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For Cambodian farmers, poverty can be just one tragic accident away

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Farmers transplanting rice in Pursat province, Cambodia. Photo by Sokunthea Chor/Oxfam America.
Farmers transplanting rice in Pursat province, Cambodia. Photo by Sokunthea Chor/Oxfam America.

A recent trip around the magnificent Tonle Sap lake reminded me how close to extreme poverty so many farming families can be, needing only a small nudge in the wrong direction to change their lives in ways that can take them decades to recover.

The reminder came while visiting Yem Dieb and Say Chhoun in Pursat, a province south of the lake. The wife and husband had learned how to grow rice using the System of Rice intensification thanks to the work of our partner Srer Khmer, which has trained nearly a thousand farmers in SRI over the last two years in Pursat.

Say Chhoun is a humble man but he is obviously proud of his rice-growing accomplishments over the last couple of years, as he took one small field producing one bag of rice a year to six, first by doubling his yield, then learning to produce three crops in a year instead of just one. It is still not enough to feed his entire family, which includes nine children, so Chhoun is also renting fields from other farmers to try to piece together enough land to grow the rice his family needs to survive.

Chhoun made a point of saying that things did not use to be like this for the family: he had a nicer house and his own land, over on the other side of town. But a tragic accident 25 years ago changed everything: “People had weapons in every home in this area,” Chhoun says, trying to explain a bizarre—and dangerous– superstitious practice common in those days, when years of factional fighting meant so many people were armed.  “One day, it had been raining a lot and it was really windy, and people were firing into the air to stop the rain. My wife got hit by a bullet so I had to sell the land to pay for her medical care.”

People in Say Chhoun's village regard him as the most innovative farmers in the area. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.
People in Say Chhoun's village regard him as the most innovative farmer in the area. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.

Dieb still carries that bullet in her back today, but she did recover. Chhoun says this setback was followed by several years providing expensive care for his sick mother before she passed away. Chhoun and Dieb are still recovering from these consecutive health/financial disasters, and they are not alone. Consecutive shocks such as these are part of the reason why so many poor farmers can’t break out of the cycle of poverty due to successive droughts, floods, wars or small-scale conflicts, earthquakes, and other disasters. There’s usually no government program to extend affordable health care or any insurance for the world’s poorest farmers.

Yem Dieb almost lost her life in an accidental shooting 25 years ago. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.
Yem Dieb almost lost her life in an accidental shooting 25 years ago. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.

How can we help poor farmers bounce back from these shocks? SRI is one tactic: Growing rice with stronger roots makes it more resistant to pests, or even heavy rains, high winds, and other weather events that can flatten a rice field. In Ethiopia, Oxfam is helping farmers get a new kind of crop insurance, so if a dry year means no harvest, farmers can get compensation in return for paying an insurance premium with their own labor instead of cash.  But with so many poor people living in rural areas of the world and relying on agriculture for a living, there needs to be a serious global shift by governments to devote significant resources designed to help poor farmers survive multiple, consecutive shocks, withstand weather-related disasters due to climate change, and ensure the poorest farmers can earn a decent living and help grow the food we all need.

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