Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Subsistence and Commercial Activities
Hunting and gathering, combined with the cultivation of sago gardens (normally about 4 acres in area) and the export of sago biscuit and forest products (gums, resins, rattan, timber) in exchange for metal goods, weapons, ceramics, and cloth traditionally formed the basis of the Melanau economy. The cultivation of sago gardens was supplemented by growing swamp rice (padai paya) and orchards on the levees of the rivers. Floods at the end of the northeast monsoon frequently ruined the rice crop, which could not be relied on for subsistence. Villages on the coast, where the water of the estuaries was too saline for extraction of flour from the sago palm, depended primarily on fishing and on the import and export trade.

This three main activities is still the main source of Melanau people in my village to survive in this new era, sago plantations, paddy field and orchards.

During the northeast monsoon, when access to the rivers was limited and fishing was dangerous, expeditions upriver from the coastal villages with dried fish, salt, nipa palm sugar, and craft products—palm-leaf thatch, mats, baskets, and hats—were undertaken to exchange these items for sago biscuit, fruit, canoes, and timber. A similar intrariverine trade for forest products and rice was also maintained with Iban settlements in the hills beyond the swamps. Traditionally sago biscuit was exported under the auspices of aristocratic leaders from both inland and coastal villages and of Malay traders from Brunei and elsewhere. With the foundation of Singapore in 1819 and the demand from the European and American cotton industry for cheap industrial starch, the nature of the sago-export trade altered. After the conquest of the coastal district by the rajah of Sarawak in 1861, Melanau and Malay carriers and traders were replaced by Chinese immigrants, who also entered into the production of flour to the extent that they were allowed. The government, however, did not permit the sale of land to immigrants; the primary production of flour remained in the hands of Melanau villagers until after World War II, when all production was mechanized and only the gardens remained in Melanau ownership. Even though the primary production of flour remained in the hands of the Melanau until then, by 1900 the economy had become dependent on the single cash crop, and extensive changes had occurred in the social system.

Sort of barter system was practice during the old days. I still remember where people from Igan will going upper river up to my village selling sago biscuits, fishes and sometimes we exchange it with our rice. We called it "tukar makan" means exchanging foods. Money is so difficult to get so we exchange foods item.

Division of Labor
Male tasks include clearing the forest and planting and maintaining sago gardens, felling the ripe palm and bringing the trunk to the villages, and stripping the bark off the segments into which the stem has been cut, before rasping the pith inside into a rough sawdust. The sawdust is given to the women to wash on a platform over the river. This rasped pith is placed on a fine-woven mat on the platform, mixed with water, and trampled by the women; the water with the flour in suspension is forced through the mat and a thin straining cloth onto draining boards leading to a trough below the platform, where the crude flour settles and surplus water is drawn away. The sale of this crude flour to a Chinese dealer is also the work of women. The proceeds of the sale are divided in various ways between the owner of the palm, the male feller, and the female trampler of the pith. This cottage industry, in which men and women controlled their own labor and profits, came to an end in the 1950s when Chinese dealers mechanized all aspects of the industry, except the growing and felling of palms. The Chinese dealer did not usually pay cash, but entered the transaction in his books and allowed goods to be bought on credit from his retail shop, thus ensuring that his clients could be kept at regular work and that he could supply his creditors with a regular and predictable supply of flour for export.

Until today we still sell our sago trees to the Chinese dealer which have their own mill. Only one family in Dalat have their own mill which is the only Melanau mill (i think so).

Because only Melanau are allowed to own sago land, only those with sago gardens now have any part in the production of sago. Many of the crops are mortgaged before they become mature. A large part of the male population is forced to leave the villages as migrant laborers in the lumber industry; others migrate permanently. Women are no longer economically independent.

Industrial Arts
In the cottage industry most of the necessary equipment was made locally or acquired through the intrariverine trade. Ironwork and weaving ceased with the advent of a cash economy at the end of the nineteenth century.

River is the main transportation in our area and until today we still use boats as our transport.

Land Tenure
Every village collectively owns a delimited territory that it was formerly ready to defend against all outsiders. Within that territory sago gardens and orchards, carefully delimited, are individually owned. Joint tenancy is possible, especially if a single garden is inherited by two women, for gardens are almost never subdivided. Such an arrangement is not thought satisfactory; other solutions are preferred.

Most of the land that people in my village have now is planted with sago and orchards. We doesn't practice shifting cultivation because we permanently plant sago and paddy in the same land area.

*Pabila ko pepikir balik, masa ako agei umit sabei saji ngadei tan kesusah bak mipih duit. Ako selalu jegum lo mak tubang balau, puma padai, puma balau, pekari, bejaja buak, sayor, pekebun...Saji macam-macem alu ji gaya bak pinyi duit, walaupun cuma kenaan duah telo rigit singen. Tapi rasa syukor angai kawak tan bila kenah mipih duit jumit. Sadik dao kawak gaya hidup lian ih ngak berubah aluk. Bei senang aluk tan agei walaupun aruh debei ngak labik kapong kamei.

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