Saturday, July 7, 2012

talks in the rice fields

Last weekend, I hired Noung, a translator-tour guide-Khmer tutor-jack-of-all-trades, to take me out of Siem Reap to interview rice farmers. While I'm here, I need to write a paper for my summer school course on Global Hunger & Food Security. It's hard to research and buckle down, so I chose a topic that warranted first-hand accounts: climate change in the Cambodian rice fields.

Agriculture, and rice farming in particular, is the heart of Cambodia's economy and culture: it employs 77% of the population, and nearly 90% of the rural population. The Cambodian word for food-"bai"-means rice and though I haven't adopted the local diet, white rice is ubiqitous for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For these reasons, preserving the land, water and systems that allow agriculture to flourish and improve is vital. With some background knowledge and a hunch, I set out to learn more about the situation out in the fields.

After a bumpy moto ride taking us about an hour out of Siem Reap we arrived in a village that Noung said was called "Lady Bug Village" for its lush beauty. She knew most of the families here after a stint working for an NGO last year during the infamous flood.

I ended up interviewing 5 families. Each interview took about an hour and included plenty of questions about myself, namely: my age, my marital status, and, why was I still studying? I get these questions in town, but in the countryside the people were more soft spoken and polite, although the women had no problem touching my skin and calling me "sa'at" (pretty.) 

The stories I got were similar across the board: as we drove up to each house we were greeted by a large, intergenerational family hanging out under their stilted house. There were few men, as women typically work on the family's small farm and men travel out to the Tonle Sap (lake) to work in the larger fields, or take on odd jobs. If they don't attend school, children work on the farm as well. At first, I was worried that no one would have time to talk. Farming is taxing and time-consuming. Out here, there's not much else to do, though. No electricity and no town center leave ample time for idle chatting.

Unfortunately,my suspiscionss about slow progress in the face of climate change and rampant development were confirmed. Last year's flood was the worst that any of these long-term farmers had experienced. I carefully asked how much of their crop they lost, and most replied that they lost all of their wet season rice. Wet season rice is harvested first and is typically stored in the house for their family's consumption for the year. Planted later, dry season rice is sold through a middle-men. Sum-lis, an older woman with a beautiful home garden, seemed the most wise and sophisticated. She grew three different varities of rice including a hybrid (genetically engineered) type she purchased after hearing about its drought resistant qualities. Unlike most of the other families, she had adopted a strategic, long-term mindset to diversify her crops to sell at market, and attempt several varities in anticipation of another torrential flood this year.

These families have to face lean times and harsh weather alone. Although they are evidently poor, they aren't the poorest of the poor and for this reason, they don't get government support. Last year, some received some free food aid from NGOs during the flood, but most scrambled to feed themselves. Technical assistance is almost non-existent. Although Mon (above) received training on pesticide use, and others received training on natural fertilizing methods, they are fearful to change their ways despite an interest in using less pesticides.

 I learned a lot and left each house grateful. We turned down several polite lunch offers and said goodbye as I offered each family a humble gift of a few dollars and several packets of wafer cookies that Noung suggested I buy. After talking so much and afterward, digging into some research on climate adaptation and agricultural development here, I'll admit I'm a bit worried after spending a day out in the beautiful rice fields. All the same, the kind spirit and smiles I witnessed definitely spoke of hope.