Rural sustainability in Sarawak : (the role of adat and indigenous knowledge in promoting sustainable sago production in the coastal areas of Sarawak)

Gapor, Salfarina Abdul

March 2001

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© 2001 Salfarina Abdul Gapor. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Conventional development, a northern-inspired modernisation programme, is no longer seen as the only solution to rural development problems. It has been criticised for neglecting environmental issues and has failed to improve the lives of the rural poor. Accordingly, there has been a search for more ‘appropriate’ approaches to development. One option is to incorporate indigenous knowledge in development. Such a recognition is believed to empower people, to enhance their self-esteem and consequently to allow them to participate in decision-making; and thus to meet their own needs and aspirations.

The study area consists of three districts (Dalat, Oya and Mukah) in the coastal area of Sarawak. The Melanau are the dominant ethnic group, depending on sago cultivation for their livelihood. The study looks at the role of the Melanau’s indigenous knowledge in sago production and compares it to ‘modern’ techniques (the subsidy scheme and plantation) as introduced by the government. Sago cultivation is unique, as it not only provides the means of material production but also influences the Melanau’s socio-cultural system and environmental perceptions. Indigenous knowledge is encoded in Melanau culture through the customary law, the adat.

The findings show that current agricultural policies not only fail to reach their socioeconomic objectives but are also insensitive to socio-cultural needs and the local environment. The contribution of indigenous knowledge is overlooked and undermined, despite its potential contribution to developmental programmes. Although there are signs of acculturation, indigenous techniques still play an important role, and are often combined with modern elements, implying a dynamic process of innovation among the farmers. The findings expose the myth that deploying indigenous knowledge is synonymous with economic decline. In contrast, indigenous knowledge contributes to socio-economic wellbeing by minimising risk, providing food self-sufficiency, enabling low cost farming and legitimising a redistributive system.

Department of Geography, The University of Hull
Bradley, P. N. (Phillip N.)
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