Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Resurrecting rice in Cambodia

I haven't written a book review for quite some time now. That's not because I haven't been reading. On the contrary, there are just too many book demanding my attention. The latest book I completed is about an agriculture project that was started in Cambodia in 1986 by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which is based in Los Banos, Philippines. I first came across IRRI and its work through my Development Economics textbook while in University. Here, I am being re-acquainted with its work in Cambodia.

The political upheavals in the last 30 years has reduced the nation of Cambodia to one of the poorest countries in the world. Its people also suffered greatly under the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, glimpses of which can be seen through the movie, "The Killing Fields", which stars Sam Waterston and Dr Haing Nor. The atrocities of the Pol Pot regime on its own people is shown in gut-wrenching scenes, particularly the thousands of buried skulls that were uncovered - hinting at the vast killings that occured during that time. It is in this context that the IRRI was invited by the re-constituted government of the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea to repair and rehabilitate its rural economy - particularly of rice production.

In the "The Burning of the Rice - a Cambodian Success Story", Donald Puckridge recounts the story of how the IRRI, through the Cambodia-IRRI-Australia project (CIAP), helped rural rice farmers improve their rice production methods and consequently increased their yields significantly through research, innovation within the local context, and more importantly, through training the locals so that they can become self-sufficient and self-supporting in the long run.

This book is filled with personal anecdotes of the experiences of the mainly Australian and Indian expatriate staff, as well as the locals who worked closely with them through the almost 16 years of the CIAP's existence. It is a story filled with the realities of subsistence farming, of the need to break the cycle of poverty, and how research into new farming methods and rice varieties, as well as training made the difference. After reading this book, I have renewed respect for the Australians, who were the ones on the ground to do the training and drive the changes. This was in spite of the dangers involved in living in a Cambodia that continued to be rocked by violence and political upheaval, such as the coup carried out by the Hun Sen government in 1997 (after they lost the elections to FUNCIPEC). Puckridge also dwells into social and historical issues of the Cambodian peoples today, and how they have been affected by the times they spent under the repressive regimes of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. There is a story behind the picture on the book cover.

For a long time, news reports on Cambodia, and indeed, Vietnam, focused on the political conflicts, humans rights and maneuverings that did not find favour with the western world, which was largely represented by the US. The one dimensional perception has hidden many of the social and economic work that was going on to resurrect the Cambodian people's livelihood. In this respect, Australia not only contributed manpower and expertise, they also gave money to fund the work of CIAP, and through it, enabled many Cambodian farmers to improve their agricultural endeavors and its research expertise.

I now understand Cambodia a bit better and look forward to the day that I can visit the country as an observer to witness the changes that has occurred over the last 20 years - changes brought about not so much by the political situation, but more through the economic and social resilience of its peoples.

For more, see:
The Yielding Fields
AusAID and Cambodia
International Rice Research Institute