Making Food Farming Possible for the Orang Asli
by Lauren Chew, Communications Officer, GPF Malaysia
The Orang Asli (OA) are some of the most impoverished communities living in Malaysia. Relying on necessary work for income, many of them struggled to make ends meet during the Movement Control Order in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. With little to no savings, many OA villagers had to depend heavily on food aid. The lack of adequate food not only caused hunger and food insecurity but malnutrition, particularly in children.
Even though many OA families recognize the importance of food farming, very few are successful as many of them face daunting challenges that hinder them from farming successfully. In August 2020, GPF Malaysia began studying the challenges faced by the Orang Asli farmers. After working and learning with them on pilot farm plots, we officially kickstarted the OA-Eco Farm programme in 6 OA villages in November 2020.
This program provides “hands-on training, subsidies such as tools and seedlings, as well as coaching to help them succeed in food farming,” says Dr. Teh Su Thye, GPF Malaysia’s CEO, who led this project himself. As the trainings are carried out within the villages itself, we provided one-on-one coaching and guidance to address each villager’s needs and challenges. From learning how to regenerate the soil by mulching to addressing pests, 38 farm plots were transformed from dry patches of bare soil to flourishing farms filled with vegetables and fruits.
A common issue is the dry and compact soil that’s often exacerbated by long drought seasons in the area of Rompin and Pekan in Pahang. “The soil here is very challenging,” said Rasa, a villager from Kg. Bukit Biru. “It gets worse when it doesn’t rain. Look over here, the soil is in clumps. it’s very hard and many of the plants don’t live.”
Rasa’s sentiment is commonly shared by other villagers, such as Setik, a mother of four children from Kg. Cenodong who showed us the condition of the soil surrounding her home. Apart from this, many OA villagers also lack the capital to buy seedlings, tools and irrigation systems. Thus, many resorted to planting drought-resistant crops such as cassava and sweet potatoes that do not provide enough nutrition for themselves and their family.
“We only plant what our ancestors used to plant such as sweet potatoes, but we will just leave them to grow by themselves,” said Setik, a villager from Kg. Cenodong. “We don’t know how to take care of them.”
Food security is crucial to building resilient OA communities; It not only provides them with adequate nutrition but also protects them from future shocks.
Pak Long, an elder from Kg. Teraling, has been dedicated to improving his food farm. Attending every training and coaching session, Pak Long learned how to regenerate his soil and no longer uses pesticides and chemical fertilizers in his farm. He is now growing over 20 different types of vegetables and fruits, including long beans, chilli, bitter gourd and okra.
“They showed us how to farm, how to regenerate the soil by using leaves to cover and moisten the soil to make it more fertile, Pak Long told us. "So, we followed this method and it works!” Aminah, a villager from Kg. Cenodong expressed that she has learned a lot from the training and coaching sessions. Walking us around her food farm, she showed us how she now uses her hoe, subsidized by the Eco-Farm program, to till the soil before planting vegetable seedlings.
“Following what I learned, the soil in my farm is now healthy and fertile, Aminah said. “They have been really helpful to us by providing us with vegetable seedlings. We often can’t afford to buy those.”
Aminah’s neighbour, Rowena, is also extremely keen on food farming. Harvesting a couple of different types of vegetables in her farm, Rowena invites us into her home and shows us how she would normally prepare meals for her family. As a mother of three, Rowena shares that she is very happy to be farming now as she can feed her children with a variety of vegetables to improve their nutrition.
“I feel good now that I have a vegetable farm,” Rowena explained. “I don’t have to go out to buy vegetables anymore, I can just walk to my farm and harvest my own vegetables. We definitely saved some money.”
As many as 38 families from 6 villages are now growing more than 10 varieties of vegetables and fruits. Many of them have already harvested their yield for consumption by their families.
By having a food farm with different types of vegetables and fruits, many OA villagers expressed happiness and relief that they no longer need to travel out of the village to a store to buy vegetables. This alone allows them to save some of their income for other essential expenses such as children’s school fees.
“I am so happy because my family and I get to eat vegetables,” remarked Wati, a villager from Kg. Jenit. “Right now, I have fruits and vegetables, they’re enough for my children. When my husband goes to work, he will bring the vegetables from our farm with him too.”
“I definitely want to continue farming. It’s not only for the benefit of my family; I want to farm more vegetables and fruits so everyone in the village can eat.” --Rasa, a villager from Kg. Bukit Biru
The crisis of Covid-19 has exposed many of the dire realities faced by the OA community, one of which is severe food insecurity. We hope our OA Eco-Farm programme will inspire more OA farmers to farm their own food to achieve self-sufficiency. This will allow them to develop greater resilience and protect themselves against future shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic for years to come.