When Harry Nesbitt arrived in Phnom Penh in 1988, there was no electricity, very few cars or motorcycles, a handful of foreigners and not enough rice.
That was during the last days of the Vietnamese occupation, when Communist Party officials controlled the economy and civil war along the Thai border hampered the country’s economic growth. Cambodia’s isolation and instability forced it to import 200,000 tons of rice in 1988 for a population that couldn’t grow enough to feed itself.
Stability, a more free economy and better farming techniques helped Cambodia begin exporting rice to Thailand and Vietnam in 1995.
In the late 1980s, the combined dry and wet season rice harvests yielded an average of just 0.5 tons per hectare. Today, farmers can expect 2 tons per hectare each year, with the usually high-yielding dry season harvest averaging 3.1 tons per hectare, Nesbitt said.
The Cambodia-International Rice Research Institute-Australia Project, where Nesbitt has served as project adviser since 1988, played a part in that recovery by researching better varieties of rice seeds and better ways to manage farmland, fertilizer and pesticides. In December, the project’s Australian government funding will end and Nesbitt will return to Australia.
“It has been a different country. It has been an evolving country over that time period,” he said. “But it is nice to know we had some influence.”
Today, Cambodia has improved techniques, more varieties and better pest management techniques, Nesbitt said.
“Farmers are $1.3 billion better off because of the project,” Nesbitt said.
Among the project’s accomplishments were the production of 34 different varieties and the writing of a manual identifying Cambodia’s major rice-growing soils.
Different kinds of soil need specific management techniques, Nesbitt said. For example, some farmlands in Kandal province need to be plowed deeply every five to 10 years to enrich the soil.
The project also sponsored the training of 1,600 Cambodians. At least four Cambodians received PhDs at Australian universities and have returned to work here. Other have been sent abroad for short-term training.
Thursday, the IRRI’s board of directors met in Kandal at the Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute, which has headquartered the Cambodia-IRRI-Australia Project since 1999.
“The board wants to see if all this is having an effect on farmers,” said Dr Ronald Cantrell, IRRI’s director-general.
Agricultural experts from Bangladesh, China, Denmark, the US, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Laos, Brazil and the UK attended this week’s meetings.
Thursday, they met with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who asked IRRI to help get different and better seeds to farmers.
Cantrell said IRRI, which is based in the Philippines, will still offer technical assistance to CARDI.
Nesbitt said CARDI will continue looking into ways to raise rice yields. But it will also research other crops, like fruit trees, maize and soy beans.
With Cambodia’s relatively poor soil, these crops may be easier and more lucrative for farmers, he said.