Poverty :Harris blames policies
Ineffective Govt programs explain why people leave land idle
Ineffective Govt programs explain why people leave land idle
Poor rural farmers should not he solely blamed for not developing their land as the Government is equally responsible flirt their predicament, says a former Chief Minister. Speaking at the “Yarahan ‘Tokoh Pertanian” lecture at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) yesterday, Datuk Harris Salleh said despite the significant improvement in basic infrastructure in the rural areas such as roads, water and electricity supply telecommunications, schools and clinics, many rural people remain poor with little or no permanent income. While the common explanation for their abject poverty is that the “people are lazy”, in actual fact the reason is due to the shortcomings and ineffectiveness of the Government’s policies and programmes, he said. Harris said in Sabah alone, there are about 500,000 hectares of abandoned smallholders’ land with about 70 percent left completely unproductive. Smallholders abandoned their land because most of the Government projects that have been implemented were found to be either not suitable for the rural people or the areas, he said. Harris said there is no serious commitment to meet the challenges facing the farmers in the policies behind the programmes, which are implemented half-heartedly. Another reason, he said, is the dominance of buyers who have always caused prices to fluctuate and sometimes do not, cover the farmers’ nominal production costs. “The subsidies imposed on food products and agricultural produce like rice and cooking oil have further suppressed prices and become a disincentive which discourages farmers to venture into agricultural activities. “This is despite the fact that many of them live close to their own plots or in areas surrounded by coconut trees,” he said. To some extent, Harris pointed out, these subsidies have spoilt the attitude of farmers because they reason that they are better off buying subsidised rice and cooking oil instead of planting their own rice or making coconut oil. Sabah, according to him, is basically an agricultural State whose future lies in agriculture due to its vast tracts of land. In the early 1980s, the then State Government identified 906,300 acres of State land which it committed to allocate 15 acres to each of 60,000 landless Sabahans, he said. Unfortunately this was not pursued and implemented by the succeeding State Government, he said, adding it has now become public knowledge that almost all of the 906,300 acres was alienated to local companies, which then sold their alienated parcels to West Malaysian companies. These areas, he said, have been developed into oil palm plantations, 90 percent of which are now owned by West Malaysian companies. This, he stressed, was how Sabah was robbed of the opportunity to turn 60,000 landless people into “Usahawan Tani” (agriculture entrepreneurs) who, had they received their individual allocations of 15 acres and been given some kind of financial assistance and proper training, could have created a strong agriculture-business base. Harris argued that the rural people have not shown any total commitment and a readiness to accept the challenges to improve their standards of living mainly because of the ineffective approach adopted by the Government in formulating policies and implementing projects and the lack of support by local industries and the people in general. Harris stressed that the emphasis now must be on developing the abandoned land as the opportunities to do so are already there with the necessary infrastructure being extended to the rural areas. The Government, he said, must however carry out a detailed and comprehensive study on all aspects of the rural economy including haphazard development and abandoned land. “This is bearing in mind of course that there can be no scope for agricultural business to grow if the sources of raw agricultural produce are limited to being sold and consumed in their natural form or state. “The wide and varied range of agricultural produce such as fruits, crops and herbal plants can be transformed into an endless variety of agricultural products for both human and animal consumption, and livestock,” he added. Harris said a viable agriculture- based ‘industry can only be successfully established if the Government is fully committed towards this objective and succeeds in getting the rural people to be equally committed in accepting the challenge. “And by then perhaps Malaysia should be able to reduce the RM30 billion that it spends annually on importing foodstuffs and other agricultural produce. Surely, a large percentage of this RM30 billion of food imports can be reduced by the rural farmers and smallholders substituting them with many more local and hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables,” he said. According to Harris, land in the rural areas is made up of small and medium sized alienated parcels of land and smallholdings, totalling millions of hectares. Most of this land is either left idle and undeveloped or even abandoned while the productive areas are owned by the Chinese. In Sabah, however, out of about 500,000 hectares, 90 percent are owned by natives. The 10 percent owned by the Chinese is productive while out of the rest, 20 percent is half-productive and 70 percent unproductive. The rural land owners do not want or are not motivated to be self-sufficient in food crop production largely because they have to sell whatever they produce at below the costs of their own labour. This, he said, is caused by Government subsidies such as for rice and cooking oil. Another factor, Harris disclosed, is that the majority of the middle and upper class people prefer to buy imported fruits and vegetables instead of local agricultural produce so in general it can be said that local fruits and agricultural produce fetch very low prices because they are consumed only by the low income group. The living conditions of the rural people have remained as they were since decades ago, with no properly planned villages, while houses are built haphazardly without any modern amenities, he pointed out. In order to motivate them to be productive, there is a need to improve their houses and smallholdings, he said, adding a kampung house in an area averaging three to five acres may accommodate at least two or three houses belonging to an extended family. “It is not too much to ask that the Government allocate at least 25 percent of its low cost housing budget to the rehabilitation of kampung houses at a cost of RM2 5,000 each. “The areas surrounding the extended family members’ houses also have the potential to be developed by planting permanent or cash crops which should give the families sustainable and permanent incomes,” he said adding that this can be done from the balance of the low-cost housing budget. Harris said based on reports it is clear that the Government has been trying to solve the problem by opening and developing abandoned smallholdings but the commitment has so far not been successful. “This is despite the fact that hundreds of Federal and State Government agencies have been formed with fanciful names such as ‘Giat this and ‘Giat that, as if to reflect their missions. “In the end what these agencies have achieved is merely to create jobs for the staff that they have to employ and at the same time provided short-term publicity. This can be seen from many examples of the agencies’ projects that have deteriorated or been abandoned soon after the publicity was over. In spite of this, no thorough study seems to have been undertaken to establish why so many basic economic projects in the rural areas have failed,” he said. Harris said through a detailed and comprehensive study the Government can translate all the data into a truly committed plan of action to develop the rural areas, and at the same time motivate the rural people to accept the challenge, and together work towards the creation of a viable and sustainable agro-based industry. The study, he said, must look into the questions of land suitability, the best ways to exploit the desire and ability of the smallholders and farmers to meet the challenges of change, and the creation of a fair and reliable market for any type of agricultural produce. “Unless and until such a comprehensive study is done to determine the policies and programmes considered to be appropriate for each area, the only progress that can be seen in the rural areas would be in the infrastructure, schools and clinics,” he said. However, he said, with rural income levels still the same while the general cost of living keeps increasing, there will be no agro-business if there is no commercially sustainable agricultural produce.