Cambodian rice farmers go organic

By Andrea Perera

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The rice mill roared, its levers and pulleys whirring. A convoluted maze of metal and wood, it filled the tin shed, shucking the tiny grains.

Five men from the Community Cooperative for Rural Development, or CCRD, an Oxfam partner organization, stood along the mill's perimeter, watching it work. Serious and proud, they admired their prize: the only certified organic rice mill in the country.

Cambodian rice farmers, long vulnerable to fluctuating prices and heavy regional competition, are looking to organic rice to help them carve out a niche in the market. As eating healthily has become more popular around the world, so has organic food. Organic products sell for a higher price than conventionally farmed food. In a country where more than a third of the population lives on less than $1 a day and more than half depends on agriculture, the organic advantage could translate into a reliable and steady income.

"The momentum is really growing," said Le Thi Nguyet Minh, an Oxfam America program officer in the East Asia office. "We need to maintain it."

Making the case for organic

Maintaining the organic momentum requires establishing farming cooperatives, which are equipped to work in the organic market. This transition represents a huge practical and emotional leap for many Khmer farmers.

The bloody civil war and subsequent genocide that ravaged Cambodia left many Khmer people distrustful of both their neighbors—and any sort of collective work, said Yann Omer-Kassin, an Oxfam Quebec field advisor supporting CCRD.

Even the words "farming cooperative" pose a problem. In Khmer, they translate into "work camp," a term that conjures up painful fears or memories of Khmer Rouge death camps. Many of the people Kassin talked to in Pursat said they were wary of joining a farming coop "because it's linked to a horrible past."

Because of these cultural sensitivities, CCRD staff work slowly and patiently to convert farmers to organic production. They spend much of their time simply building trust in the cooperative concept. They point to the tangible benefits of organic production.

Economic and health benefits

Farmers are encouraged to use animal manure instead of chemical fertilizers—a requirement of organic certification. The resulting savings can be used—to grow other crops, or send children to school. If farmers use natural fertilizer, they can also prevent illness. Many farmers and farm workers get sick because they can't read the labels on the chemicals they use. Many of the chemicals are so dangerous they're prohibited in other countries.

Tang Eum, 47, a rice farmer in Pursat, said she began farming organic rice three years ago. She said natural fertilizer doesn't always produce as much rice as chemical fertilizer. But she's willing to accept that tradeoff if it means her family and friends won't get sick.

Providing the resources for success

CCRD has converted at least 75 of the 1,500 farmers in its collective to farm organic. Their support is crucial. Many of the rice farmers face the same challenges organic and fair trade coffee farmers saw when they first learned about the new model. Many have farmed small plots with chemicals for generations. They need help learning new agriculture techniques so that they can someday grow as much rice as they had before.

Then they need help getting the experience, technical assistance, and market access to pull it all off.

It is a challenging task, CCRD workers said. But knowing what they do about the potential benefits keeps them motivated. Eventually they want to help local farmers not only farm organically, but take the next logical step, and sell to the fair trade market.

Fair Trade Certified™ products are high quality and grown through practices friendly to the environment. Farmers receive a minimum price even when the market price is low. According to a 2005 market study, if farmers made the transition from conventional growing to fair trade organic they could see their profits more than double.

Sitting at a wood table outside her house in Pursat, Tang Eum said she knows what she wants to do with that extra money. A mother and a businesswoman, she would use it to support her family and sell her rice.

"I want to use the money to send my children to school," she said. "And I want to buy a moto to go to the market in town."