British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by John Foster
When Sarawak became a Colony in 1946, after taking over from the Rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brook, GCMG, agricultural services were virtually nonexistent, yet, surprisingly, in parts of the country there were well developed agricultural systems. For example, in the remote Kelabit country in the highlands the villagers had sophisticated irrigation systems for growing fruit such as citrus and pineapples. On the lowlands pepper was a well-established cash crop, grown at first by the Chinese members of the population but now with increasing Iban participation, and has always been the most important cash crop in Sarawak which was and still is the world's main producer of first quality white pepper. The Agricultural Department, by the introduction of cheaper fertiliser and improved varieties, significantly increased yields and reduced the costs of production.

Agricultural Reconstruction in Sarawak
Poultry Pens
The Ibans were the largest indigenous group, lived in longhouses and kept pigs as sanitary men; the pigs scavenged under the houses. As can be imagined, this had its disadvantages and the Agricultural Department decided to introduce pit latrines and to encourage the construction of fish ponds. The pigs were put in pens over the ponds and, instead of the primeval animals currently kept by the villagers, a new variety to Sarawak, the Tam worth, was introduced. They were fed mainly on the waterweed (Ipomaea sp) which was planted in the ponds and the droppings from the pigs provided food for the fish, a very useful cycle of natural resources! Poultry were also kept in pens over the ponds. The Department bred its own fish which were distributed to the villagers.

A more recent and entirely new development for Sarawak was oil palms. In 1964 I opened up a square mile on suitable land in the jungle for an oil palm trial. To open up the area for development we had to use an old tank landing craft to beach a D6 Caterpillar tractor to drive a path inland to connect up with a long-disused oil prospecting road. I went to meet the landing craft by travelling along the beach seated on a deckchair set upon a trailer pulled by a tractor, this unlikely convoy being escorted by an armed British trooper and a Malay infantryman as protection in the event of any confrontation with forces involved in the continuing dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia. A young VSO helped to mark out the field for the planting holes. The trial proved a success and, as a result, a few years later the Commonwealth Development Corporation, in partnership with the Sarawak Government, developed the first commercial oil palm estate in Sarawak eventually amounting to 35,000 hectares. This estate proved to be one of the biggest industrial developments in Sarawak. By the time CDC sold all its shares in 1995, they were worth five times what they had been when the company was floated.
Agricultural Reconstruction in Sarawak

Another major enterprise in which the Agricultural Department was involved was the development of padi rice, the major food crop. New, better yielding varieties were introduced and major irrigation schemes were laid out. During the war the Japanese occupiers of Sarawak killed off for meat all the water-buffaloes which were used for ploughing up the padi fields. Funds were raised in the United Kingdom through the "Freedom from Hunger" campaign to buy replacements from Bali. The buffaloes depicted in the photograph were bought through funds donated by the people of Sidcup, Kent. Farmers were trained to control the animals, apparently a chaotic operation.

A minor development was the growing of vegetables on deep peat. A large part of Sarawak is on deep peat, often up to 30 ft. The local villagers were encouraged to grow vegetables which did well if the topsoil was at first burnt.

Sarawak Map
1961 Map of Southeast Asia
Colony Profile
Sarawak Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 97: April 2009


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