Pouk La is a Champion Farmer in Takeo province, Cambodia. She’s been practising the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, since 2008 and for much of that time, she has also been encouraging others in her village and in neighbouring villages to come and see her fields and follow her example. People don’t need much encouragement to follow SRI once they’ve seen Pouk La’s rice growing. “Look at her seedlings!” they say. “She plants them so young! That doesn’t take nearly as much work – then she can transplant a much bigger area in less time!” Pouk La beams as she relates how people have responded to the revelations of SRI.
SRI is a revelation and, as she points out, it needs quite a change in mindset. There are some who didn’t see the need to come to her fields and learn new techniques: “At first when I promoted SRI, most of the men would say – I have been doing farming for my whole life. It’s something that’s handed down through generations, not taught!” New ways of growing simply didn’t make sense to them: where SRI requires 10-15-day-old seedlings, in traditional practice, rice farmers transplanted much older seedlings. And, contrary to SRI practice, traditional rice growers would plant seedlings in flooded fields and clumped together. In Pouk La’s opinion, rice was also traditionally planted at the wrong time. “Before,” she says, “people would start sowing as soon as rains started in April or May.” On her advice, the converts no longer do that. “You can wait until August,” she tells them, “If we transplant too early, it obstructs growth and panicle formation.” Despite the clear differences in practice, people have started to listen to Pouk La because her results speak for themselves. She spends less on seeds, harvests more, makes money on her surplus crop and no longer has to hire labour.
Labour is a huge issue across Cambodia, with rural areas emptying out as the young, and particularly men, move to the cities to find work. It has become too hard to make a living from agriculture and communities are disintegrating as a result. SRI has made it possible for those left behind to manage the rice crops perfectly well despite the reduced labour availability. And that means income both from rice and from the factory work in the city. “When they practise SRI techniques,” says Pouk La, “the fields around the villages are no longer left empty. This is the result of their SRI awareness.”
Pouk La talks about some of the benefits of SRI in this video, including benefits that she feels are particular to women.
Pouk La is part of an agricultural training scheme run by Oxfam in Cambodia and in collaboration with the NGO Srer Khmer
It’s dusk and that point in the day when all is still but for the occasional distant clatter of pans or the whoops of a few children still at play. The sun stretches shadows across the fields as the cows are being brought in from pasture.
From nowhere, the tranquillity is shattered by the blast of a megaphone that emerges atop a 4 x 4: “Vote Nilima Topno!! Vote Ath-Kosia!!” The vehicle sweeps to a halt outside our building and three women climb out, all appear bristling with election fever.
They have been on the campaign trail for some time and are ready with their pitches:
My name is Nilima Topno, I am the President of a People’s Organisation called Ath-Kosia Tribal People’s Organisation.
Namaskar … My name is Ahalya Sa and I am working with the CIRTD team in Sundergar District.
Namaskar … I’m Cicilia Kandulna and I too work with CIRTD.
“Our organisation is 25,000 people strong and fights for indigenous people’s rights,” explains Nilima. “We started out with the aim of getting rights on forest land.”
Orissa state in eastern India is home to 62 different tribal groups, the vast majority are forest dwellers who rely on forest land for their living.
Across India, there are 250 million forest dwellers. Most of them are so marginalised they do not have any recognised land rights or access to government support. This means their lives are precarious. They could get evicted from the land at any time, cannot access vital benefits and cannot even register their children in schools.
Ahalya Sa explains what her organisation is working towards: “Those who depend exclusively on the land and forest to earn their livelihood need a ‘record of rights’ – or land title – to give them some sort of security. They have that right under the ‘Forest Right Act of 2006’, which states that individual families can claim title on the land that they have been cultivating for their living.”
Unfortunately, for a vast number of those who have such rights, obtaining their title certificate is not so easy. The Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development, CIRTD, is helping members of local tribes here understand that they have such rights and how to apply for them. In Orissa, progress has been very slow. “We have managed to get titles for 2000 of our families,” says Ahalya, “and now we are continuing the struggle so that all 25,000 of our members can get titles.”
Meanwhile CIRTD is also working with Ath-Kosia to help members get the most out of the land and their forest resources. Much work has gone into training people on how to improve their agricultural techniques and increase the nutritional content of their diets. And in this they have concentrated on providing support to the most vulnerable within these already marginalised and deprived communities.
“I focus on the problems and struggles of single women,” explains Cecilia. “There are many types of single women such as widows, spinsters, divorcees and physically challenged girls.” In culturally traditional communities, like here in Sundergar in the north of Orissa, the status of ‘single woman’ is a badge of shame. “These are people in our society who suffer the most,” continues Cecilia “they are the most deprived but unfortunately there are no specific government schemes for them.”
Cecilia, Ahalya and Nilima have been working with CIRTD to encourage these women that there is strength in unity and that practicing agricultural techniques that are high yielding and low cost, as well as less physically demanding, will help them gain some independence of their own so they do not rely on the families and even communities that might reject them.
This is where SRI has proven itself to be highly effective. The System of Rice Intensification is a way of planting rice that requires less seed, smaller seedlings, favours indigenous varieties and organic inputs while producing higher yields and more nutritious crops.
All these factors also have an important impact on women’s health: “Talking with doctors and according to what I have seen for myself” says Nata Mishra, the founder of CIRTD, “most women suffer from back pain because they have to bend for 8-10 hours a day to transplant their rice. And they do this regularly.”
He goes on to explain that there are a number of advantages of working with SRI that can really help to eliminate the physical hardship that conventional rice growing typically brings. As SRI requires up to 90% fewer seedlings, which are much smaller and lighter, the method greatly reduces the arduous physical labour normally required.
“And also,” continues Mishra, “many are developing cervical cancer and breast cancer which I think may be from inhaling pesticides. I think there is a serious need for scientific study into this problem.”
Nilima agrees that SRI has real physical benefits: “We bend over to transplant much less now. So, our problems with body pain have been reduced. And we use a weeding machine, which means we can stand up to weed instead of spending all day bent over uprooting weeds with our hands.
Nilima points out that another benefit of adopting SRI is that because it frees up their time and workload, members of her association have been able to diversify their crops: “Now we also grow pigeon pea, black gram, green gram. And different types of vegetables. And we eat all this produce. So, we women and our children are now eating much more nutritious food. We eat organic and it gives us more energy. I feel really happy to see these all these positive changes that we’ve worked hard for.”
Evidently these marginalised communities in Sundergar are doing all they can to improve their lives while they wait for forestry officials to follow government legislation and recognise their established rights to their forest lands.
Srey Lak is a former rice worker. It’s three years since she was able to work in the fields though. The skin on her hands is now so fragile she cannot bear the pain of plunging them into the contaminated waters of the flooded paddy fields. Some of the women in nearby villages, though, have adopted SRI, a way of growing rice that can help avert these kinds of problems.
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 is crippled as a result of years bent over in rice fields.
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 as a young girl, 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. You could walk into any rice-growing village in India and it is likely that at least one elderly lady will be crippled in this way. And such issues are not restricted to India.
Approximately one billion people grow rice in south and southeast Asia, more than half of whom are women. The majority suffer pain as a result of uprooting and carrying heavy seedlings and bending to transplant and to weed for days on end. The division of labour across most cultures and societies is such that women carry out most of this work.
Sabarmatee, an Indian researcher looking into the gendered impacts of the division of labour in rice growing in India has documented the hours rice farmers spend working, while also recording the weights carried, variations in environmental and ecological conditions and the physical, nutritional and psychological impacts of this work. “I found that, in conventional rice-growing, a woman will typically spend an average of around 150 hours for transplantation, another 150 hours for weeding, and another 150 hours for the removal of seedlings and transplanting per acre. So altogether, that comes to 450-500 hours per acre, which is 1,000-1,500 hours for 1 hectare. So, it’s a huge amount of time.”
Sabarmatee’s RaCoPA method helps to visualise where women rice growers feel pain and how much.
As part of her research, Sabarmatee has devised a way of recording where women rice-growers feel pain and to what extent. She calls this Rapid Comparative Pain Analysis (RaCoPA) and it involves women drawing lines on a picture to show where they feel pain, in relation to specific rice growing tasks. “They were quite excited about it,” comments Sabarmatee when she describes starting out on her research. “They said: ‘you know, no-one ever asked us about these questions!’” But once she asked the question: “do you feel pain after working in the fields and if so, where?”, she found there was a consistency in the responses.
SRI4Women wondered if there would be a similar response in other countries.
After meeting Dokkeo Sayamoungkhoun, who grows rice near the village of Houaymalay in Khammouan Province, Laos, we asked her whether she felt pain related to her work: “I feel back pain mostly,” she replied, “when bending over and uprooting [seedlings].” We then asked her to discuss this issue with fellow villagers through a rudimentary RaCoPA exercise. The group of six women all agreed that uprooting, transplanting and weeding cause back pain. “I have bad pain in my back, I’m sore in my lower back and in my shoulders for many days” said one contributor. And the others agreed, adding that they particularly endure pain in their neck, especially when carrying seedlings from the nursery to the field and also sore hands and feet because they spend weeks on end working in flooded paddy fields under heavy seasonal rains. Often, that water is also contaminated with chemical fertilisers and parasites, which cause infections.
We have continued to ask rice farmers about the physical pain they typically endure in their work. Boleren Kujur of Gidhpahadi village, Sundargarh district, Orissa, told us that she and her fellow rice farmers have to transplant ‘constantly’. “After transplanting, we feel the pain” she said. And Felicita Topno, of nearby Brahamonomora village added that weeding has a similar effect: “Women are bent over weeding for 8 hours a day.” Hilrey Minz of Dhabadoli village agreed “We bend our backs like monkeys.”
However, Sabarmatee points out that these physical impacts have further consequences which are compounded by the farmers’ working conditions. “At that time, they don’t eat for long periods of time. So that also creates a problem for them. And I found it’s a time when most people are diseased. Like, malaria, typhoid, all sorts of waterborne diseases are there at that time and because of the wet environment, they get serial infections like candidiasis, tinea. So, they are diseased – cold, fever, coughing, those kinds of things.
“Whatever little money they have, they prefer to spend not on the food, but on labour and inputs. And health really takes a lot of money from their pocket – and that’s a time also for the school and college opening. So, they have to buy things for their children to send them to school and college.
“All these things demand hard cash and cash is very much constrained at that time. And whatever little they buy from the market, they give the majority of that to the menfolk, to the children and whatever is left – or not – they eat that.”
Sabarmatee’s findings provide a considered understanding of the socio-economic reality that millions of women rice farmers across the world face. Unfortunately, this is a reality that governments and development agencies have long overlooked.
The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) provides an alternative way of growing rice that can reduce and even entirely eliminate many of these problems.
Rice-growing traditions vary from region to region. However, rice is typically transplanted when seedlings are 30-45 days old in tightly planted clumps and in fields that are permanently flooded. In many areas, chemical fertilisation has become the norm. In contrast, SRI requires the transplanting of very young 8-12-day old seedlings singly and at wide, regular spaces. The younger seedlings adapt more quickly to their new environment and have the space to establish a strong root system that supports a bigger stronger plant.
As a consequence, SRI typically results in higher yields at lower costs: as much as 90% less seed is required which means that women have to carry 90% fewer seedlings to their fields and as they are much younger they weigh a lot less too. Also under ideal SRI conditions fields are drained, which eliminates the effects of water-borne disease.
Through her research Sabarmatee has come to realise that the priorities of development agencies do not always correspond with the priorities of the farmers that they are obliged to represent.
Women carry seedlings that are 30-45 days old. Each bundle ways an average of 1.5 kgs.
“When the performance of a particular technology is discussed,” says Sabarmatee, “people narrow down their focus on yield and cost.” However, she argues, the importance and the impact of SRI goes far beyond the simple economic factors that are usually considered in assessing a technology. The reduced weight of the younger seedlings is literally a reduced burden on women who would typically carry around 24 bundles at a time, that she calculated weigh an average of 1.5 kgs each. Furthermore, the reduction in the number of seedlings transplanted under SRI reduces the amount of time spent bent over and frees up time for the cultivation of other nutritious crops or even time for the family. “It was very interesting,” recounts Sabarmatee, “I was living with a tribal family. I called the landlady ‘sister-in-law’. And in the middle of the day, I saw her nicely combing her hair, nicely sitting on the veranda. And then I said: ‘see? How can you afford to do this at this time of the day – are you not transplanting today?’ And she so happily said that: ‘you know, I have a lot of time today to rest, because I finished my SRI field!’ It means they really do the work in less time and in SRI you don’t have very flooded conditions and you don’t have to be inside the field for a longer time.”
“Under SRI, it has become easier to use the cono-weeder in between the lines,” says Felicita Topno. “We observed that after weeding like that and loosening the soil, more and more panicles would grow and the soil became more fertile and it isn’t such hard work. Now we can weed standing up like a human being.”
In Houaymalay, on the day that women rice farmers first tried transplanting according to the SRI methodology, Dokkeo asked the group: “So, would you say rice-growing is hard work?” “Not if it’s like today!!” replied one of her friends smiling.
The higher yields and lower costs which SRI brings have now been documented across at least 60 countries and their results have appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journal articles. This supports the suggestion that there is a legitimate economic argument for supporting SRI. However, SRI must be supported for other reasons also, reasons which directly relate to the physical well-being of the farmers who grow rice. SRI is a means by which to significantly reduce the occupational health impacts of traditional rice growing on women’s bodies. Women growing rice today do not need to end up like Phumani who has been transplanting since she was less than four feet high.
Phumani and her fellow villagers work with the Center for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development (CIRTD) in Sundargarh district, Orissa, India.
Dokkeo Sayamoungkhoun and her fellow rice growers work with the EU-funded SRI-LMB programme, which is implemented across the Lower Mekong Basin. Sabarmatee runs an SRI and organic farming research and training centre at Sambhav.
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 land. 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!”
Women in India and much of the rest of South Asia are classed as ‘single’ if they are widowed, separated, divorced or over 30 but unmarried. At that age, there is very little hope of marrying and the stigma begins to set in. According to the 2001 census, there are over 40 million single women in India. For educated urbanites, this status might be a lifestyle choice, made with the awareness of what social and family opprobrium this will bring. For the rural poor, the ‘single woman’ status brings with it a customary denial of any land rights, social rejection and reduced earning potential.
“The objective is to give single women some dignity,” says Baideh Kavdi, a member of the Orang tribe, who has also formed a women’s group. “In the past, parents might have taken care of their daughters,” she continues, “but nowadays single women cannot depend on their families to take care of them. We have to be able to live independently.” Sastri agrees: “The problem with our single women is that after separating from their husband, their in-laws don’t give them their land rights, but when they return to their parents’ house then neither the parents nor the brothers will give them land rights either. Another issue is that un-wedded mothers face more problems in getting any such rights. How can such mothers maintain their children?”
Nata Kishor Mishra is a founding member of CIRTD (the Centre for Integrated Rural and Tribal Development), an NGO that promotes the rights of some of the most marginalised people in this area: “We work in the tribal villages and have found that whenever schemes and government facilities arrive, the villagers who are poor and living below the poverty level, often still remain deprived. But among those, when we delve deeper into the problem, further into the analysis, we find a lot of single women are living in the villages and are actually even much more deprived but there is nobody there to speak out for them. In addition the community doesn’t accept them either. If they are living in a house with their brother or sister or parents, the community does not recognise them as part of the family. The community tends to think: ‘No, no, no. She must have done something wrong. That’s why she’s in that state.’”
Collectively giving voice to their claims to rights is a step in the right direction, but without land or work, single women who are reliant on the goodness of relatives or community not to abandon them, have little leverage. However, through the support of CIRTD both Sastri and Baideh have now learned the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and also applied the climate smart method to other crops. “I might be a single woman, but I am also a farmer. I grow vegetables and rice. And I follow the SRI method,” says Sastri. “We now do the work in less time and with less expense. But we get more produce. So we like and prefer SRI.” By collectively leasing land and adopting this high yield, low cost method of farming, the women, together with their colleagues, are ensuring their own food security without having to rely on other community members or family. “We lease the land to grow vegetables, which we sell in the market, says Baideh. “Whatever money we earn is used to provide for our family needs. And we also have money left over. Now, we are able to live with dignity.”
Collectively standing up for themselves has reaped rewards politically as well as in the field. Following a government survey, Sastri’s members won the right to be considered householders, which means they now have the right to ration cards. Next, they intend to push for the all-important land rights that will give them greater security. It is an uphill struggle, but there are laws in India that protect the vulnerable and these single women are raising their voices now so their claims can be heard. “The government pays a Widow’s Pension and a Handicap Pension. In the same way, the government should make a policy for a single women’s pension,” says Baideh. “All single women should get the pension. The government runs different schemes such as Mokudia (Home for Women) and Indra Awas Yojna (for people living below the poverty line) so single women should also benefit from such schemes.”
“When we interact with these women, it’s clear they think: I have done some wrong, that’s why I am in this position,” says Nata Mishra. “But they have not done anything wrong. By bad luck and the process of this society, they have come to this. So, it is a very important thing and I think activists should work more on this to further influence the state government and the national government. There should be several different schemes for them: for land, for accessing other rights and for their livelihood.”
Baideh, Sastri and the women they campaign with have already overcome a great deal and are now, at least, starting to get their voices heard. Meanwhile, it seems, Sastri’s parents are not likely to argue with their daughter any time soon.
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.
It is estimated that over a billion people grow rice across the world, well over half of whom are women. Most are poor and food insecure. And the majority of those doing the transplanting work right now are women. For them, this involves long days bent over under both a punishing heat that reaches around 35ºC, and heavy seasonal rain that will water the crop. Standing or squatting for long periods in water contaminated with chemical fertilisers and various disease vectors, the women are soaked from above and from below. As working conditions go, in the long-term, these have to be among the most hazardous, yet few women are paid for this work. Most are not even recognised by the authorities or outside world as farmers.
Ong Ol is transplanting on a plot in Sarieng Village. She has no health problems, has food all year round and receives fair payment for what she is doing. She is deputy team leader of her local Women-Led Agricultural Service team (WLAS) and has turned her previously difficult situation into a business:
“We sell our labour as a team to local landowners,” she explains. And then she adds: “And while I’m promoting the team’s services, I promote the practice of SRI.” SRI is the System of Rice Intensification and it is becoming increasingly widespread as farmers and rice growers acknowledge the profound benefits it brings. “We spend less on seeds but get higher yields with SRI,” says Ong Ol. “When we grow rice in the traditional way, it uses much more seed but we harvest so much less.”
SRI, which harnesses the growth potential of individual rice plants by transplanting young seedlings singly rather in the traditional clumps, requires up to 90% less seed and also favours non-flooded fields where the aerobic soil conditions encourage faster and stronger growth. It costs less but, counter-intuitively perhaps, it results in higher yields from those stronger plants. And it is knowledge-based, which means farmers can adopt the methodology at no expense. It also favours organic fertilisation. Fewer seedlings mean less time bent over; no flooding eradicates some of the soaking conditions; organic inputs reduce contamination. SRI results not only in cost savings and food security but also in improved health.
SRI was introduced to this area by a local NGO, Srer Khmer. It was also Srer Khmer that came up with the WLAS team idea, as the organisation’s coordinator, Chhun Sophorn explains: “We’ve been introducing SRI in Pursat province for some time but talking with the communities, it became very clear that the local labour shortage was becoming a serious obstacle in our efforts to intensify agriculture here,” he says. “More and more people are migrating away from rural areas and those landowners left behind tend to be older and are abandoning their land because they simply can no longer do the work.”
Migration away from rural areas is a growing problem for the agriculture sector. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), there were 244 million international migrants in 2015 and a staggering “763 million internal migrants according to 2013 estimates.“ In Cambodia, migration to the capital Phnom Penh has been rising dramatically over recent decades. A government survey shows that “according to the 2008 Cambodian census, only 30% of residents of Phnom Penh were born there.” And the numbers have been steadily rising. Generally, migration is caused by conflict and natural disasters but the phenomenon is also driven by land degradation, desertification, climate change and inappropriate farming techniques according to FAO, “undermining farmers’ productivity and resilience.”
Srer Khmer’s WLAS initiative is a way to adapt to the phenomenon of such large-scale migration and ensure that sufficient food is produced both for the security of the poor smallholders and the nation as a whole. Since it is primarily the young and the men who migrate to towns and cities, women are left to cope with feeding their families. SRI, being more efficient and physically less demanding than conventional rice growing, meets women’s needs and allows them also to benefit economically. “About 90% of the team members are women,” says Chhun, “and they have structured their groups into various committees and elected leaders, deputy leaders, promoters and so on.”
Ouk Norng is the team leader here in Sarieng village and once she finishes another business call to a local landowner, she confirms how beneficial the WLAS team and the adoption of SRI have been for her family: “Once I started with SRI, I had enough to eat and a surplus to sell. My family is now better off. Before, I could scarcely afford a bicycle. Now I have a motorbike.” But she also says that the women in the team are more confident and have gained knowledge. They “dare” to discuss various issues they would not have talked about before. “We communicate with people from outside the commune,” she says. “For example, when I promote our services, I dare to contact the commune chief and speak with him. There have been a lot of changes for our team members.”
It is certainly true that the women here in Pursat province have been “economically empowered”. But something more is evolving here thanks to these labour teams, something less tangible but just as important. “SRI really is a tool for empowerment,” says Kaneka Keo, Oxfam’s Regional Policy Advisor, “In Cambodia, rural women tend to have a low self-regard but they seem willing to adopt the new technique, give it a go. And when it works, it’s like ‘wow!! I can really do this!’. It really does add confidence.” And hopefully this improved economic situation and a firm sense of self-worth, will prove to be a springboard for these women to pursue greater decision-making and even political roles.
 The system of rice intensification and its impacts on women: Reducing pain, discomfort, and labor in rice farming while enhancing households’ food security, Olivia Vent , Sabarmatee and Norman Uphoff, Women in Agriculture Worldwide: Key issues and practical approaches, Edited by Amber J. Fletcher, Wendee Kubik, 2017 – Routledge