ucanews.com reporter, Kota KinabaluUpdated: April 12, 2016 10:44 AM GMT
Retired rice farmer Ason Jacob says the weather started to change around 30 years ago. (Photo by uncanews.com)
Binjili and Ason Jacob sit in the shade of their wooden house in a rural part of the Malaysian state of Sabah.
From time to time the Catholic couple look at their hens scratching at the dirt. The ground is parched, the air acrid with the smell of smoke from fires lit deliberately to clear scrub bordering a new multi-billion dollar interstate highway linking Sabah with the state of Sarawak.
With more than 160 years of life experience between them, the couple can remember a time when it rained almost daily and the small stream near the house was a healthy constant.
That stream has long since been diverted to irrigate some fields further away and its water has become just a muddy trickle.
The drought in this part of Sabah has entered its third month and rainfall is 60 percent below average for this time of year.
"In the old days we used to plow the fields with buffaloes," says Binjili. "Do you see any buffaloes now … any rice fields?" she curtly asks.
"We stopped farming five years ago," says Binjili as her husband sits flicking flies away from his leg with a parang (machete).
"It's just the two of us now," she says.
"It's difficult to farm now. Either there is no rain for a long time or when it rains it floods easily," she says. "Now, after one downpour there will be a flood. How can we farm in these conditions?"
Binjili says that she and her husband now depend on their five children who live and work in the city.
Binjili Jacob prepares food while reflecting on the changes she has seen on her farm. (Photo by ucanews.com)
The couple live in Kampong Sulim in Kinarut, a small town known for its weekly open air market, about 20km from Kota Kinabalu, the state capital.
What were once rice fields is now scrubland. A large Filipino refugee settlement is close by.
Most of the villagers rent out their land to enterprising Chinese who hire Indonesian migrant workers to grow vegetables and some fruit to be sold in the markets in Kota Kinabalu.
Suzie Pachallis, who is in her 20s, runs a small sundry shop down the road from the old couple on what used to be farmland. She is the great-granddaughter of one of the earliest residents of the village.
Her shop caters mostly to Muslim Filipino immigrants who live nearby in new low-cost flats built by the government.
Until about four years ago, the area was considered mostly Catholic. Two nearby churches, St. Augustine's and St. Anne's, serve residents of the 50 or so villages clustered in the area.
Suzie's husband, Oliver Pachallis, says there was a lot of farming in the area up until the 1990s.
The younger generations moved to urban areas and some of the land was developed for other purposes, which had an adverse effect on the area.
"Now because of land reclamation and hill cutting, it floods five or six times a year. It was disastrous for poor farmers," Oliver says.
"So as things got more and more uneconomical the landowners decided to rent out the land," he says.
"Besides this the old folk are gone and the new generation is not interested in traditional rice farming."
For the older generation planting rice and growing and tapping rubber trees was what farming was all about.
Egrets on a disused rice field in the Malaysian state of Sabah. (Photo by uncanews.com)
Pachallis Jonuat, 59, who has lived his entire life in the village laughs and says he used to plant and harvest rice years ago.
"As you see there is no place here any more for rice farming. The climate has changed," says Jonuat. "We cannot rely on the rains like the old days. All the forest cutting has taken a toll. Before, it never used to be this hot," he says.
"During the 1960s we harvested rice and now we buy it from the shop," he adds.
Next month the Kadazan-Dusun ethnic community in Sabah celebrates the annual Pesta Kaamatan (Harvest Festival) but Jonuat says it has lost its meaning.
"It is about thanksgiving for the rice harvest, but where are the rice fields here? We are simply celebrating now because it is a tradition."