Psst, Malaysia’s Got a New Rice Bowl

Limbang town is about 30 minutes by speedboat from Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, which sits on the coast where the Brunei and Limbang rivers meet the South China Sea. Getting there requires navigating through a maze of marshland before traveling up the Limbang River. Just 10 years ago, river travel was precarious. The long, narrow speedboats easily capsize if they hit floating tree trunks, which may be invisible or look deceptively benign.

Now Limbang district, which is situated between two parts of Brunei on the island of Borneo, appears destined to become the site of Malaysia’s newest gigantic project. This is an area ceded by Brunei to the famed White Raja, James Brooke, and even today the sultanate would like to wrest back the fertile estuary and the rainforest which lie upriver. More recently, Limbang came under the international media spotlight when indigenous nomads protested against logging companies in the late 1990s.

Malaysia, however, has identified the river estuary as one of the sites for large scale rice cultivation as part of an ambitious RM4 billion project to turn the rainforest-covered state of Sarawak into a new "rice bowl" to make Malaysia self-sufficient in face of the global food crisis. What it mainly has done is raise concerns among environmentalists and NGOs that it will generate another land grab on Borneo on the magnitude of the Bakun Dam.

Details are sketchy and the plan seems to have been pushed through with little forethought. Land Development Minister James Masing, the Sarawakian politician who was in charge of resettling native tribesmen from the site of the Bakun Dam, reportedly said that parts of Sarawak's 5 million hectares have been identified for rice cultivation, mostly in the central coastal areas and river deltas in the north. The area identified for cultivation is close to half of Sarawak's total land mass of about 124,450 square km.

Rampant deforestation has already wiped out most of Limbang’s primary forest. What is left is in the more mountainous regions. But Masing said forest would not be cleared as the identified sites are in the lowlands.

Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi approved funds for the project after speaking to Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, who has benefited handsomely from the Bakun Dam, which wiped out 23,000 hectares of virgin rainforest, delivered the timber into the hands of timber barons and displaced 9,000 indigenous people. But it is not clear if an Environmental Impact Assessment has been carried out by the Department of Environment in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, which is required before public or private projects can be carried out.

There are serious questions whether the region is even suitable for rice planting. Mangrove swamps are generally not good for industrial rice farming, which ideally needs clay soils to hold the water in wet fields. A report by the Malaysian Department of Agriculture suggests that organic soils like peat pose severe limitations to agriculture. In a recent article, The Borneo Post mused: "Apparently, if soil conditions do present a challenge, then investors must be able to come up with innovative technology to deal with, for instance, rice cultivation on peat swamps, and make it economically viable."

Environmental groups add that top concerns include further deforestation of primary rainforest, wetlands conservation and the displacement of indigenous groups, like the nomadic Penan who live in the forests up the Limbang river. Meanwhile, politicians have asked for more detailed studies and criticized the plan as another ad hoc measure that does not address the real problems behind the food shortage in the country.

Shailendra Yashwant, Campaign Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, pointed out that industrial rice cultivation in Limbang would impact more than the environment. "The proposal is for large-scale land clearing of forested areas of Limbang in Sarawak for creating rice paddies to combat the current food crisis. Then the effects go beyond the sheer disappearance of trees. We are talking about biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, social upheaval and yet another spike in greenhouse gas emissions, all of which Malaysia can ill afford," he told Asia Sentinel.

Wetlands Malaysia urged the government to practice environmentally sustainable farming methods guided by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty governing wetland conservation and sustainable use. "The wise use of wetlands is their sustainable utilization for the benefit of mankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural properties of the ecosystem," Gabriel Chong, the organization's communication officer, told Asia Sentinel.

The Ramsar Convention now lists some 1,743 protected sites totaling 161 million hectares (about six times the size of the United Kingdom) in 158 countries. There are four in Malaysia and only one in Sarawak, the Kuching Wetlands Park at the southern tip of the state.

Wetlands are the loosely defined as the area where rivers join the sea, like swamps and marshes. These frail ecosystems have been drained and cleared for development globally over the years whether for new buildings, extended coastline or just logging of mangrove trees.

To plant rice, peat swamps must first be drained. But a Friends of the Earth report says the swamplands are crucial to control floods and provide water during droughts. Drained swamps, the report adds, are also prone to combustion due to the highly organic soil.

And, once again, the Penan are in limbo. Originally a nomadic forest tribe, they have been forced out of their land and into a modern life. Robbed of their natural source of food and life, social problems have set in as they struggle to find a place in the new Malaysia.