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.
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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
Srer Khmer is a Cambodian NGO working in Pursat Province in collaboration with Oxfam Cambodia
The project Ong Ol and Ouk Norng are involved with is funded through Oxfam in Cambodia