Gathering vegetables that grow alongside trees in the Sungai Buri agroecology and agroforestry project, north-eastern Sarawak.

A visit to two agroecology projects supported by Sahabat Alam Malaysia/ Friends of the Earth Malaysia

“We can’t afford to plant only one crop – we have to do what is of more benefit to us,” says Nuie anak Sumok (below). “And nobody can tell us what to do.”

Known to friends as ‘Superwoman’ for her work ethic, Nuie is striking a blow for her family, her community and the environment with every chilly, pineapple and courgette she produces from her bountiful roadside plot in Sungai Buri, north-eastern Sarawak.

Nuie anak Sumok sitting among plants

Nuie leads a women’s group in an area where agroecology, agroforestry and community forest management are becoming potent tools in defence of peoples’ rights, livelihoods and the forest’s natural resources.

Here, what Nuie refers to as ‘integrated farming’ is not only beginning to roll back the damage done by logging and oil palm plantations, but directly challenging that destructive model of development.

Where the government is pushing the one-crop cash-crop, this is agroecology as an act of resistance.

A team from Friends of the Earth International went to learn more.

Sungai Buri community agroecology and community forest management project, Sarawak, Malaysia

Sungai Buri is about 30 km from the town of Miri on the north eastern coast of Sarawak. For generations, indigenous communities in this region have protected and managed their forests; and the forests have provided food, water, wood, fuel, shelter, biodiversity, seeds, honey, fruits, medicines and animal feed.

But logging and expansion of oil palm plantations have polluted rivers and degraded soils, robbing communities of their ancestral lands and livelihoods in the process. Biodiversity has been disappearing and with it, not just the natural materials used to make handicrafts but knowledge of the forest too.

These are the conditions that Sungai Buri’s community faced when they approached SAM for help in 2017. At the time they were the only group in the area resisting the march of the plantations. On SAM’s advice they formed a residents’ association – an important step affording them legal status – and started thinking about restoring and protecting natural resources. They decided to set up an agroecology and tree-planting demonstration project, identifying an area of nearly 5 acres. By 2019 some 50-70 residents were actively involved.

Four Malaysian people smiling with palm tree

The Sungai Buri community agroecology and community forest management project grows indigenous forest trees, bananas, pineapple and daun long. “We try our best to help the whole community to plant local tree species,” says Nuie (above, third from left).

woman holding compost

Members of the Sungai Buri residents’ association collect healthy seeds from the forest and propagate them at the nursery. A seed exchange scheme has been set up with sister organisations in Marudi, Long Miri and Long Pilah, with different groups collecting seeds local to them – merbau, jelayan, rattan, engkabang, meranti and fruit trees such as durian and langsat.

This is an end-to-end project. Sungai Buri is not just about growing food and material crops in an environmentally sustainable way, but producing handicrafts for market.

Daun long leaves

Daun long leaves, for example, are traditionally used to wrap food, especially rice and fish. They can also be dried and made into hats to protect against the sun and rain. The community can sell the leaves in Miri for 10 cents each – and demand is increasing, especially over the border in neighbouring Brunei. They are a source of income, but also a sustainable alternative to plastics – which is one reason the association is encouraging communities to grow daun long.

Bemban, a plant used to make traditional baskets and mats, has become scarcer as its preferred habitat of swamps and paddy fields have been drained. The shortage has driven artisans to alternatives such as plastic straps to make their handicrafts.

women weaving baskets with bemban plant

Today, though, women working with the Sungai Buri agroecology project are using bemban to make mats, baskets, and traditional ties and wraps. Although, like many rural communities they struggle to market their handicrafts, they are asking SAM to help with this.

women making handicrafts in malaysia

Community leader Gasah Tedong (below) explains that official channels do not promote these sorts of agricultural and livelihood practices and traditions. The government and companies only tell communities about plantations, he says; but communities don’t want to work in plantations – “they want control of their resources”.

headshot of Community leader Gasah Tedong

The Sungai Buri residents’ association, one of a small number of agroecology projects that SAM is supporting directly, has its challenges. The group would like to plant more pineapple, for example, but to remove weeds and non-local trees they need a saw, and they need a water pump. It all takes money.

They also want more women to join the project, says Nuie. “Right now we are around 20 women fully involved, but hopefully there will be more – and of course we want to give anyone the opportunity.” Across the region, SAM is working to increase the number of women taking part in agroecology groups – and recently the gap has narrowed from just 20 per cent women to 40 per cent.

members of women’s group among pineapple crop

“We have to organise, we have to do a lot of work,” says Nuie, above right, among the pineapple crop with other members of the women’s group. “We can’t say this is already successful; it is just the beginning. We are very happy so far.”

Gasah agrees. “The project is still young, so it’s hard to see results yet.” But he adds: “For me there are no problems running an agroecology and agroforestry project, because SAM provides so much support.”

Seeding a revolution in agroecology

SAM’s community forest management training centre and tree nursery in Lobang Kompeni, Marudi

The effectiveness of that support is clear to see at SAM’s community forest management training centre and tree nursery in Lobang Kompeni, Marudi (above). Here they run workshops on agroecology, training indigenous communities in the use of nature-friendly farming techniques, encouraging the use of chemical-free fertiliser and collection of wild native seeds for future planting. As in Sungai Buri, SAM also supports communities to rehabilitate degraded land by planting trees or setting it aside for conservation to bring back wildlife.

Although encouraged by government subsidies to cultivate oil palm, smallholders are at a disadvantage when it comes to selling their produce. And with prices for palm oil falling, some communities want to turn their land over to community forest management instead. There are thousands of hectares where forest could be regenerated in this way.

But smallholders have difficulties getting licences to make this change where their territories do not fit the description of land cultivated before 1958. In fact most indigenous territories in Sarawak were established long before that date but they weren’t all used for cultivation: mostly they would be forested for the purpose of hunting, gathering, and water catchment protection; and some family-owned agricultural plots would be left fallow for years, allowing secondary growth that to the untrained eye resembles natural forest. The licensing regulation effectively rules out most smallholders from adopting community forest management.

Volunteers at the nursery plant and cultivate seeds collected from the forest

Volunteers at the nursery plant and cultivate seeds collected from the forest (above). In March 2019 the organisation was growing 2,000 saplings. Communities consult SAM about where to find seeds and how to cultivate them, using SAM’s contacts and networking with other communities to collect seeds.

seeds and seedlings

All of the tree species involved in the community forest management projects are indigenous. They include high-quality timber species used in housing and boat construction; long-living fruit trees; and those with traits that can be used as medicines, in cultural ceremonies, or made into anything from furniture, to tools, to adhesives. Customary landowners – indigenous communities who own native customary lands – visit SAM’s centre and have started buying saplings.

two women visiting an agroecological farm in malaysia

SAM’s workshops offer hands-on training, exposure visits to smallholdings and farms (above) to examine a range of agroecological practices, and classroom-style learning (below).

women reading information during fertiliser training workshop

A key part of the training is learning how to make chemical-free fertilisers from readily available ingredients. Compared to commercial counterparts these homemade organic fertilisers are better for the soil, better for people’s health and better for their finances. Making the chemical-free fish amino fertiliser (below), for example, simply involves cutting up the fish, adding sugar and leaving them to soak for two weeks, then diluting with 100 ml water to 1 ml fish mix.

women making effective microorganism fertiliser with eggs, banana and pumpkin

Another, the so-called effective microorganism (EM) fertiliser, is made by mixing eggs, bananas and pumpkin (above) and leaving for a month before diluting with water.

two women making chemical-free fish amino fertiliser

“We can grow all the ingredients for the fertilizer,” said Roseline Serai (above left) who attended the training in 2019. “I can make it at home and then we can apply it at any time.” Roseline said she expected to be financially better off, since she would no longer need to buy fertiliser for the fruit trees and pepper plants she tends for her family.

group photo of participants of friends of the earth malaysia's agroecology workshop

At the end of SAM’s workshops, participants head home with bottles of organic fertiliser (above) and the know-how to produce more.

Man practises traditional farming methods in Malaysia

Merum Ngimolang (above), a smallholder near the Lobang Kompeni site, has been using SAM’s organic fertiliser since 2018 “not just with fruit, but chillies and other vegetables and the results are good”. He decided to try the fish amino on his durian and pineapple trees after noticing his chemically treated crop declining and the soil quality deteriorating. Already he can see the durian are fruiting earlier. “We are doing a good job using organic fertiliser,” he says. “The effects are clear. SAM should continue with this work.”

Does this mean organic fertilisers and other agroecological practices could be applied more widely? “No one in the area has tried the organic fertiliser on larger areas of crop,” says Merum, who uses government-subsidised fertiliser on his rice. For now, SAM is encouraging people to test the organic fertilisers on small areas first.

headshot of Sylvia William Endak a volunteer with Sahabat Alam Malaysia

But Sylvia William Endak (above), a volunteer with SAM, is optimistic that the practice will spread. “I have seen it helps the women understand the economic value – by using organic fertilisers they don’t need to buy from the town. And they really save money,” she says. “Now they are starting to realise that the modern fertiliser is not really good for health.”

“It would be good if these kinds of agroecological practices, sustainable agriculture, were used throughout Sarawak and Malaysia because as we see it is a very sustainable farming method.”

headshot of Jok Jau Evong
“I have been involved in lots of campaigns in Sarawak, particularly on the issue of native customary land rights, and other major issues like logging and plantations, because of the landgrabbing by the state government.” — Jok

That, in a nutshell, is SAM’s strategy: set up community projects, train them and those communities spread the word to others. SAM Sarawak Coordinator Jok Jau Evong (above) recalls that SAM learned about making organic fertiliser from a sister organisation in West Malaysia. “They came and trained us, so now we become the trainer to our local communities.”

Jok is steeped in peer education and solidarity. “I have been abroad several times to see what’s happening in other countries and how the people struggle to fight back and restore their own resources. I came to Marudi to share my experience – and I see there are communities who are starting to understand and gain the confidence to fight.”


So what might hold back the spread of agroecology and community forest management practices that are clearly good for people’s livelihoods and the environment?

“Of course there are a lot of obstacles,” says volunteer Sylvia. “Lack of water, especially during the dry weather. It makes it difficult to maintain the seedlings.”

There are also constraints on people’s time and resources. The workshops may be free, but participants have to give up their time to be there – and pressing needs like the rice harvest can prevent some from attending. You can’t expect a community to do more than they can with what they have, says Jok.

Funding is a constraint for SAM as well, he says. On its long list of work, SAM is helping grow the number of legally registered residents’ associations – since greater numbers will represent a more powerful counter to the plantation companies. In 2019 the Miri office was working with 13 active community organisations out of 28 formally registered ones. But with only three staff there, more resources are needed to ensure SAM has the capacity to address the growing needs of the network.

There can be risks too. To this day, Jok carries a limp sustained when a tree fell on him 10 years ago. And he has experience of more sinister threats, including being denied a passport for seven years for campaigning against the government. Jok’s wife has at times asked him to stop his work. His is not an isolated case: people in the communities commonly face criminalisation and threats to life.

As we’ve seen, the government does not recognise ‘uncultivated’ ancestral lands, preferring instead to grant concessions to companies to log from the 1980s to 1990s and now, to develop oil palm and pulp and paper plantations.

So community management of agriculture and forests puts SAM and the communities at odds with a government focused on industrial-scale monoculture plantations.

“Campaigning is very scary sometimes,” says Jok. “I never expected to be where I am today. I am just a local farmer.”

Agroecology, as a practice, harnesses natural processes to build more sustainable and productive agriculture and ecosystems. As a social movement, it aims to build food systems that strengthen the economic viability of rural areas, based on short food supply chains and fair and safe food production. It supports diverse smallholder food production, rural communities, food sovereignty, local knowledge, social justice, local identity and culture, and indigenous rights. As a science agroecology provides a living, coherent, transdisciplinary and holistic framework – which includes peoples’ diverse knowledge and ways of knowing – through which to study its practices and outcomes.

Agroecology: Innovating for Sustainable Food Systems and Agriculture
Junk Agroecology: The corporate capture of agroecology for a partial ecological transition without social justice

Agroecology is closely linked to Community Forest Management (CFM), which implies the control by communities – rather than government, private absentee landlords or companies, for example – over their territories and resources. CFM is holistic in that it involves the planned use of water, biological resources and sacred places, for example, and encompasses use of appropriate technologies, ancestral knowledge and community practices.
See: Community Forest Management.

Agroforestry, meanwhile, tends to describe systems where agricultural plants and/or animals are cultivated among or alongside woody plants (trees, shrubs etc). 

On the links between agroecology and CFM, see: Community Forest Management and Agroecology.

Interviews by Amelia Collins and Jok Jau Evong, with translations by Jok Jau Evong. Photos by Amelia Collins/Friends of the Earth International. Additional writing by Adam Bradbury.

Main image: Gathering vegetables that grow alongside trees in the Sungai Buri agroecology and agroforestry project, north-eastern Sarawak.