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.
By Chris Hufstader, Oxfam America (See original post)
Khek Koeu must have been having trouble sleeping at night. Underneath her house were stacks of rice in 50-kilogram bags. She and her daughter grew about a third of it, and they bought the rest after the last harvest. They will sell it later, hopefully at a profit. All in all, it’s worth about $18,000—leaving enough money for Koeu to invest in building a metal fence around her house and yard, with a gate she can lock.
Despite her worry about thieves, having enough rice to lock up is a nice problem for Koeu, a 55-year-old widow in Cambodia’s Pursat province. She says she is now making more money, and growing more rice, since she learned to apply what’s known as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in 2010. In the past six years, she says, she has finished paying for college for all three of her children, and she bought them all motorbikes. “It’s hard to afford all this,” Koeu says. “In the years before we started SRI we had a lot of difficulties
Ms. Nhem Sovannary, a farmer in Po Preah Sang village, Taphem commune, Tramkak district, Takeo province, was awarded first prize in 2013 and third prize in 2014 during the SRI national competitions, organized by CEDAC. She has 1.5 ha of rice fields, 800 m2 homegarden, 8 cattle, 100 chickens and a biogas.
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Bodies matter – India
Women from small and marginal farming families doing SRI have been making the news in India for their adoption of a new approach that challenges the age-old beliefs and practices of rice farming. However, rarely one comes across mention of the impact of SRI on their wellbeing and their bodies.
While doing research in Odisha, India during 2011- 2012 women from 20 villages narrated their positive experiences with SRI. They reported a reduction in drudgery and pain, fewer infections in their hands and legs, and having more time to cook and eat properly, rest or to do other work. Major reasons for these changes were a reduction in hours and amount of work, change in their working environment, more upright posture due to use of a weeder, and men’s participation in tasks like weeding. More specific information was gathered in three villages namely Rajnapalli of Ganjam district, Gunjigaon of Kandhamal district and Kokariguda of Koraput district. Women shared the drudgery and pain experiences explicitly during the participatory exercises of a Rapid Comparative Pain Assessment (RaCoPA) entailing group discussions, interviews and informal interactions.Groups of women ricefield workers discussed the tasks they perform under different rice-growing methods. They talked about which task hurts how much and showed this on a large drawing of a woman. At the end, a comparative picture was generated to see differences in physical experiences of drudgery and pain. Interestingly, they all mentioned that these aspects never emerged in earlier discussions.
RaCoPA exercises revealed that with SRI practices, there is significant reduction in drudgery and pain in back, legs and hands. With SRI practices women spend less time in stressful postures carrying out repetitive movements and they handle lighter materials compared to standard cultivation practices (see box).
SRI fundamentally changes the conditions under which women have to work. Conventionally, women working in bent or sitting postures in flooded fields for long hours, come into contact with various disease causing vectors exposing them to multiple health risks like intestinal to skin diseases and female urinary and genital ailments. This affects their ability to work and earn money, and furthermore drains out their money on health care, sometimes making them indebted, as found in research by Vent and others in 2015. With SRI practices, rice fields are no longer kept continuously flooded, thus reducing women’s prolonged exposure to these water-borne disease vectors. Furthermore where organic SRI is being practiced, women do not face problems from chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
As women are the producers of our food, we cannot afford to ignore their wellbeing. When they thrive, our agriculture thrives and vice versa. The eco-logic of SRI has a body and gender-logic too which needs to be paid attention to and invested in if we are seriously concerned about our toiling women.
Creativity and solidarity – Malaysia
Salwati Mohd. Ariffin, a Kelantanese paddy farmer, left her desk job five years ago to take up farming as a profession. As a mother to five daughters, she is determined to rid the land of unnecessary chemicals because she wants to leave her children with a cleaner and safer environment to grow up in. She also wishes to free smallholders like herself from having to purchase and use expensive inputs as they are “polluting and degrading the rural landscape that has such beauty and bounty when managed with respect for nature”.Once Salwati gained knowledge of SRI, she began producing organic rice on her own. She prepared the land and set up her nursery, then developed an outdoor composting workshop right next to her plots. Eight cropping seasons later, she is making impressive gains, and her yields are now estimated at 10 metric tons per hectare by researchers from UPM (Universiti Putra Malaysia). The increase in yield isn’t the most important outcome for her; it’s the long-term investment in sustainable rice production that she is committed to. She realises this is a paradigm shift and is working to instill confidence and pride in paddy farmers around her by helping them to understand the principles of SRI and to apply them in accordance to their social, cultural and environmental circumstances.
In 2014, Salwati, in cooperation with SRI-Mas, the Malaysian Agroecology Society for Sustainable Resource Intensification, facilitated the establishment of Kumpulan Organik Kelantan (Organic Group of Kelantan ). Maintaining a horizontal structure, K.O.K members stay in touch with eachother through WhatsApp by sharing best practices and exchanging questions and answers. This revives a sense of solidarity among farmers.
To overcome the occasional shortage of human power, farmers can also ask for help by using WhatsApp, reinforcing the local tradition of gotong-royong. For example, at harvest time, Salwati and her network of farmers gather to help each other, and they study the yield components together, to see where further improvements could be made. With the help of academics, farmers who practice SRI gain better insight into their farming practices and outcomes, which in turn allows them to sell their products with more confidence.
Changing gender roles – Cambodia
Under the hot midday sun in the middle of a rice paddy, 57-year old farmer Tea Sarim was enlightening ten other women farmers from her village of Deim Pour in Champey community, in Kampot province. Holding a bunch of rice seedlings in one hand and lifting a single seedling with the other, Sarim began a question-and-answer session on the issues and concerns in the agricultural sector that these farmers currently face. The smiles on the women farmers’ faces expressed their interest in learning SRI techniques, having heard about how these can raise yields while also lightening their workloads.
Sarim was selected to participate in the Center Farmer for Participatory Action Research (CFPR) as part of a regional project covering four countries in the Lower Mekong River region. She became a farmer trainer, locally called a Krou Kasekor, to share knowledge of SRI with other farmers with her community.
With the conventional farming practices, Sarim could only produce enough to feed herself, her four children, and her parents for ten months of the year. There was nothing left to sell. Within three years of practicing SRI, she has been able to produce enough to feed her family all year around and still have some extra rice to sell. Sarim estimates that SRI helps her to reduce her workload by about 20% during the farming season: “With conventional farming, we have to spend a lot of time and energy, but with SRI farming, we use our brain.”
Sarim has become a popular SRI trainer in her village. She helps women farmers in neighbouring villages move from poverty to prosperity. She enjoys sharing the new knowledge and skills that she has gained from her three-year experience with SRI. Most of the women whom she has coached on SRI farming techniques face many problems, such as domestic violence. Sarim observes, “Women are easily blamed by their husbands for the problems of the family.” But with SRI, women’s positions are improving, Sarim has noted. They are not treated the same as before because now they are being recognised as ‘smart’ and have become leaders.
The key for this change is that women are quick learners. They absorb the SRI ideas faster than men because they pay careful attention and easily grasp the concepts, Sarim finds. Men do not always want to learn because they prefer continue farming the same way that their parents taught them; “they think that they already know how to farm.” But, even though men sometimes find it hard to come and listen to women’s stories, “a woman has the power to lead her husband into practicing SRI” says Sarim, laughing.
In the past, there was a saying, ‘Women cannot turn the kitchen around.’ Sarim, however, tells the women farmers: “I am different because I have made myself different. I can turn the kitchen around, and I want other women to succeed too.”
Sabarmatee Tiki , LIM Liang Chun and Oeurm Savann
Sabarmatee Tiki () works with Sambhav, a grassroots-level NGO focusing on environmental and gender issues in Odisha, India, and is pursuing her PhD at Wageningen University, The Netherlands.
LIM Liang Chun () works with the Malaysian Agroecology Society for Sustainable Resource Intensification (SRI-Mas) and is currently a Masters student of International Development at Sciences Po Paris.
Oeurm Savann () is the Regional communication officer for Oxfam United States in Cambodia.
Sabarmatee would like to thank Olivia Vent and Dr. Norman Uphoff for their encouragement and feedback on this article, and Wageningen University and NWO-WOTRO, Netherlands for supporting her research
A daughter in Cambodia doubles rice harvest, and surprises her parents
How new ways of cultivating rice using fewer seeds can produce more food, and bring a family together.
When Chuk Meun told his 22-year-old daughter Phaly that she could plant some rice on a small section of his land, it was the beginning of a growing season he will never forget, and a period of conflict he never expected. But it led to a harvest that would change the prospects of his entire family.
Phaly had been training with an organization supported by Oxfam called Srer Khmer in how to use the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). SRI is a way of growing rice that uses less seed. Farmers transplant younger seedlings individually and in rows, each seedling farther apart to allow the plants more space and light and nutrients. It seems incredible, but if done well with enough rain, it can double a normal harvest.
But to Meun, now 64, it all looked bad. He had none of Phaly’s SRI training, and only knew conventional rice-growing methods. “If you do this you will have problems with me,” he says he told her on the day he saw her transplanting in rows. He was convinced she would produce less rice than transplanting a fist full of five or six older seedlings, grouped close together to maximize the number of plants in the field.
“After she transplanted I looked at the field, I thought it was hopeless and it made me angry, that it was a waste of time and land,” he says. “I did not talk with her for three months.”
Phaly’s mother, Soi Houn, on the other hand, didn’t hold back. “I criticized her all the time,” she now says. “I was very critical about the space between the plants.”
It was a rough few months for Phaly, but she laughs about it now, the entire family does actually. “They were so angry,” she giggles, glancing at her mother on one side, and her father on the other, outside her parent’s home in Pursat province.
Meun says a month later, “after Phaly added compost, the plants were growing straight and tall and I could see the grains growing, and I started to have hope,” he says. Apparently he did not mention this to his daughter, who interjects,“He was still not talking to me,” prompting more laughter.
But Phaly was not surprised. Oxfam’s partner Srer Khmer brings farmers like her together in groups to learn and share ideas, so she knew after her father saw the results, he would understand. Her training was part of Oxfam’s program to help farmers adapt to a changing climate, and produce more food. Srer Khmer is working with more than 3,000 SRI farmers in two provinces, training farmers and helping the more proficient ones to become trainers. The organization has been working with Oxfam for seven years and has trained nearly 8,000 in the System of Rice Intensification.
Things changed between Phaly and her parents around harvest time. “They were super happy,” Phaly says. “They asked why there was so much more rice.” Her father, she says, helped her with the harvest and “started talking with me again when he saw the results, which was seven sacks, double the normal harvest in this field of about three.” Meun slowly gave up his skepticism of SRI, and Phaly says that starting in 2011 he “completely changed his mind, he now only plants using SRI.”
“SRI is a powerful tool,” Meun says, noting that on a hectare of land (about 2.45 acres), “I used to grow one or two tons, now I can get four.” In a year with enough rain, Meun says that can mean 16 tons of rice from his four hectares, “so much I don’t have enough space to store it.”
Phaly says the increased rice yield has translated into a better standard of living for the extended family (she’s now 26, married, with a little son). “Before we had almost nothing,” she says. “After switching to SRI we are saving money, we bought a tractor three years ago, and we just got a new motorbike.”
As a former village chief, Meun is using his status to get more farmers to try SRI. “I always talk about SRI because it can help people increase their income and get out of poverty,” he says.
Meun says he thinks about Phaly differently now. “I really appreciate Phaly’s agricultural skills,” he says. “I hope she can gain the trust of others to teach them SRI. I think she’s able to be a village chief in the future.”
Phaly says she has already trained 15 other families in SRI practices. She seems to like her father’s suggestion: “If I could get the chance to be village chief, I’d try to do it so I can lead other farmers to try SRI.”
From Oxfam America
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