Sarawak’s Precious Import: Pepper

The Land of the Hornbills is the country’s biggest producer of the king of spices, boasting a history as rich as its taste.

The story of pepper in Kuching is not much different than the one of early Chinese settlers in the Peninsular Malaysia, with the main difference being the commodity. Here, instead of silvery tin ore, the traders were harvesting from land a precious element of a different kind. The prominence of pepper may have peaked under the British Rajah rule in the 1900s when the Borneo Company streamlined the pepper trade, but the seeds were planted close to three centuries by the early Chinese settlers.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and pepper remains one of the state’s biggest foreign exchange earner, producing 95% of Malaysia’s pepper and maintaining the country in the top 5 pepper-producing nations in the world. Locally, the crop currently sustains more than 67,000 farming families and households, providing them with employment and income.

Although majority of the pepper farmers in the state right now are from the indigenous communities aided by the Ministry, the Sarawak pepper story is very much a Chinese immigrant story, one of trials, tribulations, and perseverance.

Black pepper kernels drying in Ironwood Valley Farm.

Piper nigrum, or what is now known as Sarawak pepper actually originates from southwest India, where it is still extensively planted. However, nobody actually knows how the pepper’s Bornean chapter began, with some records saying it was the Majapahits who brought it over while the publication Sarawak Long Ago reports that it was introduced to Sarawak by one W C Crocker in the 1860s. No matter the origin, no records conflict on the important role the Chinese immigrants played in the lifting of the crop in the country.

Driven by the lucrativeness of pepper in the spice trade (as well as the gold rush), the Chinese immigrated to Kuching and other parts in Sarawak many centuries ago and quickly began planting pepper on borrowed land. The harvest turned out great, the tropical weather conducive for healthy pepper plants. In fact, Sarawak is also home to its own indigenous variety of pepper, from the plant piper sarmentosum, which is more renowned for its leaf than its fruit.

By the time the British came around, Kuching as a port city played a big role in pepper trade. Seeing the vast potential and the efficient farming methods of the Chinese, the Brookes imported more farmers from the surrounding, including Kalimantan, Singapore, and China, effectively sealing the deal for Sarawak to be known as pepper central in Malaysia. The local native population have since picked up the trade as well, farming with their Chinese brethren side by side before eventually taking over the “profession”.

Right now, the average pepper farmer is very much affected by the volatile prices of pepper. Be it black pepper or white pepper, much of the farming and selling activities necessitate the aid and intervention of government bodies, including the Malaysian Pepper Board (MPB) and Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry.

In addition to the market factor, as with any crop, farmers face the threat of pests as well, with the most dangerous for the pepper plant being the ‘foot rot’, which is capable of wiping out entire generation. The fear is augmented by the fact that most pepper plantations in Sarawak either avoid using pesticides or use them minimally.

Although the tide has now changed, with many younger generation Chinese pepper farming families, leaving their family business for greener pastures with less hard labour, some still remain persevering in their farm lands. Others on the other hand, find ways to put their lands to other good use, like cultivating an entirely organic farm or doubling it as beautiful event venues.

Either way, the mark left behind by the Chinese immigrants in Sarawak’s pepper history will remain in our books for centuries more to come for it is their legacy.

Do you know that the Sarawak pepper is one of the main components of the Sarawak laksa? Find out more about this local delicacy here.

*Images by UPPRE.

Vimal Palasekaran

Vimal Palasekaran

Loud laugher. TV buff. Hispanophone.
Vimal Palasekaran

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