BRUNEI-MUARA – Two new sites in Brunei-Muara will soon open for commercial rice farming as the government leans into its agriculture push.

The Department of Agriculture and Agrifood (DAA) said the addition of Panchor Murai and Limpaki — as well as the site in Kandol, Belait — will boost the total land area reserved for rice cultivation from 919 hectares to 1,579 hectares — a 72 percent increase.

The 110-hectare Panchor Murai site will be operated by Yaz & Wyn Enterprise, the country’s sole distributor of Sembada188 seeds, a high-yield rice variety introduced to Brunei last October.

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah reaped the first commercial harvest of Sembada188 at the Wasan Agricultural Area on Tuesday.

The Indonesian strain of paddy can produce up to six tonnes of paddy per hectare, in what is hoped to be a boost to national rice production.

Rice cultivation has seen mixed fortunes over the past 20 years, with farmers tackling problems including high soil acidity and lack of irrigation infrastructure.

But the government budgeted $45 million last year to invest in new technology, irrigation systems and farming programmes.

In 2018, Brunei’s output was projected to be 3,000 tonnes of paddy, around a five to six percent rate of national self-sufficiency.

More land for high-yielding paddy

Head of the DAA’s Rice and Crop Protection Division, Khairunnisa Hj Omar Ali, said planting on the new Panchor Murai site will begin in March, starting with just six to 10 hectares of land until the rest of the site is cleared of vegetation.

“They [Yaz and Wyn Enterprise] have to create a paddy plantation from this piece of land, so there is a lot for them to do. Though there is already a main pipeline [for irrigation], they still have to divide the land into lots and establish an internal irrigation system,” she said.

The entire site is expected to be fully utilised by 2020, and will be used to plant Sembada188 exclusively.

A farmer inspecting the harvest of Sembada188, a new high-yielding paddy variety planted in Wasan. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

For the Limpaki site — which will also plant high-yielding rice varieties — a time line has not been set to begin operations, but infrastructure is already in place.

A budget has also been allocated for the construction of a 10km irrigation pipeline to feed plantations that grow high-yield varieties.

Khairunnisa said the DAA will be expanding the land area for growing Sembada188 in Wasan from 38 hectares to 60 hectares by next April.

She added that they are discouraging farmers from planting Laila — Brunei’s first hybrid rice variety — in the Wasan area because it is susceptible to disease and could introduce infectious agent to other varieties.

She said the department is not “banning” Laila cultivation, but phasing it out of commercial production. Farmers who want to plant the variety for personal use are not prohibited from doing so.

Kandol: Brunei’s largest commercial paddy site

Last October, His Majesty announced a new 500 hectare site for paddy cultivation in Kandol Belait, which will be operated by Darussalam Assets, the owner of Brunei’s government-linked companies.

Darussalam Assets is in the process of appointing technical partners to design the layout of Kandol, but experts still need to tackle flood mitigation in the area.

“Before we go in, we have to find a way to… create diversion channels to direct the water during rainy seasons, which is beneficial not only for the paddy plantation site but also to the settlements and communities nearby,” said Khairunnisa.

Although the area is flood-prone, the soil in Kandol is fertile and rich with nutrients, according to an environmental impact assessment conducted in 2011.

Brunei aims to produce at least 4,000 metric tonnes of paddy next year, which could reach 6,000 tonnes, or a 11 percent rate of self-sufficiency, if more farmers plant high-yield paddy varieties.