Back to the basics: How traditional agricultural practices are key to sustainable food production
By Cristina Eghenter, Deputy Director for Governance & Social Development, WWF Indonesia.
As per the landmark Global Assessment Report on the state of nature by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services growing and producing food to respond to the expanding global demand make agriculture and food consumption one of the key drivers of environmental degradation. But there are ways to decrease the pressure on the environment, reducing water, soil and air pollution whilst sustaining those characteristics that enhance biodiversity and natural biological processes for improved crop production for healthier consumption. This has traditionally been the case in many parts of Indonesia.
Let’s take the example of the Krayan Highlands, a territory of enchanting views and deep cultural traditions. Located in North Kalimantan (Indonesia), along the border with Sarawak and Sabah (Malaysia), the Highlands are the ancestral homeland of the Lundayeh, Lun Bawang, Kelabit dan Sa’Ban Indigenous Peoples. While administratively now divided between two countries, they share a common linguistic, historical and cultural heritage. The highlands are not just a place of remote wilderness and natural forests. For centuries local people have used the wide alluvial valleys to cultivate rice and develop a sound agricultural system where wet-rice cultivation prevails, which is unique to the interiors of Borneo. The typical landscape is one of a mosaic of land uses: the rice fields interlaced with bamboo groves and fruit trees, and all embraced by gentle slopes covered with forest. The fresh and clear water from the mountain streams is channelled through bamboo pipes or earth canals into the rice fields.
The Krayan Adan rice is cultivated according to traditional and organic practices by the farmers of the Highlands. Each family cultivates between one and five hectares of rice fields. Water buffaloes are not used for ploughing but are let loose into the rice fields after harvest to trample the earth, eat the stems and fertilize the soil in the process so that the rice fields are ready for the next planting season.
Is this a conservation landscape? Or an agricultural landscape and part of a territory of life? Or both? How does such land use and traditional practices take care of the earth for the future generations? Thanks to the agricultural system they have developed, based on local knowledge, traditional seed supply and water buffaloes the communities have been food secure and are able to maintain soil fertility. Moreover, biodiverse crops have played a major role. Men and women have been the custodians of local agrobiodiversity. Over 40 varieties of rice are planted and cultivated in this area, plus three varieties of sorghum and millet. The fruit biodiversity is also very high. The many local varieties that grow in fruit gardens and on the forest edges have enough phenotypical and sensorial distinct characteristics to warrant a different name in Lundayeh language. Daily food does not only come from the cultivated rice fields and home gardens, it is also available in the forest and other ‘wild’ areas.
Agrobiodiversity and localisation have been for centuries a way to build security, resilience, adaptability, and reduce vulnerability to climate change and other weather events. The diversity of food sources and crops is also reflected in the local cuisine, ‘Luk Kenen Tau’ or what we eat, our food.
The rice and fruits not only provide food security but are also part of the cultural and ethnic identity of the Indigenous people of the Krayan Highlands. The people chose to protect the traditional cultivation area and surrounding territory, and preserve the traditional knowledge associated with agricultural practices. In 2016, they declared the Krayan Highlands an area for organic and traditional agriculture, with the high biodiversity of its crops. The initiative becomes a way to protect food crops, their traditions, and their territory of life.
Traditional food production systems offer a possible solution for food security and sovereignty. Local agricultural systems developed by Indigenous and local people in Indonesia exist in many places and islands. They have proven efficient and sustainable and well integrated with surrounding ecosystems. These systems and the related traditional knowledge should be documented and supported and, where needed, improved with innovation.