'Laila' sets the pace for self-sufficiency in rice
By Waleed PD Mahdini

In a demonstration of the country's resolute determination to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production, His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam took to the field yesterday in a highly symbolic gesture to plant padi seedlings, which officially kick-started the nation's drive to secure its future food requirements.

Organised, coordinated and implemented by the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources, Pehin Orang Kaya Seri Utama Dato Seri Setia Hj Awg Yahya, in his welcoming remarks yesterday pointed out "that the launching ceremony represents an initial step in heeding the call made by His Majesty in planning and implementing the nation's strategic plan and agricultural policy to guarantee food security for the people of Brunei Darussalam".

Guests and local residents at Kampong Wasan were energised with optimism and hope by the sight of their monarch rubbing shoulders with them and planting the first seedlings of the newly-renamed local rice variety - 'Laila'.

In three months time, His Majesty is expected to return to Kg Wasan again for harvest and see the results of this fast growing and high yield rice variety that was specially brought from the Philippines.

For the local farmers at the forefront of this national goal, who till and toil the land every day, much more still needs to be done. And this is a fact that has also been echoed by the Department of Agriculture and the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources.

Speaking to local paddy farmers at Kg Wasan, they shared the optimism that the production goals can be met - provided that the necessary support, infrastructure and incentives are also readily available for them to sustain this drive.

Most of the paddy farmers in Brunei are small-scale and mostly retired. They do not have the additional financial means with which to improve their farming methods and are hoping that the government will be ready to provide them with all the necessary support.

"In theory we are ready," said one farmer to achieve the government's targets, "but it all depends on the government providing the basic infrastructure.

"Without government support, we cannot survive... and neither can China, Australia or most European countries, as their governments on average provide 50 per cent of agricultural subsidies," said another farmer.

"Even now you can see that the water level is not enough for paddy planting," said one farmer who declined to be named. Paddy planting requires copious amounts of water to provide an adequate harvest.

Despite the construction of a water pipe, irrigation canals and access roads that lead from the Imang Dam and runs across the whole breadth of the Wasan padi plantation area, the paddy plots are uneven and require levelling by mechanical diggers most of which the farmers cannot afford.

This includes other farming necessities such as fertilisers and pesticides. There is also the additional issue of renting out mechanical equipment, such as transplanters and diggers, on loan by the Department of Agriculture for farmers' use.

Another large-scale paddy farm owner summed it up best by saying, "On paper, we are ready, but how fast we can achieve the targets by the deadline set depends on how committed the government is to achieving its own target.

"If the government is ready to provide the basic infrastructure with modern technology such as tractors, transplanter machines, dryer, harvester and such it is possible to achieve the target goal of 60 per cent even with the existing planting areas that are currently being utilised now," he said.

"Right now we are talking to the Ministry of Finance to give us the budget in cash, in advance, so that we can pay the farmers immediately," said the Acting Director of Agriculture, Dyg Hjh Normah Suria Hayati PJDSM Dato Seri Utama Dr Hj Awg Mohd Jamil Al-Sufri

The minister has the task to find incentives or schemes to encourage and attract the youth to take up farming, as all of the farmers are elderly. Agriculture remains the largest employment sector in most developing countries, but not so in Brunei, perhaps due to its small population base.

During the joint press conference, held yesterday afternoon, Pehin Dato Hj Yahya explained that, "the whole idea is to introduce systematic field management and good agricultural practices" to the whole farming industry.

This will also be coupled with the "systematic use of land to find ways to maximise the use of agricultural land".

He also said, "The Philippines International Rice Research Institute has the best resources and data in the world, which is why we went to them".

His Filipino counterpart, Philippines Secretary of Agriculture, Arthur C Yap, added: "His Majesty was very quick and very sharp in making his call when he did, during the time when food prices skyrocketed from $300 to well over $1,000. The situation is very real and if countries don't start reacting, the spectre of increasing food prices could rock the domestic stability of governments."

Mr Yap also said that Philippines and Brunei have strong bonds of friendship and historical value. "The Philippines has always upheld Brunei's contributions to the peace process in saving the lives of Filipino brothers and sisters and this is a testament to His Majesty's vision and order." - Borneo Bulletin (28th Apr 2009)