As Cambodia emerges from the shadows of a destructive dictatorship, building an empowered citizenry is vital to its future as a progressive and democratic society. Food security, market access, and asset creation are basic concerns in this process of empowerment. In a country where 80 percent of the population is in the rural areas and 66 percent depends on rice farming, it is in the rice farming communities where the most important changes must take place.
Agronomist YANG SAING KOMA is at the center of these changes. The son of a teacher-farmer in Cambodia’s Takeo province, KOMA was old enough to experience the terrible dislocations under the Khmer Rouge regime when his family was forced to leave their province for Phnom Penh. He was fortunate, however, after the regime’s fall, to go on scholarship to Germany where he specialized in agriculture and earned a doctorate at the University of Leipzig in 1995. Returning to Cambodia, he worked for foreign development organizations but knew that he had to find a way to be free to pursue his own priorities; he firmly believed that “Cambodians need to take responsibility for their own destiny.”
Championing sustainable agriculture, KOMA founded in 1997 the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), with a team of seven and the help of a French non-government organization. Its early years were difficult as KOMA struggled to make CEDAC an independent, self-sustaining organization, but his single-minded determination paid off. Today, fifteen years later, CEDAC has become the largest agricultural and rural development NGO in Cambodia.
The linchpin of CEDAC’s success was its introduction of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), an ecologically sustainable approach to rice production. SRI is based on a simple system of plant, water, and soil management, and is suitable to Cambodia’s dominant pattern of smallholder farms. KOMA introduced SRI in 2000 to twenty-eight reluctant farmers; since then, he has painstakingly promoted SRI so that it gradually spread to more than 100,000 rice farmers, registering a 61 percent increase in rice yields, even as it decreased the amount of seeds and chemical fertilizers used while increasing the use of organic fertilizers by 85 percent. In 2005, the Cambodian government officially endorsed SRI as a rice production strategy. Today, CEDAC is supporting 140,000 farmer families in twenty-one provinces. Between 2002 and 2010, Cambodia’s rice production rose from 3.82 million tons to 7.97 million tons, and CEDAC’s work has been credited as the major factor in this increase.
Recognizing the need for rice farmers to share knowledge among themselves, CEDAC established in 2003 the Farmer and Nature Net (FNN), an independent network of 1,402 farmer associations with around 40,000 members in all. Calling this a “mind net,” KOMA organized FNN to promote sustainable agricultural practices, women engagement in agriculture, and marketing and savings cooperatives. Today, the associations under the FNN have been able to mobilize savings of more than US$8 million, with an average monthly increase of 5 percent.
In 2008, KOMA initiated CEDAC Enterprise for Development (CESDE), subsequently renamed Sahakreas CEDAC (SKC), a social enterprise that addresses predatory market conditions by linking farmers directly to the market. By selling only organic products, KOMA explains, “SKC also links the responsible farmer to the responsible consumer.” To date, CESDE runs a chain of thirteen shops that sell only locally produced, organic agricultural products. It is supporting over 5,000 farmers in eight provinces and has already begun to export organic rice.
All this has been accomplished through a “bottom-up” approach that does not impose a pre-set formula but allows farmers to discover by themselves a better way of doing things. “The challenge,” KOMA says, “lies in building people. We have to believe in ourselves, we have to believe in our ideas.” Asked what this means for Cambodia, he avers: “Everything is interrelated. A simple thing can have a lot of influence on the system. If more people grow, society will grow.”
In electing YANG SAING KOMA to receive the 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his creative fusion of practical science and collective will, that has inspired and enabled vast numbers of farmers in Cambodia to become more empowered and productive contributors to their country’s economic growth.
First, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for selecting me to be one of the 2012 awardees. It is a great honor for me, for CEDAC, our cooperating farmers, as well as for our national and international partners who have worked with us for the empowerment of small farmers. I consider this award as recognition of our collective achievements in working for the improvement of the livelihood of small farmers during these past fifteen years.
In August 1997 I set up CEDAC as a small NGO with seven people and initial support from a French NGO called GRET. We are now the leading Cambodian NGO which works for the improvement of the livelihood of more than 100,000 farmer families. The progress in livelihood has been especially due to increasing rice production and income using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) and developing cooperation among farmers in collectively saving for mutual help.
SRI is an innovative approach in sustainable rice intensification which focuses on improving the farmer’s practices in seed, plant, soil and water management. It was developed in Madagascar by the priest Henri de Laulanie in the 1980s. I introduced SRI to Cambodian farmers in 2000, with only twenty-eight experimenting farmers. Now, SRI is considered by our national government and other partners as an important solution to poverty among small rice farmers. There are now around 200,000 SRI farmers in Cambodia.
So far, there is a generally accepted belief that rice farmers can only increase rice yields by relying on the use of external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and high-yielding varieties. This has contributed to creating an attitude of dependency and has developed into a vicious cycle of poverty among rice farmers. With SRI we are able to prove that farmers can increase their rice productivity from 50 to 150 percent by using less or no external inputs, especially imported fertilizers, pesticides and external seeds. This is possible as farmers understand more about the huge natural potential of rice plants to produce higher yields; they have also developed the creative capacity to tap the natural potential of rice plants by gradually developing their knowledge, skills and practices in effective use of existing local resources, such as local varieties, local soil and local water resources.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award is not only a recognition for our past achievements. It is also an important encouragement for me and my colleagues to reinforce and expand our assistance to small farmers. For the next ten years, we will focus on assisting subsistence rice farmers in Cambodia to become commercial organic farm entrepreneurs, producing healthy food to feed society. We will also support them in working together to invest in cooperative rice mills run by the gasifier system. I consider this work as an important contribution to ensure long-term food, income and energy security for our rice farmers