Indigenous Communities Pledge to Protect Rice in East Malaysia (4/4/2007)

Another inspiring report from the Week of Rice Action (WORA). Don't forget to SIGN THE MILLION-SIGNATURE PETITION AGAINST GM RICE via the WORA webpage at


Indigenous Communities Pledge to Protect Rice in Sabah! By Jennifer Mourin

They are the four last known remaining 'Bobohizan' or Rice Priestesses actually practicing rice rituals and rice related spiritual activities in the Penampang District in Sabah. Dressed in the traditional black of the Kadazan Dusun people, the Priestesses perform the sacred 'Monogit' ceremony of thanksgiving for the previous rice harvest and put forward prayers for good harvest for the coming year. Besides being the last guardians of the rice rituals, these women-Inai Livani, Inai Gusiti, Inai Luvining and Inai Silip-are truly precious treasures because they also have the distinction of being the only people left in the community with the ability to speak the special and distinct language related to the Rice Rituals. Once they are gone, it is not only the rituals that will die with them, the language of the 'Bobohizan' rice rituals and traditions will be gone forever. Participants and curious visitors to the WORA event in Penampang State Library, last 31st March, got a rare glimpse at the Bobohizans performing the Monogit in the 'Celebrating and Protecting Rice Culture' photo exhibition that greeted one and all as they made their way into the WORA Meeting Hall.

The threats facing the 'Bobohizan' epitomize the threats facing rice farming in the Penampang district, and Sabah as a whole, as massive land development projects for housing, industrial sites, tourism and plantations (namely palm oil) have literally eaten up acres and acres of rice lands.

"To us, Indigenous Peoples, rice is very important. A lot of our culture and beliefs are centred around rice tradition", states Anne Lasimbang, Executive Director of PACOS (Partners of Community Organisations), host for the WORA event in East Malaysia. "Issues on land are also related to rice, because land is needed to plant rice for survival and if land is taken away the question of survival is at stake. So at many times when communities fight for their land, it is because they need it for their survival, for planting rice and other food crops".

The impacts of urbanization and influences of globalisation which have drastically affected the social and cultural lives of indigenous peoples has meant that many young people are no longer interested in the adat (traditions) and culture of their communities, least of all in rice culture and cultivation.

"Our mother tongue is also very much tied up with rice cultivation and rice culture, therefore if we give up the rice culture many of our words in our language will be lost with it. One of PACOS main work is environment and biodiversity, this is one reason why we wanted to take part in WORA. These issues need to be highlighted and addressed!" asserts Anne.

Participants to the 'One Day Farmers' Seminar in conjunction with WORA', in Penampang, consisted of over 100 local farmers, representatives from the Agriculture Department, the Fisheries Department, Consumers and Environmental NGOs, and the general public. The event was organised to promote biodiversity-based ecological agriculture, as a basis for people centred economic development and independence of farming communities; and to educate the public and create a broad awareness of pesticides problems; as well as GE crops in general and GE Rice in particular-targeting farmers, women, consumers and other relevant sectors.

While presenting an overview on the regional WORA events, Jennifer Mourin of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific, highlighted concerns of how the Malaysian government aimed to remedy its 13 billion Ringgit Malaysia food import expenditure by re-focusing attention on agriculture and food production, and aimed to overturn the food deficit by 2010 to make Malaysia a net exporter of food. She also noted how, fuelled with this new focus, the government's 9th Malaysian Plan aimed to develop 'New Agriculture' programmes by "giving focus on enhancing the value chain, cultivating high value added agricultural activities and large-scale commercial farming, utilising ICT as well as exploiting the full potential of biotechnology".

She questioned such a development that prioritised so-called "high-value" cash crops, such as palm oil, for export markets instead of prioritising local food self sufficiency. She also pointed out that promotion of large scale commercial agriculture would mean taking over large areas of land for the intensive cultivation of such commercial and export crops. Finally she asserted that such commercial oriented agriculture would require large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers; mechanization, and valuable resources such as water-the kind of agriculture known to badly affect human health, pollute the environment, and deplete valuable natural resources. Following this session, Jennifer was invited to provide an orientation on pesticides and their hazards. During the question and answer session she strongly challenged the government officials present to promote organic agriculture and alternatives to chemical pesticides.

Providing the participants with an in dept orientation of Genetic Engineering (GE), Wilhemina 'Didit' Peregrina the Executive Director of SEARICE (Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment) debunked the myths and propaganda of the so called benefits of GE being promoted [by] the GE industry and pro-GE scientists. She pointed that they have claimed that GE will ensure food security and will save the world from hunger; and GE will improve the nutrient quality of crops. "In reality GE crops have been in the market since 1996 but hunger and malnutrition persist" she noted. About 35 per cent of GE crops in the market are soyabeans, 20 per cent corn), 10 per cent cotton and 5 per cent canola-all key export crops of industrialized countries, not food crops. "Most of the soya and corn traded worldwide are not meant as food, but as animal feeds," she pointed out ironically. Furthermore, 50 per cent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) had been developed for herbicide tolerance. Didit also ran through the gamut of known evidence of health and environmental hazards of GE, as well as the consumer and ethical concerns over GE food products.

She really shocked participants with the section on GE rice development, in which she shared on 'Biopharmaceutical Rice', where she noted that "rice is being developed as a drug factory, to produce human lactoferin and lysozyme (bacteria fighting compounds in breastmilk and saliva) for commercialisation in the U.S." She explained how this, "GE rice or 'mothers' milk rice is being developed for children with diarhhoea (extracted for oral rehydration and other uses), and Ventria Bioscience application to USDA has gotten the preliminary green light for commercial release in Kansas, even though USFDA refused approval of recombinant pharmaceutical!"

Other disturbing GE rice development noted by Didit included: transgenic hay fever rice due to be commercialised by 2007 in Japan; and rice with human insulin like growth factor (hIGF) which researchers claim will be useful to treat growth deficiencies for children, osteoporosis and even AIDS, while significantly not discussing the cancer promoting qualities of hIGF. She also noted the controversial Liberty Link Rice which faced huge resistance in the European Union but was only, "one signature away for approved importation in the Philippines". Produced by Bayer Cropsience, LL62 is genetically-modified to resist the herbicide glufosinate, which is meant to be used in conjunction with the genetically modified crop. "There are fears that with LL62, glufosinate use by farmers will increase", she noted. Glufosinate has been observed to cause adverse health effects in animals, causing nervous system and numerous birth defects.

She concluded by citing yet more worrying GE developments, including GURTS (Genetic Use Restriction Technologies) namely the now infamous 'terminator seeds' (sterile) and trait restriction; and the spectre of 'Nano rice' using nanotechnology in rice breeding being developed at Chiang Mai University); and a slew of other examples that included tungro resistant transgenic rice, Bt rice (for yellow stem borer, striped stem borer, and rice leafhoppers), rice with E. coli for starch biosynthesis; nitrogen fixing rice, Beta carotene rice (for indica) or 'Golden Rice' and saline tolerant rice.

The WORA event ended with a workshop session to discuss follow up activities. Participants came up with a range of activities to protect rice, including requests for more information and workshops to share on the issues highlighted at the WORA event and to take these to a wider audience in the villages; village level rice seed conservation projects; community campaigns to resist GE rice; promotion of alternatives to pesticides and ecological/organic agricultural practices.

The Week of Rice Action (WORA) is organised by Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP) and its partner organisations in thirteen countries in the region. Anyone interested in being a part of WORA 2007 can log on to the WORA page at

Contact at PAN AP:
Ms Anne Haslam, PAN AP at [email protected] Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP), P.O. Box 1170, 10850 Penang, Malaysia
Tel: 604-6570271 or 604-6560381 Fax: 604-6583960
[email protected]
Home Page:

Pesticide Action Network (PAN) is a global network working to eliminate the human and environmental harm caused by pesticides and to promote biodiversity based ecological agriculture. PAN Asia and the Pacific is committed to the empowerment of people especially women, agricultural workers, peasant and indigenous farmers. We are dedicated to protect the safety and health of people, and the environment from pesticide use and genetic engineering. We believe in a people-centered, pro-women development through food sovereignty, ecological agriculture and sustainable lifestyles.


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