Friday, May 7, 2010

An Inside View: Indigenous Salako Swidden Agriculture Practise and Forest Management in Lundu.

The Salako are one of indigenous Bidayuh community in Sarawak. The Bidayuh were collectively called Land Dayak in the past but were officially named Bidayuh by the Malaysian government in 2002. Salako population in the 2000 census was 14,000 living in almost 22 villages. Our traditional homeland was in the southwestern tip of Sarawak, precisely in Lundu and Sematan District. More recently there has been increasing movement of the young, especially those with vocational or professional skills, to other parts of Malaysia.

Long time ago, the Salako were traditionally longhouse dwellers who made their living by subsistence farming. In recent years many have abandoned longhouses for single houses within villages, but many aspects of their traditional culture and social organization have been retained. Rice farming is still an important part of their culture and economy. The agricultural cycle is marked by important festivals called Gawai. Their way of life is structured by their adat (customary law) and rukun (a way of organizing their life). There is a strong sense of cooperation and communal sharing that goes back to the longhouse culture. Economic development and education have brought many of the Salako into the mainstream of modern Malaysian society, but they have managed to maintain many distinct aspects of their culture.

Traditionally, the Salako were animists with some influence from Hinduism and Buddhism. While they attribute spirits to many things in nature such as birds, animals, and plants, many who hold to the traditional religion today believe in a supreme god who comes to their assistance in the cycle of rice cultivation as well as major events in the cycle of life. About 45% of the Salako have become Christians. Although many Salako have come to sincerely believe in the existence of God Al-Mighty, and do attend church, some remain nominal Christians.

While many of the Salako have experienced the benefits of an improved educational system and the modern economy, the rural Salako in particular are not experiencing the same level of progress. For those in the mainstream of modernization, there is a challenge to maintain their cultural heritage and identity.

Salako Land Usage and Management:

In many parts of the world, forests, trees and their products provide the critical components of household, village, regional and national economies. This view are to see how the dependence of Salako swidden cultivators on forest resources in Lundu base on their historical perspective, detailing how Salako traditional swidden cultivators have adapted to political, economic, cultural and environmental changes. Interactions between the Salako socio-cultural heritage and the profound development in social and environmental are affecting changes access to the forest and changes in traditional management practices and concepts of ownership, as well as the very ability of the Salako people to continue to live as swidden cultivators.

Traditional Salako swidden agriculture dweller systems in Lundu range from wet-field (swamp or irrigated paddy rice) and dry-field production of annual crops, to various agro forestry regimes. The agro forestry practices include planting trees and crops in home gardens, and other forest enrichment planting practices, such as planting fruits trees.

The Salako village people give estimations the size of their land not by acreage, but by the amount of rice cultivated and produced. People know exactly how many baskets of rice they plant each year and how much they produce: to them, the products of the land are more important than the amount of land itself. Their land use are Paya’ (irrigated paddy field), Uma (Hill paddy field), Kabon (annual crops such as pepper), Taya’atn (small plot of land for crops or vegetables), Kompokng ( fruits trees plantation such durian and illipe nuts) and Timawakng ( an old living place where fruits trees are left to grows and manage).

Salako Swidden Agriculture Practice

Through a simple explaination, swidden agriculture is frequently called "shifting" or "slash and burn" agriculture, it is often not shifting at all. On the contrary, the Salako swidden style of cultivation constitutes a single part of a long-term agro forestry system, involving very long and complex rotations of crops and trees on various patches of land. Salako swiddeners do not simply slash and burn forest, moving without pattern or plan from one place to another. Their forest management practices, and the purpose associated with various practices and various products, have been particularly misunderstood. It is important to redress this lack of understanding.

In practical swidden agriculture, all staple foods as understood by the Salako swidden dweller, come from the forest, although the forest's function in the production of rice, maize, vegetables and fruits sometimes appears to be limited to supplying ash for fertilizer.

Salako swiddener’s, after clearing an old growth forest species, they will cultivate that land for one or two years, especially for planting paddy, and then determine its future use. The swidden plot can be left as a relatively unaltered fallow - reserved for future field crop cultivation. Meanwhile, the owner and villagers will use the wild or encouraged succession species that may grow in the fallow such tapioca and wild sour brinjals. Alternatively, the fallow field can be planted with fruit trees (explicitly including durian and/or illipe nut trees) or some kind of cash crop such as rubber, cocoa, illipe nut or pepper.

After swiddening, therefore, they makes important decisions about how a plot of land will be managed. These decisions will not only affect the plot's species composition and the configuration of indigenous rights to the land and resources, but will also affect the decisions that the household makes about its other lands, trees and the forest to which it has access.

The decisions by the Salako swiddener’s not to plant economic trees or not to clear areas do not mean the forest is not managed. Decisions not to clear certain kinds of trees, their habitats, or whole areas of the forest are desired for their forest products, and it is a simple way of managing the forest, and its means of regulating access to specific products within a "low-impact" management area/habitat.

Forest cleared for swidden are eventually returned, through natural or managed succession, to old growth cover over a very long period or swidden fallows are converted permanently to fruit and rubber gardens, mixed with a variety of encouraged "wild", succession species. In essence, it appears that over generations the swidden use of forests is sustainable.

Native Customary Land Right – NCR (Tanah Adat/Pusaka) Tenure

The rights of indigenous Salako people in Malaysia, especially in Lundu to convert or use particular forest territories and products are conveyed in multiple sets of customary access rules called adat (rules). In general there are three main types of property tenure: common property rights (CPRs); descent group common property rights (descent group CPRs); and, private property rights.

Common property rights are held either by the village as a whole or by descent groups. Descent group rights can be likened to "heirloom rights" and are shared among kith and kin. Private land rights for swiddening are recognised by the community for both individuals and families and, when ownership disputes arise, they are arbitrated by the village head or the head of customary law. Both men and women are accorded these rights, as they relate strongly to each individual's input of labour.

Common property rights

The common property in Salako society is the village territory. These territories were established by the ancestors who pioneered settlement and created the traditional geographic boundaries. The government then established formal boundaries which essentially followed these traditional divisions and most of these divisions remain and are recognised by the contemporary Sarawak State.

Formerly, the village proper consisted of one or two longhouses, which in turn contained as many as 10 to 20 doors or apartments located in a settlement area. Today, most village units consist of clusters of single family houses built in a residential section of the village territory. These separate households hold common property rights to the village territory and the forest products (both flora and fauna) within that territory.

Under the traditional laws of resource allocation, the land and forest surrounding the longhouse settlements remain village common property until the conditions for private claim or control are exercised by individuals or groups.

When common resources and products are shared, the group as a whole must usually agree to share the resources and products by community labour, and if any of the fellow community doesn’t participate, his ownership rights are indirectly “forfeited”.

Some forest products are also village common property wherever they grow. Any villager can collect firewood from someone's garden or swidden fallow without asking permission. Besides that, most wild foods, such as mushrooms, greens, ferns and bamboo shoots, all of which grow in the forest, in old swidden fallows or in gardens, are commonly shared.

Certain other products are village CPRs when they are wild but private property when they are planted or protected. For example, wild pandanus growing in the forest is a village CPR, but if it is planted in swidden fallows, it becomes private property.

Descent group rights

In Salako society, descent group common property rights are rights to trees or land held in common by the descendents of tree planters, tree protectors/managers, or forest clearers. The rights most often apply to trees and the fruit of trees. These are the rights retained by the children and grandchildren of the original tree planter or manager.

Rights of transfer for commonly held resources are restricted, and if any of the coheirs wants to cut or sell the tree or, in some cases, sell the land, all the other heirs should be asked permission and should be given a share in the profits or the wood. Failure to do so can result in family censure or in a hearing with village leaders and the payment of a customary fine.

Private rights

Private rights to land and forest products are generally recognized by the Salako communities if one or all of three circumstances prevail: (a) there is an investment of labour in the land or in the product's management; (b) inheritance; or (c) prior claim (finder's rights).

For trees, especially seasonal fruits trees, private rights are recognized when an individual plants, harvests, maintains (manages), and protects the tree. The rights to newly-planted trees are maintained by the planter and his household, while old trees are jointly-owned by the planter's descent group. Generally, men and women inherit rights in fruit trees equally. Finding and marking a tree also constitutes an ownership claim, but often further evidence of some management is required to uphold the claim.

Besides claims based on labour investment and inheritance, private rights may be acquired through gift or purchase.

Customary fines

Community sanctions have protected individual and household claims on both land and trees. Cutting someone's planted or managed trees, wherever they are located (in old swiddens, forest or home gardens), has always been grounds for levying a customary fine. The payment of fines for cutting trees can be compared to the payment of fines for taking someone's life: although the amount for the latter is significantly higher, the process and the justification are basically the same, because both acts deprived another's descendants of a livelihood.

Different types of customary fines must be paid according to the severity of the offence, usually by a system of weighing, which is “tahil”. Besides that, the offender are required to pay the fine which can be paid with cash, or property like trees, swidden fallows or pigs. Fines increase according to the level at which the dispute is finally settled. These fines have been standardised.

Hazards of development in the Salako Swiddeners

Access to modern facilities is not all beneficial. Through the introductions of development, social dysfunctions have also been creeping slowly into the community because of the extensiveness of interactions with the regional market economy and other social changes. Most disturbing are the incidents of increased gambling and drinking, particularly among young people

It is not surprising that many young people do not want to make swiddens or take part in the production of annual crops; this is common in many contemporary Salako villages where young people want to be "modern". The loss of large amounts of money to gambling and drinking however, rather than the investment of any surplus in potentially productive enterprises for the future, worries many of the more responsible village people.

The formalization of traditional rights as so called Native Customary Rights-NCR (though flawed as a concept because it comes after protest by the native’s when the government began to claimed all the commercial timber resources, designated reserves, and divided all land into political land use classifications) has in fact create more opportunities for the Salako swiddeners to pursue further their way of integrating their life into this much anticipated modern farming development. An understanding of the indigenous people's traditional forest managment practices, which have survived several hundred years, will help us in our ability to wisely manage our resources.


1. Nancy Lee Peluso; The Impact of Social and Environmental Change on Forest Management:
 A Case Study from West Kalimantan, Indonesia, The FAO Forestry Department, United Nations.

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