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Feeding a nation

By Andrea Perera

It took quite a bit of convincing before Mey Som agreed to be the first Cambodian to try the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in 2000. But in the end, Som relented and, on a small plot of land, planted rice in a way that went against all his experience and instincts.

Following the advice of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, or CEDAC, Som abandoned his use of chemicals in favor of organic fertilizer. He planted fewer seeds and spaced them widely apart. He kept the soil moist—without flooding it. He transplanted the rice seedlings while they were young and took the time to weed. Halfway through that first season, Som noticed his rice plants were growing bigger and stronger.

"The same seeds used to produce plants that came up to my knees," he said. "Now they reach above my head."

Since Som's experiment, CEDAC has trained more than 60,000 Cambodian farmers to modify their farming techniques to correspond with SRI. Like farmers in Madagascar, China, and Bangladesh, they have increased their yields by 50 to 100 percent, and sometimes more.

Yang Saing Koma, the president of CEDAC, better known as "Dr. Koma," calls it the "Root Revolution," and eventually he wants the majority of Cambodia's rice farmers to have joined in.

"It's just a question of changing your attitude and thinking," he said. "Conventional agriculture just looks at the plant above ground. With SRI, you look at the roots—big, strong roots."

A new method takes off

Using grants from Oxfam America totaling about $222,000 since 2003, CEDAC has used SRI to build financial and food security in one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries. More than 70 percent of the workforce depends on agriculture to make a living—most of them, rice farmers.

Dr. Koma says it's like a metaphor for human development. If you give people enough room to grow, they flourish. If you plant seedlings far enough apart, the seedlings sprout several stalks and the stalks produce hundreds of grains of rice.

He first learned about SRI after reading a magazine article chronicling the experiences of farmers in Madagascar. Jesuit priest Father Henri de Laulanié spent 20 years working with Malagasy farmers, refining a set of practices that required less land, seed, water, and money.

At first, the Cambodian farmers who are approached by CEDAC about trying SRI had trouble believing what they were hearing. Some even ridiculed the farmers who tried the new method.

When So Tith began planting through SRI three years ago, his neighbors saw him pressing fewer seeds into the soil and pitied him, thinking he couldn't afford to buy more. "They offered to give me some of their seed," he said.

Even after Tith's new stalks began to grow, his neighbors wouldn't attribute their sturdiness to SRI. They attributed it to "trickery" instead. But Tith didn't mind, for in a couple years these same doubters would end up changing their practices, and more important, their minds.

Accustomed to using oxen and carts to take water to their fields, they now fill jugs and carry them on their shoulders to small plots of land near their homes. They plant during the wet and dry seasons, doubling their production and incomes.

"Daily life is better than before," said Sorn Ton, another rice farmer who adopted SRI. "When we used to farm, there wasn't enough rice to support the family for the whole year. We had to borrow money to buy rice from others in the village. Now my family has enough to eat."

The farmers use the extra profits to invest in more rice seed, send their children to school, and participate in the simple joys of everyday life—the religious and family ceremonies, the weddings and festivals.

All this from a little bit of creative thinking informed by the people who work the land themselves.

"Throughout Cambodia, the farmers who adopted SRI—they have more self confidence. They see what they can get from what they do," Dr. Koma said.