Bringing Agroecology into the Lives of Malaysians – the Success Story
For Malaysian consumers, N.V. Subbarow is synonymous with the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP). He joined the rganisation in 1981 and has since immersed himself in all its activities. He championed consumers’ rights in all ways possible and played a crucial role in transforming the lives and thinking patterns of Malaysian consumers.
Of all this, alerting consumers to the toxic chemicals that had invaded their lives had been an inherent part of Subbarow’s struggle. It is this concern for the consumer’s health that paved the way for CAP’s ventures into toxin-free farming.
Subbarow attributes his bent on farming to the lifestyle he experienced on the plantation in the 1960s. “That was the life that gave me the pleasure of connecting with nature eternally. Most of the vegetables and fruits that cater to daily nutrient requirements came from our own farming plot; all were grown by my mother using cow dung as fertiliser.
We mostly planted okra, eggplant, chilli, cekur manis (Breynia androgyna), moringa, tapioca, long beans, and flat beans, and they remained as part of our daily meal. Vegetables such as carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and tomatoes are rare or unheard of for many of us, and yet we remain healthy without any of these in our diet.
“Unlike the current generation that consumes chicken daily, we relished it only once or twice a month. I could still remember the chickens scratching the cow dung and pecking at the tiny earthworms in it, as a result of which it grew fat and healthy and we could eat healthy free-range chickens.
With the uncontaminated rivers, the fresh fish supply was an extra delight for us. Add to this, every day we had an unlimited supply of bananas, papayas, and guava, all planted by the estate folks. We had “on-call doctors” in the form of our grandmothers. They cure most of the diseases with ajwain and ginger water mixed with a variety of herbs.
Those days, it was normal to see rubber tappers handling strenuous tasks, such as carrying 10 gallons of latex suspended on a stick over their shoulders with ease, in spite of their simple diet. It was all possible due to toxin-free food,” stressed Subbarow.
“Therefore, in the 2000s, when our late, vibrant president, S. M. Mohamed Idris, threw the idea of starting an organic farm, we were more than thrilled. It was a timely decision in the right direction to educate Malaysian consumers about the food they consume daily.
“Hence, began our journey of learning about organic farming methods and agroecological traits that are essential to establishing a successful organic farm. Agricultural experts from India, a country that retains its timeless, indigenous farming methods, and more than that, its experts’ generosity in sharing knowledge, have smoothed our path toward learning and disseminating this knowledge.
“Agricultural scientist G. Nammalwar, earthworm expert and soil biologist Dr Sultan Ahmed Ismail, integrated pest management expert N. Selvam, natural farmer Gopalakrishnan, and veterinary scientist Sagari Ramdas are some of the gems of India that have contributed to the wealth of knowledge that CAP officials proudly possess now.
“Numerous trips to India were a lifetime opportunity to hone our skills and knowledge of farming,” recalled Subbarow.
“The first visit by farming stalwart G. Nammalwar to Malaysia left an indelible impact on us. He made us understand that farming is not about poisoning consumers daily with agrochemicals; farming is all about providing consumers with safe and healthy food with the aim of strengthening and empowering the generations to come. Hence, farming is a noble task.
“Such powerful words stirred us to learn more about natural farming. During his visit, we travelled with him throughout Malaysia, encouraging farmers to shift to chemical-free farming. Clearly, his visit served as a stepping-stone for consumers to reconsider what they are consuming.
“We could see that, in the past decade, a portion of Malaysians had attuned themselves to good farming practices, either by creating their own home gardens, shifting to chemical-free farming, opting for chemical-free vegetables, or participating in agroecological activities.
“During our first study visit together with Chinese farmers, they had an opportunity to meet Dr K. Kodumudi Nadarajan from Erode, who taught them to make the ever potent indigenous growth promoter, panckavya. A number of Chinese farmers in Malaysia, especially in Banting, Selangor, started making their own panckavya as a result of which they witnessed an increased yield.
“The Director of the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS), A.V. Balasubramanian, and its Research Director, Dr K.Vijayalakshmi, brought us to the farms that were flourishing in their sustainable farm practices. We also had treasured moments meeting the indigenous Irula community and learning about their herbs and farming practices.
“Seed saving guidances by Sangita Sharma of Annadana, an organisation that safeguards heirloom seeds from Bengaluru, Karnataka, were a timely introduction for us to pick up the art of seed saving, an integral part of agroecology.
“Claude Alvares of the Organic Farming Association of India, Goa, has been supportive of our endeavours in natural farming.”
Subbarow always stressed the need to bring environmental education to children.
“During his several visits to CAP, Pon Senthilkumar, the editor of Pasumai Vikatan (a natural farming magazine in Tamil), covered CAP’s natural farming activities in his magazine, paving the way for future opportunities and collaborations for learning and sharing.
“The magazine continuously enlightened farmers and farming aspirants all over the world on agroecology and indigenous farming methods. CAP translated some of these articles into Malay and English to reach out to the Malaysian farming fraternity.
“All these experts, have, in one way or another, nourished and edified us with their knowledge and helped us make the right move in our agroecological enterprise.
“So far, CAP has reached out to thousands of farmers, students, teachers, agricultural officers, and homemakers to learn about farming techniques.”
Subbarow, with his inimitable flair for connecting with the public, established a good rapport with media people, which contributed immensely to reaching out to the community.
CAP’s chemical-free farming methods and activities were propagated not only through training sessions, workshops, and seminars but also through press meetings and press releases, enabling consumers throughout Malaysia to learn about CAP’s chemical-free farming through print and digital media as well.
“Once, the earthworm was a topic only to be studied and understood by students. Farmers had it on their farms but without a proper understanding of its deep rooted indispensability to agriculture.
Soil biologist and earthworm expert Dr Sultan Ahmed Ismail guided and enlightened CAP’s officials on many aspects of soil health, including vermicomposting. His numerous visits to and lectures at educational institutions in Malaysia paved the way for further research on earthworms and soil fertility.
CAP imparted the knowledge gained to schools to the extent that now earthworm breeding is a trend in many schools and organisations that have their own farming plot.
“CAP’s effort has given birth to COVID-induced farmers. Previously, many, despite having knowledge, did not try their hands at planting, citing a lack of time. However, the COVID downturn gave them ample time to try. So, enhancing one’s farming knowledge is always useful because food is an essential item for survival,” said Subbarow.
“After more than a decade of acquiring and mastering agricultural skills, we progressed further, imparting the knowledge to farmers, not only in Malaysia but also in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
“We have also successfully imparted this agroecological knowledge to Sri Lankan communities through the initiatives of Muthulingam Periyasamy, Executive Director at the Institute of Social Development, and his daughter, Saumya Vilashini.
“Our sharing of natural farming techniques with war-torn Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka, in 2014 was significant, as many people there turned to natural farming during the COVID pandemic.
“Our agricultural efforts have so far, benefited all age groups, ranging from kindergarteners to senior citizens. We remain steadfast in our mission for a safer and more sustainable future. For the uninitiated, we are ever ready to share the knowledge,” signed off Subbarow.