Training for life in Cambodia
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.
Staying alive along Route
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
"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
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