Whilst in Cambodia, you will no doubt be eating rice twice if not three times a day. Cambodian’s are huge lovers of the staple food, eating more rice than anyone else in the world! Even their Khmer phrase “to eat” literally means “to eat rice”. Today rice makes up half of the country’s agricultural GDP, which they started exporting in the late 1990s. They have grown to be one of the top 10 rice exporters in the world, with 62,000 tons being exported last year. However rice production initially struggled as many were forced to eat their rice seeds when the Khmer Rouge caused food shortages across the country. Many traditional varieties of rice were lost, but luckily in the 1980s International Rice Research Institute reintroduced more than 750 varieties back to the country from their seed bank in the Philippines. Agriculture employs about 3 million people across Cambodia, and their traditional rice farming techniques creates the perfect addition to every meal!
Rice is primarily cultivated through traditional techniques in four different ecosystems. Rainfed uplands, rainfed lowlands, irrigated & deepwater provide the environments that farmers need to be able to produce their crop twice in a year. The monsoon provides the main harvest with the seeds being planted at the end of May through to July where the first rains soften the land. This is usually gathered 6 months later in December, although the next crop has already begun it’s life by then. It is typically planted at the end of monsoon in November and grows a lot quicker, being ready to harvest in January or February. Aside from these 2 regular crop cycles there is a less usual form of rice cultivation that occurs in April and May. Some plant floating rice in the flood plains around the Tonle Sap lake, which they have to wait 9 months to harvest.
Fields are ploughed in different ways depending on the ecosystem. In rainfed lowlands the majority of fields are ploughed when they are wet by 2 oxen or buffalo. The soil is ploughed to a depth of 70-100 mm, which potentially needs to be repeated 3-6 weeks later after which the fields are harrowed. Floating rice is usually planted on ploughed fields, but then not cultivated afterwards which can cause a large percentage of the seed to be eaten by animals. Irrigated land is a lot easier to work with and ideally farmers would like to use tractors but their price puts their use out of reach for most farmers.
The planting of rice is all done manually, either by broadcasting or with an incredible amount of patience through transplanting. Transplanting is usually done in a communal fashion with families coming together to support each other and plant their fields as quickly as possible. Seedlings are removed from the fields by hand, bundled up and then stored for a few days before they have to quickly be replanted in tight uniform rows in another field. The reason families have to be quick is because if seedlings are not replanted quickly enough, they risk being destroyed.
Harvesting comes around quickly enough and again the technique is manual, with crops being cut and tied in sheaths. Sheaths will be laid out before being brought to a central area for the next step. Threshing is the process of removing the rice grain and can be done in a number of ways. Some use a board to throw the crop against, others may use animals or vehicles to drive over it in order to release the grain. Finally the grain is ready for its last stages where it will be cleaned, dried and stored. You will probably agree that the manual harvest is incredibly time labor intensive and requires between 40-80 hours per hectare!
Unfortunately climate change is causing incredible stress of the farming in Cambodia. Unseasonable droughts and unpredictable rainfall are increasingly disrupting rice cultivation and forcing Cambodian farmers to search for other work. The Cambodian Ministry of the Environment has previously expressed how the direct impact of climate change is reflected in changes to the natural rainfall pattern, higher temperatures and the rising sea level, which results in flooding or drought. Currently Cambodia is facing a huge amount of widespread flooding which has taken the lives of 24 people and caused chaos for tens of thousands. Communities have been evacuated from affected areas and relief efforts are in place, but looking at this disaster shows how much there needs to be done to prevent these horrendous effects of climate change. We must stand not only with Cambodia but with the world to tackle this today. Even as an individual, it only takes one person to inspire others and create change. Let that person be you!