BEARING THE BRUNT:
Cambodian Farmers Amidst Climate Change
Cambodia is among the top rice-producing countries in the world, producing 8M metric tons per year. This is not surprising as the main livelihood of the country’s 15 M population is farming. At least 80% of its vast areas for cultivation are devoted to rice farming. As an economic driver, agriculture contributes significantly to the country’s Gross Domestic Product or GDP, at close to 30% per annum.
However, food security remains a great concern for the country as it continues to import rice from other countries. Rice production remains primarily at subsistence level and more often than not, yields are insufficient to meet household and market requirements. Several factors are attributed to this, among them, climate change. Although the country’s contribution to global greenhouse emissions is deemed negligible, it is among the countries identified as most vulnerable to climate change. This is owing to its geographical location, climate, topography, and social and economic conditions.
Agricultural ecosystems and production systems are among the identified areas of concern with respect to climate variability. Cambodia’s rice farms are not exempted to the effects of climate change.
Ricelands and cultivated varieties are either rainfed-lowlands (86%), rained uplands (2%), floating/deepwater (4%) or recession/irrigated dry season (8%). Such are the landscape that form part of Prey Veng, Takeo, Kampong Thom and Battambang provinces’ topography. Their common experiences exemplify and represent the overall challenges that climate change presents to Cambodia.
Vulnerability studies show that the four provinces are among the 19 provinces of Cambodia deemed highly vulnerable to climate change with an average of 45% vulnerability. Cambodia’s vulnerability stems more from its low adaptive capacity than its exposure to hazards, except for provinces near the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake. The four provinces are near or directly connected to the two aquatic ecosystems, thus their vulnerabilities are amplified further with their exposure to hazards like flooding, extreme events, drought, and infestation.
Such exposure to hazards cause the provinces at least 70% crop losses most notably on rice crops, thus adversely affecting the population. Crops are planted mostly during the dry season. The average yield from crops planted during the dry season is 4 tons/ha yield, whereas for crops planted during the wet season, the average yield is 3 tons/ha.
The frequent incidence of flooding, drought, and pest infestation in recent years have caused the occurrence of seasonal food shortage even among farmers. The situation is seen to even worsen as temperatures have been observed to be increasing in the four provinces. Projections until the year 2050 show at least a 1.0 oC increase in temperature. According to research, a 1.0 oC increase in temperature during the dry season will cause at least 10% yield reduction.
Wet season yields are also seen to be affected in the four provinces as increases in mean monthly rainfall are already being observed and are projected to continue until 2050. An average of 1,300 mm mean monthly rainfall is seen to be experienced in the years to come until 2050 across the four provinces. At the national level, these events will affect targets of rice sufficiency and food security.
TRADITIONAL VERSUS MODERN SEED VARIETIES
The national government aims to be able to export 1 M metric tons of rice by 2015. Hence, it is aggressively promoting the use of modern rice varieties. These varieties are high-yielding, but whose seeds are mostly good for only one cropping season.
A research finding from a sampling of 392 respondents from 24 communes in the four provinces shows that only 48% are still using traditional varieties as opposed to the 52% who prefer the modern varieties with Battambang Province having the most respondents with such preference. This shows that, although traditional varieties are still available, genetic erosion of traditional rice varieties is very much a reality in the country.
Initial results of an on-going survey on Plant Genetic Resource on Food and Agriculture (PGRFA) in Cambodia show that at least 1,200 traditional varieties are in ex situ conservation. In addition to this, more than 700 traditional varieties were reintroduced during the 1970s in response to a food crisis. However, farmers know only of the existence of around 80 varieties and are utilizing only 32.
Overall, the situations in the four provinces provide an overview of the general condition of across Cambodia. The situation brought about by climate change is both a challenge and an opportunity for Cambodia to address issues on food security, agriculture, poverty, and farmers’ welfare among others.
The vision statement of the Cambodia Climate Change Strategic Plan (CCCSP) 2014–2023 states “Cambodia develops towards a green, low-carbon, climate-resilient, equitable, sustainable and knowledge-based society”. This is expounded further in the definition of its strategic objectives that cut across various climate change-related concerns. Although the plans are cross-cutting, it is important to explicitly stipulate issues on require particular interventions:
There should be an inventory and documentation of all the traditional Cambodian crop varieties and plant genetic resources (PGR) in existence. The inventory should be made readily available for farmers’ use. Traditional varieties are more suited as source for climate-specific planting materials than modern varieties. Although high yields may contribute to food availability, they do not contribute much to food security. The current thrust to promote modern commercial varieties as opposed to traditional varieties delimits the options for optimized soil and plant productivity. Modern varieties require intensive chemical inputs that overtime will negatively affect soil fertility, put additional financial burden to farmers, and add to the pollution in the atmosphere and in water systems. Traditional varieties, on the other hand, have long been proven to be more cost effective and environment friendly as these do not require chemical inputs. Their resilience to varying climate conditions have also been tested through time;
Agricultural ecosystems and agrobiodiversity should be included in the critical ecosystems and biodiversity targets identified for climate resiliency interventions. Agricultural ecosystems and agrobiodiversity are important, since Cambodia is an agricultural country, its population mostly farmers, its landscape agricultural, and its economy primarily driven by agricultural production. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) likewise recognizes that conservation of agrobiodiversity to provide specific gene pools for crops is an adaptation mechanism to climate change that contributes to ensuring food security. Cultivation, propagation, and conservation should be focused on varieties of wide genetic bases—characteristics that are present in traditional varieties. The improvement of capacities, knowledge, technologies, and awareness for climate change responses should trickle down to the level of communities. Participatory processes like participatory plant breeding (PPB) should be promoted to farming communities to improve seed selection, conservation, and breeding practices and capabilities from the current practice of simple bulk harvesting and open storage of seeds for every cropping season. Structural and non-structural interventions such as irrigation facilities, seed storage facilities, crop insurance, and community seed banks should also be put in place as mitigating measures. These would require technical, financial, material and policy support from the government and agricultural extension service institutions; and
Collaboration and participation in regional and global climate change processes should include active engagement in discourses for the recognition, protection, and promotion of farmers’ rights and seed policies for the benefit of agricultural communities. That includes the inherent rights of farmers on the seed varieties that they have conserved and developed throughout the course of human history. The promulgation of the CCCSP 2014-2023 is a big step in the institutionalization and mainstreaming of climate change adaptation and mitigation issues. It is the desire of farmers that not only will agriculture, agrobiodiversity, and farmers’ rights form part of national and global discourses, but more importantly, for these to be at the fore of direct interventions.
1. Report: Farm conservation and sustainable use of cereals diversity through participatory plant breeding and securing local seed systems in climate vulnerable provinces of Cambodia. SEARICE. December 2013
[This publication has been produced with the assistance of the International Treaty. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the International Treaty.]