Cambodia's RM awardee: Beyond toxic fertilizers

MANILA, Philippines - Over a decade ago, Cambodia emerged from a seemingly endless civil war with its economy in shambles and farmers barely able to grow enough rice to feed themselves.

Now most Cambodian rice farmers are obtaining high yields without using the toxic fertilizers and pesticides they employed in the past, thanks to the vision of Dr Yang Saing Koma, a 2012 Ramon Magsaysay awardee.

This agricultural engineer set up in 2000 the Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), credited with introducing the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Cambodia.

The technology has helped Cambodian farmers produce more rice with their own resources and reduce their dependence on expensive and toxic fertilizers and pesticides.

Produce 'more with less'

About 12 years ago, Dr. Koma came across an article about SRI, perfected in Madagascar by a French priest in the 1980s.

It took him less than 5 minutes to realize it was exactly what Cambodia's farmers needed: a simple technique that would allow them to “produce more [rice] with less input.”

“To help Cambodia develop like any other country, it should start with agriculture,” Koma said during an interview with Rappler.

That is precisely what happened, and SRI became a huge success in the country.

The innovative technique enables farmers to produce high yields of rice using lower inputs of palay, based on a simple system of plant, water, and soil management and by using resources that farmers have easy access to within their own communities.

PRODUCING 'MORE WITH LESS' with the SRI technique. Photo courtesy of CEDAC

PRODUCING 'MORE WITH LESS' with the SRI technique.

Photo courtesy of CEDAC

Teaching farmers

Cambodia is still one of the most impoverished countries in Southeast Asia, and around 65% of the population is employed in subsistence rice farming, according to a 2011 report by CEDAC.

After he launched SRI in 2000, Dr. Kuma focused on training the farmers on the technique.

Most rice growers then used chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as a significant amount of palay and water, all of which made the process quite expensive.

“Their approach was not good, and it made the farmers dependent on those products. They were not learning how to plant the rice on their own. But SRI is different: it requires farmers to think independently."

It was not easy to convince them.

“People were not used to it. It’s like getting a right-handed person to use his left hand," Dr. Koma said.

The engineer would spend hours trying to convince the farmers to try out the system, but after a few months he managed to get almost 30 farmers from 4 provinces on board.

After many of them analyzed the results and were satisfied with the increased yields, they told other farmers until more and more rice growers started using SRI in Cambodia.

Future plans

From being almost unknown in 2000, SRI became such a success story in Cambodia that 5 years later the government endorsed it as one of the national strategies for agricultural development.

Progress in the number of Cambodian SRI rice farmers 2000-2006. Source: CEDAC report

Progress in the number of Cambodian SRI rice farmers 2000-2006.

Source: CEDAC report

Currently most Cambodian rice farmers use the system, but Dr. Koma is still not satisfied.

"I am concerned that some farmers may be applying SRI without fully understanding the technique," he noted.

And he has a new project: to encourage modern rice growing in such a way that it will produce high enough yields to make millions exporting the surplus.

Self-made man

Dr. Koma is the son of a poor Cambodian teacher who was targeted as an intellectual during the Khmer Rouge regime, which he recalls as "the worst experience of my life."

Under the brutal rule of Pol Pot, his family was forced to leave his hometown, and soon after, his father was executed and his elder brother died of starvation in one of the forced-labor camps.

DR. KOMA inspecting a rice field in Cambodia. Photo courtesy of CEDAC

DR. KOMA inspecting a rice field in Cambodia.

Photo courtesy of CEDAC

After Vietnamese troops expelled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Dr. Koma, then a teenager, struggled to make a living and later pay for his studies.

“I would study in the morning and then in the afternoon I would sell rice and vegetables," he said.

But he was such an excellent student that in 1984 he received a full scholarship to study in Germany, where he obtained a master's degree and a doctorate  in agriculture development at Leipzig University and benefited from being immersed in a new foreign culture.

Dr. Koma finally returned in 1995 to Cambodia, where he was a professor at the Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh before founding CEDAC.

He dreams of a day when his country will not have to rely anymore on foreign aid to develop. - Rappler.com, with additional reports by Veasna Prom