FAO in Cambodia


Indigenous farmers improve farming with micro-watershed management in Ratanakiri, Northeast of Cambodia

Mr Lok Moeun, second deputy chief of Ou Khampar Community Protected Area (CPA).

Hidden behind hills of red soil Ta Veaeng Leu commune, Ratanakiri (Cambodia) a small community consisting of 126 families of the Brao ethnic minority is struggling to adapt to the increasing pressures of climate change and deforestation. In response, the LNP through a bottom-up approach has identified cultural and eco-system sensitive sustainable approaches to support the community to adapt to climate change and increase its productivity, while integrating traditional food security providing strategies.

Brao indigenous communities live far removed from the globalized world. Mostly they rely on their rich local botanical knowledge to support self-sufficient livelihoods through collecting edible plants from the forest and cultivating traditional rainfed rice called chamkar. Chamkar is a fascinating rice system, intercropping around 20 different crops with up to 5 different varieties of rainfed upland rice; it both harbors high genetic diversity and contributes strongly to the dietary diversity and food security of indigenous communities. Among other crops it involves intercropping with black sesame, which is usually done by women and sold in local markets as an organic product. Chamkar is one of the core institutions in those indigenous societies and plays a crucial role in providing food security to indigenous because their resilience is based on the principles of sharing maintained by ceremonies organized around Chamkar system. 

However both the Chamkar system and the forest are at risk. Since 2013, available lands and forests for a once-sustainable shifting cultivation system have shrunk as economic land concession restrictions around the village have reduced communal land availability. As a consequence farmers are facing decreasing soil fertility, coupled with a lack of skills to maintain soil health.

Further, frequent drought and growing populations increase pressure on dwindling resources. Rather than rely on their own decreasing food crop production, villagers are turning to settled cultivation of cashew trees to both demarcate land and generate income. However, dependency on cashew production poses a number of risk to farmers as market prices fluctuate widely, pests impact cashew monocropping productivity, and an overall lack of management skills results in low yield from their plantations. Exacerbating these challenges, farmers are increasingly affected by climate change with drought, increasing heat and delayed rain impacting yields in their recently adopted paddy rice farms.

Given this situation, the GEF supported - Life and Nature project (LNP) together with the Pang Kit community, the Provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (PDAFF), Ministry of Environment (MoE) and Provincial Department of Women Affairs (PDoWA) developed a strategy to improve sustainable resource use by integrating micro-watershed management with climate smart agricultural practices to improve productivity while also building resilience to variable rainfall patterns and soil degradation.  The goal of the interventions is for Pang Kit villagers to increase their agricultural production while protecting and conserving their environment and its natural resources.

Increased agriculture productivity through in-stream structures and Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) rice farming methods to maintain soil fertility while reducing water demand

Residents of Pang Kit have always accessed water from the Ou Kamphar and Ou Ta Nhoy natural streams, both tributaries of the Sesan River. The streams provide fish and bamboo shoots for the villages’ food and tools and materials for construction. However, increasing droughts and decreasing rainfall in the past 10 years have defied villagers’ generations-old knowledge of weather patterns and in recently both streams have begun to frequently dry up.

Confronted with these changing weather patterns, the community with limited technical experience and knowledge on how to use water efficiently, collect rainfall or plan a drought response, is highly vulnerable. Additionally, farmers also lack access to agricultural inputs and farming technologies such as water pumps, mechanical plows and quality rice seeds.

In response, the LNP supported the construction of two stone cascading structures to slow the water flow and improve the groundwater recharge in Pang Kit village in the Ou Ta Nhoy natural stream. The construction of these structures were completed in March 2019.

Mr Chouy Mom, a farmer and member of Farmer Field School (FFS) in Pang Kit village who plants paddy rice near the new check dam, said bamboos along Ou Ta Nhoy stream were lush and thriving in March this year, when they’d usually wither. From time to time, he stops fellow residents from overharvesting bamboos along this stream, warning them that the stalks prevent flash floods, soil erosion and bank collapse.

Like other villagers in Pang Kit, Mr. Mom, practices both chamkar and paddy rice cultivation. In chamkar rice cultivation, farmers use dibble techniques to plant rice, starting from the beginning of the wet season. Farmers also plant other crops in their chamkar rice fields, such as banana, sesame, papaya, pumpkin, taro, bottle gourd, sweet potatoes, corn, cucumber and soybean. 

“Since this check dam was built, there is water until January, whereas previously the stream would dry up by November,” Mr. Mom said. In order to maximize use of water from the check dam farmers formed a group and each member contributed to the  LNP supported water pumping machine.

Following the construction of the check dam, Mr Mom successfully irrigated the water from Ta Nhoy stream into his paddy rice field. Despite delayed in rainfall at the start of wet season in 2019, he was able to produce a satisfactory yield.

In addition, Mr Mom also used the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) techniques he learned in FFS on his own field, and applied several CSA methods such as land leveling, dyke construction, young seeding transplanting, and soil improvement strategies like azolla mulching to increase production. To support natural pest control he applied non-chemical weed management practices such as rotary weeding and learnt to produce homemade botanical pesticides as well as organic fertilizer. His yield increased from average 1.5 t/ha to 2.5t/ha.

 “I am happy with the rice cultivation techniques that project provided because it does not only increase the yield of rice production but also no needs to clear and burn the forest. Therefore, it is contributing to protecting the forest and it can adapt to climate change.”

Additional LNP FFS trainings for locations where rice fields were far from streams a check dams focused on specific agroforestry interventions to improve localised water holding capacities and improve soil health. Through integrating principles from the UNESO-awarded ‘Subak’ system (of leaving mature trees standing within rice paddy landscapes), farmers were able achieve 1t/ha yield increases over business-as-usual practices. Further, cool temperatures provided by the shade of the trees is enjoyed by both farmers and livestock which in turn supports the addition of manure for healthier soils in the paddies.

Enable farmers to increase resilience to climate change with applying botanical local knowledge and genetic resources

With less rainfall and changing weather patterns, farmers also benefited from lessons in seed selection, climate resilient seed varieties, conservation and seed varietal identification in order to improve the resiliency of their crops. Among the 40 traditional rice varieties identified by farmers,  a number of climate resilient “champion rice varieties” were selected to be trialed. Inspired by FFS training on seed conservation, FFS members added simple additions to their traditional storage houses such as airtight containers and clay walls. Villagers now have a repository of more than eight varieties of quality and resistant rice seed for both Chamkar and paddy rice fields.

Holistic approach to indigenous women’s empowerment within Watershed Management Committee and Women’s Producer Group

As natural resources become more scarce, the women who collect wild vegetables and fruits for consumption have to travel deeper into the forest to find these resources, taking additional time and sometimes even requiring them to live inside the forest.

Women’s participation in the Watershed Management Committee (WSMC) gives them a space to voice their concerns and needs within the community.  In addition, the LNP collaborates with PDoWA to empower women and build social collective actions through establishment of four Women’s Producer Groups (WPGs).

Indigenous women in Ratanakiri suffer from ethnic and gender biases, both because they are women and because they are indigenous, as such they tend to be portrayed as un-educated and backward and their broad knowledge, connection with nature and opinions are often not valued.

To help address these persistent biases, saving groups were established and support was provided though the LNP project to increased WPG’s status and their revolving funds for business and household needs. Within these groups, female farmers were trained in group management, record keeping, business management, CSA practices, planning, and marketing. The savings group pooled about 66 million riels (US$ 16,500) in capital, starting with 17 members in 2017 and now involving 66 women and men.

Four women cohorts developed business plans focusing on black sesame, organic fertilizers and cashew nut production with the purpose of improving their production and collective access to inputs and markets.  Mrs Preun Kham, 39, a farmer and leader of the Saving Group, said she and four other women farmers are going to produce natural fertilizer and botanical pesticide for utilization and sale to other villagers, after learning the process through FFS.

The WPG used savings from the group to invest in a ferry that can shuttle students to school on the other side of the Sesan river free of charge, and give other community members access to public services as well as transport their products to the market. In addition, the management committee in collaboration with other villagers built two wooden bridges for the community.

Other villagers took loans from the group to dig wells that can provide water for growing vegetables and other daily uses.

“Before, we grew vegetables near the stream, but now we can grow them near our homes,” Mrs Kham explained. “Water from the well is also cleaner compared to water from the streams. Usually from March to June, the water in the stream would be contaminated with cattle manures,” she added.

Mrs Preun Kham discussed her important role as agent-of-change, and that she transferred all her knowledge and farming skills to her family members and other famers in the community. Through her leadership role in the WPG and improved knowledge in agricultural techniques, Mrs Kham noticed she had gained more respect from both the community and her husband, who has supported her more with household chores and childcare since she joined the WPG.

"Before, my husband never wanted me to join any meeting, but now he is fine with me being active in social activities,” Mrs Kham said. “I can go to any meeting or wherever I want. He used to be very jealous. He would get angry when I go to join meetings. He sometimes beat our children. When I told him that it is not right to do so, he now listens and follows my advice," she said through giggles.

The saving group provides capital for villagers to invest in small businesses, such as the purchasing of a motorbike, for transportation of villagers’ to the health care facility in Ta Veaeng district.  “When one of us get sick, they can also advance the funding from this saving group to pay for the treatment, and return it later. Before this saving group, we do not know who to turn to,” Mrs Kham added.  

Most women in Pang Kit village were shy before joining as members of the WPG, and many would not speak to strangers at all, said Mrs. Kaping Pich, a PDoWA officer of Ta Veaeng District, who is also of Brao ethnicity. This is due to their limited ability to listen, speak and read Khmer language, while having less exposure in interacting with strangers or involvement in other community activities.

The collective action enhanced women’s capacities and self-esteem, and encourages them to take on decision making and leadership roles and addresses discriminatory norms and practices. “There is an improvement of confidence and women’s status in that community,” she said.

Mrs Kaping Pich said she planned to continue assisting the WPG of Pang Kit village despite their remote location. 

“Without the LNP, I would never imagine visiting such a remote area given the lack of resources [to get there],” she said. “I have learned firsthand about the approaches to women’s empowerment at community level from my participation in the LNP, and I wish to continue this work in other communities as well.”

Strengthened forest management capacity

Forest degradation, triggered by unsustainable farming practices and the encroachment of economic land concessions, has also damaged the natural resources that farmers need, including stream and soil quality.

Therefore, the LNP aimed to strengthen and organize forest management committees and improve their ability to patrol forests, regenerate vegetation and install boundary markers of the Ou Khampar  Community Protect Area (CPA), which is located in Cambodia’s one of the largest protected areas, Virachey National Park. This CPA includes the village’s two spirit forests Krak Chranh spirit forest and Phnom Alor spirit forest.

LNP also supported the establishment of the management committees for Krak Chranh spirit forest and Phnom Alor spirit forest. These committees are recognized by the commune chief, ensuring their legitimation to conserve, protect and access to the spirit forest.  

For Broa communities, the spirit forest is crucial as it serves as a burial grounds and is a powerful place. Those who offend the powerful spirits face severe consequences. If villagers lost the CPA, they would also lose access to their spirit forest, said Mr Lok Moeun, second deputy chief of CPA and a member of WSMC.

“Legalizing the management committee of CPA allows us to protect and control the forest areas that are important both to our livelihood and customs, especially having access to the spirit forest,” he said.

Mr Moeun noted that they would suffer both spiritual and physical consequences if they lost the forest, because the grounds absorb rainwater, contribute to groundwater recharge, and reduce the heat that causes streams and rivers to evaporate.

“Our life depends on the forest,” he said. “Forests are a shelter to wild animals. In the forest, we can find rattan, vines and bamboo to make sleeping mats, the barn, house fences and so on. We can also collect malva nuts, resins, and wild animals for food and earn some income.”

“Before LNP, I did not know about the importance of forests in relation to climate change at all. Now I understand the role of trees in protecting us from the impacts of climate change such as soil erosion.”

Since October 2018, the community members supported by LNP have planted a total of 789 bamboo plants along 1,988 meters of Ou Khamphar natural stream, and 611 fruit and neem trees as part of revegetation effort on 13.42 hectares of degraded forest in Ta Veaeng Leu Commune.