When Worlds Collide #32: Cultivating the Mind for Greener Harvests

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 9 September 2012

Dr Yang Saing Koma, visionary behind Cambodia’s rice farming revolution – photo courtesy Cornell University SRI website

Yang Saing Koma is lean, soft spoken and modest – not your typical image of a revolutionary. But for 15 years, the Cambodian agronomist has driven a grassroots revolution that is changing farming and livelihoods in one of the least developed countries in Asia.

A champion of farmer-led innovation in sustainable agriculture, Koma founded the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC) in 1997. Today, it is the largest agricultural and rural development organisation in Cambodia, supporting 140,000 farmer families in 21 provinces.

However, he isn’t just another western educated Asian expert returning home to shake things up. Yes, his doctorate from the University of Leipzig and work experience with international development agencies helped open doors. But Koma is a rare systemic thinker who sees the bigger picture, has the right temperament to build alliances – and plenty of patience to make haste slowly.

Indeed, doing things “slowly, slowly” is his signature style.

Last week in Manila, the rest of the world finally took note of this extraordinary man. He was felicitated as one of this year’s six recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards — the Asian Nobel Prize.

Koma, 46, was recognized for “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.” (Read full citations for all six awardees)

Visionary Farming

Agriculture remains the most important sector in the Cambodian economy – it supports six out of ten working people, and accounts for a third of all economic output.

And it’s a rice country: two thirds of the Southeast Asia nation’s 14 million people grow rice for their own food and as a living. Koma has changed their centuries old farming practices by introducing an ecologically sustainable approach called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI).

Before we proceed, I must declare that I’ve never met Koma in person – but feel as if I have. He was a leading figure in a short documentary film series that I scripted and produced in 2010-11 for PROLINNOVA, a global learning network that promotes local innovation led by small-scale farmers trying out sustainable farming. (www.prolinnova.net)

CEDAC started PROLINNOVA in Cambodia in 2004, and Koma remains its National Coordinator. In August 2010, my colleague Manori Wijesekera spent a few days travelling around in Cambodia, on location filming with Koma and team. I have experienced it vicariously via video.

Her 40 minute interview with Koma revealed his passion, compassion and pragmatism. He had none of the intellectual arrogance towards farmers that most agro researchers display. He wasn’t blurting out insincere sound bites either. As I watched, I realised he is clearly engaged in visionary farming. That became our title for the Cambodia film in the 4-part series.

His philosophy is summed up when he says, emphatically: “We see the farmer as a human being. They have the capacity. They have the brain, the mind (and) the creativity!”

Such an attitude makes him ideally suited to support small farmers as innovators. To learn from and with them, rather than treat them as mere recipients of expert knowledge or governmental instructions.

PROLINNOVA partners are dedicated to tapping the ingenuity and grassroots expertise of small farmers in the developing countries who have mastered the art of resilience and survival against many odds.

For Koma, ecologically sustainable farming is not some romanticised ‘development mantra’ to replace the Green Revolution’s uncritical advocacy of high external inputs to boost yields. In fact, he doesn’t peddle any precise ways of doing organic farming or anything else. Instead, he promotes the spirit of inquiry and critical thinking. Farmers may not have PhDs, he says, but they are the biggest experts in what they do.

At the heart of all farming is the interplay between the natural elements and the farmer’s mind. “As a result (of observing and thinking), you find better ways to use natural resources — soil, water, air and sunlight. At the end, you become organic farmers.”

Koma allows farmers to discover better ways of doing things. “We are not really pushing for organic (farming), but we encourage them, supporting them to make use of their own resources…to increase productivity, lower cost and benefit more in the long run.”

Rice farming with SRI

Koma first read about SRI in a magazine article in 1999. At the time, Cambodia had embarked on a major campaign to boost rice production using improved seed varieties and higher doses of chemical fertilisers and other agrochemicals.

He wasn’t impressed with the results. “They could improve rice production — but the cost was getting higher and soil (fertility) was not really improving. And in some places, the soil was actually degrading.”

SRI, which originated in Madagascar in the 1980s, is based on the principles of ‘ecological farming’ to achieve more yields using less seed and water – but also without damaging the environment.

CEDAC in Cambodia has unleashed a quiet revolution in rice farming

Conventional ways of growing rice use plenty of water: typically some 20 tons of water to produce one kilogram of rice! Much of this is not needed by the rice plant itself, but used to suppress weeds. SRI accomplishes the same by keeping paddy fields moist with leaf mulch. Suddenly, water requirement is more than halved!

Another approach is planting other crops such as beans on paddy fields. This provides green manure, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers.

But the biggest change is in how rice is planted. SRI calls for doing it while rice plants are still very young, which produces more shoots and more rice.

SRI is increasingly practised in the tropics, with each country adapting the principles to suit their local conditions. Koma first experimented with SRI in his own paddy field, and then invited a few neighbouring farmers to see the results – and try it out on their own.

Koma knows the value of demonstration and getting the word out using any and all means – from farmer magazines and TV talk shows to even CDs and websites.

He also believes in taking everyone along. As he recalls: “We got NGOs, farmer organisations and local government bodies together. So we try to have a multi-stakeholder approach – with farmers, local government, research, education and extension people.”

Policy change

Dr Yang Saing Koma with farmers – photo courtesy Friedrich Naumann Foundation Southeast & East Asia

His persistence and patience have paid off. From a few curious and sometimes reluctant farmers, SRI has now spread to more than 100,000 rice farmers across Cambodia. They have increase rice yields by 60% even as they reduced the amount of seeds and chemical fertilisers used.

Between 2002 and 2010, Cambodia’s rice production rose from 3.82 million tons to 7.97 million tons. CEDAC’s work has been credited as a major factor in this increase. The Cambodian government officially endorsed SRI as a rice production strategy in 2005.

The Magsaysay Award will no doubt strengthen Koma’s stature, but he still sees plenty of unfinished business. Long term change, he knows, results only from correct education and training.

As he said in the 2010 interview: “We want to reform the education, particularly in agriculture. We want our agriculture graduates to respect our farmers…and respect local knowledge and wisdom. We want them to have the capacity, skill and knowledge to support farmers to become farmer-researchers…To become leaders in rural development!”

Revolutions in the mind are the hardest to achieve, but then Yang Saing Koma already knows this. This maverick will keep changing one mind at a time in his own way – slowly, slowly…

Read full text of 2010 interview at: http://tiny.cc/KomaInt

Watch PROLINNOVA Global Film, Reaping Bright Ideas, which features Yang Saing Koma:

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Communicating Development, Documentary films, Environment, Environmental management, Innovation, Sustainable Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When Worlds Collide #32: Cultivating the Mind for Greener Harvests

  1. Yuvjh a.k.a. Pugo says:

    Wonderful piece on Dr. Koma! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Pingback: When Worlds Collide #59: Seeking Clarity in Murky Waters | When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene

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