to ensure a smooth completion of the survey and CBR. Once the CBR is developed, information gathered will be used towards addressing key questions related to diversity maintenance within a community including resources which are valued most, the need to conserve these resources and how are these resources used.

Overall this project is interested in supporting communities as they strive to cope with uncertainty. More specifically the maintenance of traditional varieties has been found to be an important element of coping with climate change and the project aimed to work with communities on how best to do this. The workshop is seen as timely for strengthening the capacities of the indigenous farmers in Sarawak through knowledge creation and awareness for diversity maintenance. Engaging farmers through  workshops such as this give the opportunity for the creation of informal networks of communication which bank on the value of ‘insiders’ within a community who are often times excluded by the mainstream research community. In general, the farmers were enthusiastic in adopting the CBR methodology and considered it as a beneficial documentation tool for monitoring their biodiversity assets.

Read more on Community Biodiversity Registers

Subedi A, BR Sthapit, MP Upadhyay and D Gauchan (eds) 2005. Learning from Community Biodiversity Register in Nepal – Proceedings of the National Workshop 27-28 October 2005, Khumaltar, Nepal

Seshan. S. 1999. Community Biodiversity Registry: a tool for empowering people. Green Foundation. Leisa India Supplement, December 1999. p21

Community Biodiversity Register: Consolidating community role in management of agricultural biodiversity. Good practice n. 9 from On-farm conservation of agricultural biodiversity in Nepal – Volume II Di Sthapit, B.R.,Upadhyay, M.P.,Shrestha, P.K.,Jarvis, D.I. (eds.)



[2]Crops that are planted in between rice for the purposes of securing the food basket at harvest time, reducing problems from crop loss and optimizing the production cycle and harvest – for this reason catch crops are normally rapid growers.