Phumani is aged and has trouble with her memory. “I can’t remember much about my childhood work,” she says, struggling to make herself comfortable in her plastic chair “but I started transplanting when I was about this high.” Her hand hovers less than 4 feet above the floor and a hushed amusement ripples through the assembled group. She is clearly loved and cared for by the community of rice growers we’ve come to talk with. But there’s no escaping the tragically comical fact that Phumani, at the age of 78, still stands at less than 4 feet high. Or, more accurately, stands less than 4 feet high again.
Phumani can no longer stand up straight. Her body is bent double, her skeleton frozen into a permanent transplanter’s pose.
She goes on to describe how she would also have to help graze the cattle and do other household chores, help with the harvest and so on. Transplanting would start at 8 or 9am and continue until 4pm. “When I was young I felt no pain but then, later on, whenever I used to go for transplanting I really felt the pain in my hands and other parts of my body.”
Now, she is permanently racked with pain. But her story and her plight are by no means unique.
Rampung Sorathaworn is a farmer from Surin province, Thailand. She tried out SRI for the first time two years ago, transplanting very young single seedlings in a widely spaced grid, following advice provided by the EU-funded, region-wide SRI-LMB programme. But she wasn’t sure that she had made the right decision when she began to hear her neighbours’ comments: “When they saw my field, the villagers asked how I thought I was going to grow any rice,” she says. “They kept saying: ‘Seedlings can’t grow like that – you need to plant 3 or 4 together. The Golden Apple snails will eat it all up!’ I wasn’t too sure it would grow either, but I told them I would wait and see”. Sure enough, within a couple of weeks, the villagers changed their tune and started asking “Why is it growing like this? How is it you have so many tillers!” And she says after that they began to pay a lot more attention, even helping her to count the tillers on her crop.
Sastri Sandha, a member of the milkmaid caste, lives in the rural Sundargarh district, Orissa. Now over 30 years of age, unmarried and landless, she counts among some of the most vulnerable of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. But in the dappled light under the mango tree where we chat, this strong, healthy and eloquent lady seems far from vulnerable. Her parents sit not far away. It’s as though they are monitoring the conversation: as well they might, as we’ve been told that Sastri has been exploited by them for many years as labour on their agricultural land3. Since she never married, she has never been in a position to leave the family home. They have never paid her for her work and she has always been entirely dependent upon them for the roof above her head. However, Sastri does not mention this. Instead she begins by explaining how she has turned this apparently impossible situation around: “My name is Sastri Sandha from Gidhpahadi Village,” she says. “I am a single woman and I am the President of an organisation made up of other similar single women. We now have 300 members!”
It’s transplanting season here in Pursat province, Cambodia and across south and southeast Asia. The air is thick with the mists rising from flooded paddy fields as the extreme heat evaporates yesterday’s rain. Conditions are stifling, yet across vast swathes of countryside, women are bent double, transplanting the rice seedlings that will produce over 700 million tons of the world’s most important food staple.