Rice, salt, and indigenous food biodiversity in the Krayan Highlands

Last month, the village of Binuang in Borneo’s Krayan Highlands hosted a festival to celebrate the traditional culture, crafts, and food biodiversity of Krayan’s indigenous communities. The event was organized by FORMADAT Indonesia (Forum Masyarakat Adat Dataran Tinggi Borneo, the Alliance of the Indigenous Peoples of the Highlands of Borneo).

Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, is home to one of the oldest tropical forests in the world and hosts an astonishing 6% of our planet’s biodiversity; it is estimated that a third of Borneo’s plant species grow nowhere else on Earth. In recent decades, logging and the spread of oil palm plantations have destroyed much of Borneo’s lowland forest—today, only half of the island remains forested. Borneo’s largest intact forests are found in the highlands, in the northeastern part of the island. The Krayan Highlands lie at an elevation of about 700-1,500 meters above sea level in the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan, right at the border with the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. This trans-boundary geographical-ecocultural landscape is known as the Heart of Borneo.

Aerial view of Binuang

Borneo’s indigenous peoples are collectively known as Dayak, and Krayan is the homeland of several thousand Dayak who belong primarily to the Lundayeh culture; members of the Kelabit and Sa’ban cultures are also present. These communities live together in small villages and share many aspects of their culture and languages. The Lundayeh (or Lun Bawang) are agriculturalists whose livelihoods are based primarily on rice cultivation. Over the centuries, they have developed a diversified agroecological system that combines wet rice cultivation with buffalo husbandry: Every year after the rice harvest, which takes place between January and March, the villagers release their buffaloes into the rice paddies, where the animals remain until June or July, when the next season’s crop is planted. During this time, the buffaloes churn the soil, eat weeds, and fertilize the paddies with their manure. This system ensures that the paddies remain fertile and productive year after year, and reduces the amount of time and labor that people must spend on preparing the soil and removing weeds. It also reduces the need for rotational agriculture or shifting cultivation, otherwise known as slash-and-burn, which is characteristic of most of the rest of Borneo.

Buffalo grazing in rice paddy

In Krayan, shifting cultivation supplements wet rice cultivation, and the rotational fields are planted with crops such as sweet potatoes, corn, cucumbers, leafy greens like amaranth and mustard, eggplants, tomatoes, and hill rice. Local people also grow millet, Job’s tears (a kind of sorghum locally known as dele arur), taro, bananas, pineapples, papayas, cassava, sugarcane, beans, pumpkins, coffee, and many varieties of citrus, and keep chickens, ducks, and pigs. The forest provides a great diversity of wild fruits, including durian, custard apple, langsat, jackfruit, and torch ginger, as well as wild greens like ferns and tengayen, a plant in the nettle family—Krayan is one of very few places where this plant is eaten. The rice paddies are fed with clean mountain water, and the entire cultivation system is completely natural and organic by default, as there is no need for synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Mountain salt, or garam gunung, is another traditional product from the Krayan, and is listed on the Ark of Taste; local families make it by boiling water from salty mountain springs. The salt is packed in bamboo tubes that are then dried by the fire and can keep for several years.

Salt makers taking salty water from well

This incredible food biodiversity was on full display last month in the village of Binuang, where residents of villages from throughout Krayan gathered to celebrate their culture and gastronomy and to show the youth the wealth of their traditions. At the event, organized by FORMADAT, a few dozen temporary stands were erected so that each village could show off their foods and local crafts, including baskets, hats, and barkcloth vests. The guests from the other villages stayed with the local families of Binuang and gathered for meals in a large hall with a communal kitchen. Representatives of different villages took turns preparing meals so that everyone could experience the full diversity of Lundayeh cuisine. Men and women worked together in the kitchen, cooking on traditional wood-fired hearths and wrapping steamed rice in leaves of various kinds. There was also a competition in which many families from different villages presented their versions of telu’, a fermented dish typical of the Lundayeh culture: Telu’ is made by packing meat, fat, fish, or crushed bone in bamboo along with rice and salt, and leaving it to pickle for 1-2 months, sometimes buried underground.

Communal kitchen in Binuang

The most impressive aspect of the festival was undoubtedly the diversity of traditional rice varieties on show: For example, a woman rice farmer from Binuang brought 27 different varieties, a farmer from the village of Ba’liku brought 15 varieties, and the residents of Terang Baru brought 19 varieties! Many of these local varieties are suited for wet rice cultivation, while others are better for hill, or dry, cultivation. The most prized traditional rice from Krayan is the aromatic, small-grained adan variety, which comes in white, red, and black. Black adan rice is an Ark of Taste product. Each season, families exchange seed that was selected by the women during the previous harvest. Each family scatters their seed in specially prepared nurseries in June or July.

Man preparing rice nursery in Tang Paye

Over the following month, the seeds germinate and begin to grow. During this time, the paddies are drained and cleaned of snails and remaining weeds. When it is time to transplant the seedlings into the paddies, the families in each village work together until everyone’s fields are planted. Weeding, which takes place during the fall, is likewise a communal activity, as is harvesting. Before the harvest, families prepare woven reed mats on which the harvested rice will be dried. The rice is stored in small granaries that double as temporary huts during the growing season, when the farmers spend most of their time out in the paddies. The rice is milled as needed, either for sale or household use.

Thanks to the abundance and diversity of local food resources, both wild and cultivated; the healthy, intact forest ecosystem of the highlands; and the traditional knowledge associated with their landscape and agroecosystems, the peoples of the Krayan Highlands are fully food secure and food sovereign. However, they have noticed changes in the weather over the past decade (the local climate has become wetter and the rains are not as predictable), and new roads from Malaysia have accelerated the introduction of processed and packaged foods into the communities. Some people now sell their high-quality local rice, which has become popular on the market due to its health benefits, and buy imported rice for their own use. In addition, many families have had to sell their buffaloes in order to pay for education for their children.

Local rice, seeds, and fruit
Local rice, seeds, and fruit

Community elders worry that development pressures may interfere with intergenerational knowledge transfer and threaten the future of local indigenous cultural practices, languages, and customary law, known as adat, which regulates people’s relationship with the environment and natural resources. But the people of the Krayan Highlands are working with pride and enthusiasm to strengthen links with the indigenous communities on either side of the Indonesia-Malaysia border and to pass their knowledge and practices to the younger generation. In addition, they are creating value-added supply chains for their local products in order to ensure that traditional foods and agroecological practices can continue to provide a foundation for sustainable livelihoods. Slow Food was invited to visit in order to assess Presidia nominations for the mountain salt and black adan rice, and looks forward to forming relationships with the communities of Krayan to help raise their voices and bring visibility to their incredible food biodiversity, traditional knowledge, and cultural wealth.


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