Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bandar Harapan

Kepada kawan-kawan yang bertanya tentang Bandar Harapan dan yang suka dengan kerja-kerja kebajikan.

On the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is a unique social enterprise called Bandar Harapan which means “City of Hope.” The 30 acre farm is completely organic, but what makes it truly special is that it provides employment to physically challenged people and single parents. The social enterprise is overseen by Ivan Ho Weng Cheong, a herbalist, acupressurist and agricultural consultant who developed a knowledge and understanding of herbs from his grandfather, a “healer” in the community.

Volunteers from Eco Warriors, Malaysia a facebook group engaged in many eco-activities including treeplanting and condo-recycling projects, routinely offer their helping hands over the weekend at Bandar Harapan.

My mission was to learn more about the organic farming methods that Ivan had adopted in Bandar Harapan. He took me for a tour around the farm and it was a perfect opportunity to get my hands dirty. The warm smell of the soil, the colour and fragrances of the herbs and the sun patting gently on my shoulders that clear afternoon, made it blissfully easy to forget that I ever lived in a city.

We started off near a hill where all the vegetables were being grown. I bent down to touch the pennywort growing on the ground. Ivan explained it was very good as ground cover or mulch. Guta kula, as it’s known in Malay grows fast and can be harvested for eating. It has immunity and memory boosting properties.

I spotted some Thai sweet basil which I promptly plucked and munched as it’s one of my favourite herbs. Bandar Harapan grows a variety of herbs documented here.

Bhavani: What is all that black stuff I see on the ground?

Ivan: That’s the compost we make in the farm. We use vegetable and fruit peels that households nearby bring to us for the purpose. This way, we recycle household kitchen peel waste, and also make valuable compost which is good for the soil. We don’t have to use chemicals to enrich the soil because the compost is a natural source, rich in nutrients.

I spotted some more herbs- mint and lemon grass. In the midst of the plants grew a few papaya trees. I wanted to apply some of the armchair agricultural knowledge I had.

Bhavani: I see that you have interspersed trees amongst the plants.

Ivan: That’s right. It regulates the microclimate by providing cool shade to the plants. The taller trees also pull up water and minerals closer to the ground for the plants. When you have a big monoculture plantation, it’s much hotter without the trees, and crops need a lot of water. There's also a lot of water loss.

I was already beginning to see the biodiversity in the small spaces- different kinds of vegetables, herbs and trees growing together in harmony.

Bhavani: Do you do companion planting? (Plants that are grown together to deter pests and insects)

Ivan: Well, we don’t really have to do it consciously. We let the herbs come by themselves. Wherever there is a lack of nutrients, you will see that it attracts those herbs that will naturally compensate for the missing nutrients. If the plants are healthy, the insects will move away. If there are insects eating the plants, then there is something lacking in the soil. These are indicators.

There was a huge pond near the middle of the farm. I learnt that it was a well that had been dug to collect rainwater.

Bhavani: I can see not only a diversity of plants, but also of insects.

Ivan: That’s right. Where there is water, there are dragon flies, reptiles and toads which also happen to control the mosquito population. You can see these egg shell covers which are used for mulching. They create habitats for toads and crickets and all kinds of insects. It’s all about biodiversity- animals, insects and worms are all important for maintaining the ecological balance. And because of the biodiversity and condition of the soil, there is no need for pesticides.

Ivan pointed to an area where the volunteers had started digging a smaller pond to be filled with rainwater. Next he showed me a vegetable patch of long beans, which was being grown without any pesticides whereas in most farms, a lot of chemicals would have been used. Snug with that knowledge, I crunched a long string, which was very juicy and fresh.

We walked under a big tent, where the compost used in the farm was being made.

Bhavani: Do you do vermicomposting?

Ivan: No, all our compost is open compost because vermicompost is slow for our needs. We get households to bring their veggie and fruit peels, then we mix grass and coconut fibre in the pile. We get about 3 tonnes of compost in this small space in about 60 days.

Bhavani: That sounds like a lot of compost in such a small space. How much composting land do you think an island like Singapore would need..we’re under the impression we need a lot of space.

Ivan: Not much in my view. The solutions are there..but people have to think of the alternatives and change their ways.

Ivan showed me some big tanks which were being used for making garbage enzymes, some using only plant matter and others with fish waste. Garbage enzymes can be used as natural fertilisers as well as pesticides.

The volunteers collected and brought in several used plastic bottles. These were being recycled, to grow seedlings and young plants.

Bhavani: What is your yield like in this farm?

(I was really curious to know this, because large scale agriculture is often touted as a solution to world hunger. I've read that is possible to get a greater and diversified yield, much more than if we simply look at the tonnage of a single, monoculture crop. On the ground, what did Ivan have to say?)

Ivan: The farm is 30 acres and the entire area is yet to be cropped. The yield from a small area like this (he showed me where the vegetables and herbs were being grown) of only 5000 sq ft gives about 20kgs of veggies every day, which is very good. We don’t sell the produce though. We have a programme called Earth Bank, which is a bit like barter trade. The people who work on the farm get 30 ringitt (Malaysian currency) worth of veggies per day for the work they do on the farm. We’re talking about sustainability as well as viability and it can be done on a bigger scale.

Near the well I had mentioned before I spotted 3 cows. That got me really excited, as I have great fondness for these endearing animals. (I’d often get down from the car or van when we travelled in rural India to stop and pet a few stray ones, much to the chagrin of the remaining passengers.)

Bhavani: What are their names?

Ivan: They have Indian names. The one in front is Raja (king) and the other two females are Parvati (Goddess of Valour) and Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth).

Raja was the nearest. We moved close to him. I tried to pat Raja…but he backed off slightly. Then I remembered what Dr. Merrin Pearse had told me. Always approach an animal with your hand stretched below the mouth, rather than from above, which can be quite intimidating at first contact. So I stretched my hand and let Raja sniff my palm and lick it with his rough tongue and when he was more comfortable with my presence, he let me pat him above his nose.

Bhavani: How do the cows help you in the farm? I’m sure you use the dung for manure.

Ivan: Yes, we use the cow dung for manure. We hope to use it in future to make biogas or gobar gas to make sustainable energy.

The cows also help to control the grass. See how animals can help us. That’s why I always tell people - work with Nature. Cows also bring good vibrations or energy to the field.

I noticed that all the three cows had their horns (which are usually clipped in livestock farms). I remembered that only a few days before, Peter Proctor, considered the father of modern biodynamic farming, had spoken about this to a rather sceptical interviewer in Radio New Zealand. The horn is attached through a sinus like bone structure to the digestive system. When cows are dehorned as in industrial farms, they fall ill quicker. Peter Proctor is featured in a DVD called "One Man, One Cow, One Planet" as creating a quiet revolution in rural India by helping farmers break away from debt and bring back sustainable agricultural methods. He calls it "non-violent agriculture."

EWTT : How did you start this farm?

Ivan: I got this land from a friend. Of course, it belongs to the Forestry department, and we lease the land. When we first got this land, we started growing jasmine flowers, but the chemical usage was very high so we abandoned that. Twelve or fifteen years ago, there was not much knowledge about organic farming.

The land was really degraded, but I took up the challenge. If I could revive this soil, I could grow on any soil. The other big challenge was to work with physically challenged people. If I could overcome both these challenges, I felt I could go anywhere and work with anyone, do anything, regarding farming and food.

EWTT: How did you gather your knowledge of herbs?

Ivan: My grandfather and our family used to live in the jungle in Kota Demansara. I used to trek in the jungle with him to collect herbs. Sometimes when I walked to school, especially during rainy seasons, there would be storms. I’d find all kinds of animals fallen from the trees because of the strong wind. I’d bring back birds, civet cats and other wild animals home. They don’t attack when they are in pain. They can sense you are helping them. They would die if you didn’t help them. So I brought them home and tried to heal them. Grandpa would tell me how to heal the wild animals and would show me the herbs that healed. So I learnt a lot from him about harvesting the herbs from the forest, and the importance of the forest for the whole of mankind.

Then I saw the destruction of the forests. What a waste. People were not thinking about what they were losing. Why is Nature there? How do we benefit from it?

EWTT: How did you feel about it?

Ivan: I felt sadness and anger. I was a young guy, and felt emotional and took part in some protests against clearing of primary rainforests which at the time was mainly for development. I also felt that developers may do something like that, but people should not blindly push away things, they should be more aware and voice out.

We came upon a little contoured hill which reminded me of something quite profound that I had learnt in a permaculture class a few months ago.

EWTT: I remember learning there are no straight lines in Nature, everything follows a pattern.

Ivan: That’s right. This feature that we’ve made here on the hill as curving steps follows the contour. When the rain comes, it doesn’t flow but goes into the soil instead of eroding it. Circles strengthen the soil, and bind it naturally, by becoming a structure.

EWTT: How do you get water for irrigation?

Ivan: You saw that we retain a lot of water through plant cover and mulching. You don’t see any sprinklers around, yet production is high.

We work with allies, with Nature. Grass are our allies as they provide mulch and keep the ecology of the soil as well as retain moisture. Even the grass is biodiverse. The cows stimulate the ground soil and the dung propagates the seeds.

Then we have huge buckets to collect rainwater, which we use for watering the crops. Only on a very dry day, we take water from public utilities, but not much. Water is a scarce resource, so we have to think of ways to conserve water, especially in agriculture. Big dams are not sustainable.

Nearby, he showed me an area which was being developed into a small ecological park.

EWTT: Is this for children?

Ivan: Yes, and parents of course. There’s going to be a “petting path” where children can pet geese and ducks. I want to get them to learn to take care of animals, understand about recycling and waste management. With composting they will understand how it enriches the soil. We don’t have to use fertilisers or pesticides.

The children will learn how it is possible to grow healthy, organic food, and learn about farming. When children as young as 8 years old learn to plant organically, one day they can challenge their teachers in mainstream education, who advocate synthetic chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides. They can say, “Yes, I have planted chemical free. I have eaten chemical free. It's possible. I've done it.”

EWTT : What really motivates you?

Ivan: I feel motivated that we are educating people and empowering them to grow their own food. They come here and learn how it is done, and then go back and try it in their own homes.

The farm is about communication between nature and mankind. Communication is also a big challenge for autistic people, but in this place they becomes role models. When they work here, it gives them the confidence to talk to visitors about the work they are doing here and the plants they are growing.

What inspires me is that if the slow learners can do it, so can the able ones.

EWTT: What are some of the challenges you face?

Ivan: When I first started, the challenge was to revive the soil which was dead. The community I work with is difficult as they are physically challenged but this can be overcome.

The greater challenge is to get people in the community to understand the importance of working with Nature, of organic farming and human dignity. When we detach ourselves from the soil, when we detach ourselves from animals, we go the wrong way.

When people make that link back to animals, and link animals back to the soil, it enables people to carry the philosophy and enable people make changes in their own homes.

I could see that Ivan was really passionate about getting people to make that connection. I knew the answer to the next question, but asked him nevertheless.

EWTT: What is your dream for the world?

Ivan: People cooperating with each other and living in harmony with Nature and only use what she provides instead of trying to dominate her.

My heartfelt thanks to some special people from Eco Warriors, Malaysia who really made my day in KL memorable : Nalinee Narayanan, Petri Martinnen, Wai Keat, Angela Victor, Shyam Priah, Steve McCoy and Joanne Lim

Bandar Harapan Enterprise
: PJU 1A/31, Ara Damansara
Mailing Address : 2A Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad 1,Taman Tun Dr Ismail 60000 KL

Tel : 603-7728 2119
Fax : 603-7710 6866
Email :
Website :


Richard said...

Bandar Harapan is a shambles right now. Weeds growing everywhere. Who knows a better place?

Anonymous said...

It's NOT CHANGE the place but change OURSELVES. Help bandarharapan back to it's feet.