BRUNEI-MUARA – The Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism (MPRT) are inviting companies from Thailand to participate in the country’s latest and by far, largest commercial rice cultivation site in Kandol, Belait.

This invitation comes at the end of bilateral discussions that were held on Wednesday between the ministry and Thailand’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Dr Wiwat Salyakamthorn, who is in Brunei for a three-day working visit.

Initiated by the MPRT, Dr Salyakamthorn’s visit is intended to “activate” an MoU that was inked in 2015, which entails cooperation between the two ministries, specifically in agriculture. However no projects have been initiated thus far.

In a statement, MPRT said discussions focused on how to tackle problems with the country’s farm land, such as high acid content and no sources of water for irrigation.

Khairunnisa Hj Omar Ali, head of Rice and Crop Protection Division at the Department of Agriculture and Agrifoods (DAA), said that the cooperation with Thailand is timely, with the recent announcement that an additional 500 hectares of land in Kandol would be devoted to paddy cultivation.

“The land is in the process of being gazetted, but as of now we have been authorised to start operations, so we want to do it right, by organising a working committee that will manage the Kandol area because it’s a big project,” she told The Scoop.

“We are in the midst of engaging other agencies to help us manage Kandol, because it will be the country’s largest paddy plantation compared to Wasan, which is around 240 hectares.”

Thailand’s Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Dr Wiwat Salyakamthorn, on a working visit to Wasan paddy fields in Brunei. Photo: Courtesy of MPRT

On Tuesday, Dr Salyakamthorn also delivered a lecture on Thailand’s sustainable agricultural methods at the IBTE Agro-Technology Campus in Wasan.

“The main objective [of this cooperation] is to solve the problem of acid sulphate soil. Even though we have been planting high-yielding paddy varieties, due to the nature of our soil, it still poses a problem for us,” Khairunnisa added.

“We have to find a sustainable way of addressing our acidic soils if we want to reach the target of 12 metric tonnes of rice per hectare per season”.

She said that while rice farmers in the country have been provided solutions to alleviate the issue — through government subsidies of dolomite, a soil input that is used to treat acidity — it could negatively affect the health of soil in the long run.

The agronomist added that long-term dependence on soil inputs like dolomite might prove to be costly for farmers, even when it is subsidised. Reducing use of the dolomite could also help the government cut costs in developing the agriculture sector.

“What they [the Thai delegation] have presented to us are the concepts of sustainable agriculture, and how it can minimise costs. They have showed us that growing organically may not be as costly or as difficult, and if [Thailand] can do it, why can’t we?”.

While ministry may be considering organic farming methods, Brunei still embraces “conventional agriculture” which includes the use of chemical inputs like fertilisers and pesticides, to bring Bruneian farmers “ease”.

Organic farming is often touted as the most sustainable form of farming, however it is also widely considered as labour intensive in comparison to conventional farming methods.

“We have two different schools of thought in regards to agriculture, but it doesn’t mean we have to favor one over the other. At the end of the day, we have to customise our farming methods based on our country’s needs”.

Cooperation with Thailand could also help find solutions to issues such as lack of drainage and irrigation systems in agricultural development (KKPs) areas outside the Brunei-Muara district.

Last September, the Department of Agriculture and Agrifood embarked on a project to identify groundwater sources as alternative irrigation systems for a number of KKPs across the sultanate that lack proper sources of water.