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Training for life in Cambodia


For over 20 years Cambodia was isolated by war. Now, the country's rural areas are rapidly opening up to the outside world, with positive and negative consequences. Greater freedom of movement has expanded sources of income, as rural workers move to cities in search of work. But this exposure to a world beyond their remote communities has also exposed people to HIV/AIDS.

Route 5 is one of the major highways in this expanding region, linking Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam. It serves as a conduit for goods and services into the poor farming communities. It is also a conduit for the spread of HIV. The first case of HIV/AIDS in Cambodia was diagnosed in 1991. By 1999, there were 250 000 reported cases and an estimated growth rate of nearly 4 percent among 15- to 49-year-olds.

When the border with Thailand opened in 1998, all the contributing factors for a rapid spread of the epidemic were already in place in Cambodia: widening socioeconomic divisions, poverty, low levels of education and poor health. "What made matters worse was that no independent fora existed for dialogue with farming communities," says Robert Nugent, an FAO official in Cambodia.


A Farmer Field School in action

Staying alive along Route 5
Recognizing that new ways of spreading understanding about HIV and its transmission were needed, FAO and UNDP began collaborating in 1999 on an innovative project to strengthen the resistance of farming communities to HIV/AIDS: Farmer Life Schools.

The methodology is based on Farmer Field Schools, a highly successful tool for teaching farmers about integrated pest management, which aims to minimize pesticide use. Farmers meet weekly in the field to observe crop lifecycles and see firsthand what is meant by ecological balance. The emphasis is on sustainable production through conserving and encouraging the natural biodiversity of the farmers' fields. The meetings are led by one of the farmers, trained as a facilitator. The central idea of the Farmer Field School method is to utilize the farmers' expertise and knowledge.

Creating farmer-to-farmer networks that work
The Farmer Life School project began in early 2000 with the establishment of a network of about 400 farmer trainers, and with the participation of around 30 000 Farmer Field School alumni. In a Farmer Life School the farmers' understanding of the web of crop life is applied to the human community. "The first thing we needed to find out was whether people were interested in turning ecological analysis into civil society analysis," says Mr Nugent, who serves as the integrated pest management officer for Cambodia. "They were, and the project took off."

Oak Sophan, a farmer trainer from Kampong Chhnang Province

The farmers examine problems that threaten their livelihoods, weigh available options and make decisions about what action they should take. Issues addressed by the Farmer Life Schools are diverse, ranging from poverty, loss of land, health problems related to pesticide use, family planning, alcoholism, domestic violence and children's school attendance to specific health problems such as dengue fever, malaria and HIV/AIDS.

"The usual approach is for government health experts to deliver messages," says Mr Nugent. "The Farmer Life School approach involves groups of people helping themselves, addressing problems in a positive manner, not waiting for help to come to them. It's a reaction to some of the limitations of those traditional systems in reaching all members of poor farming communities and actively engaging them. Here, the farmers are not passive welfare recipients. They're taking action themselves."

Participants are also enthusiastic about the approach. "I like to be a trainer and educate other people," says Oak Sophan, a farmer trainer from Kampong Chhnang Province. "I also like the fact that this is an activity organized 100 percent by farmers and not related to politics or people from outside." The farmers have formed a network along Route 5 to support each other in running the schools.

From rice field ecology to human ecology
Farmer Life Schools link ecology, group organization and student-centred learning through what is called "human ecosystem analysis" (HESA). It involves groups of farmers investigating various threats to their lives -- the same way that they look at pests in their fields. Now farmers along Route 5 are applying their knowledge of integrated pest management and crop ecology to their own households and communities in order to deal with HIV and other vital social issues.

Cambodia was chosen as a pilot site for the project because of its large IPM Farmer Field School network. In addition, the AIDS epidemic was beginning to hit the country's rural areas hard, especially those with mobile urban labourers.

UNDP and FAO have joined forces to fund and facilitate the project with a view to developing an approach that can be used in other areas of Asia and in Africa. "We're bringing trainers from Indonesia, Thailand and the Lao People's Democratic Republic to Cambodia to take a look at how the project works there," says Mr Nugent. "Then they can take ideas back to their countries about how it can be adapted to their particular environments."

20 June 2001

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