- Agriculture in the Malaysian Region by R.D. Hill
Singapore: NUS Press, 2013, xxi + 347 pp. ISBN 978-9971-69-601-6
This updating of a substantial book about agriculture in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei is an impressive historical geography, insightfully analysing and recording key aspects of the situation from the 1970s to the early 2000s, and also covering developments before this period. The book is excellent in its holistic treatment, identifying five ‘types’ of Malaysian agriculture in an interconnected and evolving picture. Comprehensive scrutiny in this frame is advantageous, usefully matching the concentrations of other scholars on technical and economic aspects of particular sectors. The work is further backed by numerous references, supplying pertinent additional information to the reader.
The five types of agriculture identified are shifting cultivation, semicommercial (peasant) rice-growing, perennial crop smallholders, plantations, and [End Page 105] intensive market-gardening and livestock-rearing, each with strong ethnic identifications. Hill’s analysis of the parallel existences and interrelationships of these types is perceptive. It also gives helpful pointers to those of us working elsewhere, including the present reviewer in his preoccupation with the drier and far more backward region of eastern Indonesia.
Much of the book relates to the late 1970s, and was contained in a volume first published in 1982. The updated work of 2013 includes the ten original chapters plus two new ones, bringing analysis almost to the present. The book commences with an all-too-brief historical background (Chapter 1), proceeding to a statistical overview analysing population and land use by different crops and agricultural activities (Chapter 2). It tackles relations between land use and the environment (Chapter 3), continuing with a deeper review of areal crop distribution (Chapter 4). The book next delineates the 5 types of agriculture, doing this on the basis of a system developed by the International Geographical Union (Chapter 5). It explores each type in depth, examining it in relation to the situation of the Malaysian region (Chapters 6–10). Then in its first new chapter, the book scrutinizes regional agriculture from the 1970s to the present (Chapter 11). It finally closes with a wide-ranging examination of major crops and their underlying types and systems (Chapter 12).
Hill’s ten original chapters are full of interest, manifestly springing from years of personal exposure and research, but space limitations mean only two can be cited. Thus his discussion of ‘shifting cultivation’ (pp. 61–84), which relates to remoter parts of Malaysia in the 1970s, clearly exposes the key underlying elements and geographical and social changes associated with this practice. In one part of this discussion, ‘abandoned clearings’, vacated after several years of cultivation, are scrutinized in depth, and the gradual subsequent growth of different trees and vegetation is examined. The impacts on farmers’ shifting cultivation behaviour of ‘socio-economic’ frameworks is also investigated, especially in reference to community organization, tenure systems and other cultural features.
The chapter on ‘Perennial Crop Small-holder Agriculture’ (pp. 134–80) is similarly enlightening. Such agriculture constitutes a later stage of development, where peasants with restricted land areas and new market opportunities grow cash crops as main sources of livelihood. Hill comprehensively documents the evolution of such farming up to the 1970s, looking at the sizes, locations and associated ethnic characteristics of both the dominant rubber smallholdings and other small farms growing coconut, pineapple and pepper. He investigates the inputs and outputs of underlying ‘agroecosystems’, including the return of nutrients to the soil and the dry matter produced. He further considers the innovative smallholder improvements contained in the settler schemes of the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) and other official agencies, arguing as well for greater diversification of rubber and oil palm smallholdings.
Hill’s first new Chapter 11 on the post-1970s reviews key aspects of a massive and historic structural transformation, whereby a formerly dominant Malaysian agriculture declined to less than 10 per cent of national gross domestic product by the end of the first decade of the new century, with huge growths in manufacturing and services. Agriculture, and especially oil palm and rice, nonetheless [End Page 106] continued growing...