Environmental News Archive

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Poor Cambodians make big gains with organic farming

Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - The story of leap-frog technology is a common one throughout the developing world.

Scores of societies are rocketing from isolation -- from conditions, especially in rural areas, that were little better than feudal Europe -- straight into the information age. They're skipping right over the half-century or more of ubiquitous land lines -- which changed our lives in rich countries -- and embracing cellphones and even wireless computer networks.

But a sizable number of small-scale farmers in the Kingdom of Cambodia are not leaping into today's chemically dependent monocultures. Rather, they're using intelligent low-tech to take them straight to what many believe should become the norm of the future -- modern, high-yield, organic farming.

About 50,000 farm families in 15 of Cambodia's 20 provinces are learning to double and triple their yields and diversify their harvests without the high-cost, high-risk chemical and mechanical inputs found on most modern farms almost everywhere else.

The 10-year-old project is the brainchild of Prak Sereyvath, a 35-year-old agrologist and the managing director of CEDAC (Centre d'Etude et de Developpement Agricole Cambogien).

Ironically, CEDAC's success is possible thanks in part to Cambodia's tragic recent past -- an internal five-year genocide that began, after five years of fighting, in 1975 under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and was followed by an invasion from neighbouring Vietnam and still more civil war.

These terrible times, Prak says, destroyed the agricultural infrastructure of the country. And they caused it to miss out on the fruits of Asia's Green Revolution which, beginning in the 1960s, provided the essential under-pinning for the spectacular economic performance of so many other southeast Asian countries.

Thus, Prak was able to begin his work with a more or less clean slate when he helped to found CEDAC in 1997, just four years after the country's return to a semblance of normalcy and two years before the first full year of peace in almost three decades.

CEDAC started out in just three villages. Today, it spends $1 million US a year to work in 1,500 rural locations, thanks to grants from a dozen countries. (CIDA, Canada's federal aid agency, is involved in only one of its hundreds of projects.)

It teaches a wide range of organic techniques as well as farm organization and marketing. A key tool is a huge assortment of simple, well-illustrated publications in the Khmer language. They include a highly subsidized monthly magazine that sells for less than three cents a copy.

Cambodia officially boasts an 85-per-cent literacy rate, but Prak estimates that half of CEDAC's farmers can't read even a simple document. Some get their children to read to them, others get the information from literate neighbours.

The productivity gains of modern organic farming are dramatic and hugely important to profoundly poor peasants who previously saw little or no cash income. But Prak concedes they can't match the gains for farmers who turn to chemical fertilizer and pesticides.

But there are other advantages. For example: "It is much better for human health and the environment."

It's also much cheaper. There are no expensive inputs, and some techniques -- like spacing rice plants farther apart so each one fills out better -- increases the yield while requiring fewer seedlings and less work.

And organic farming fosters diversification, avoiding the all-eggs-in-one-basket trap of modern monocultures.

"A Khmer proverb says where there is water there are fish," Prak said. "Because of chemicals and pollution, that has become much less true. We make it more true again."

Organic rice production allows the reintroduction of both fish and frogs -- important protein sources as well as cash generators -- to paddies where fish and amphibians would die if chemical fertilizer and pesticides were used.

To date, the market for these organic products is entirely internal, and they command only a tiny premium. But, given rich consumers' appetite for organics, that could change.

This nation where, a few short years ago, people used to starve, is now producing a surplus. Rice has grown to become its fourth-biggest export behind only mass-produced clothing, timber and plantation-grown rubber.

And there's potential for a lot more organic rice. Cambodians are starting to move to the cities, thanks in part to new jobs in textile plants. But 78 per cent -- down from 80 per cent -- of the 14 million citizens still depend on farming. So as more and more learn to double or triple their harvests, the export potential becomes huge.


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Don Cayo is in Cambodia as the volunteer project leader for "Seeing the World through New Eyes", a short-term fellowship program that sends new or beginning B.C. journalists to report from developing countries. It is funded by CIDA and administered by the Jack Webster Foundation.