Nhem Sovannary, a farmer in Takeo province, says she knows the benefits of allowing frogs to live in her rice paddies—the amphibians act as a natural pesticide.
But without any protection, raising frogs is futile, she says.
“My rice field is far from my house so I can’t attend to it very closely. If I raise frogs, they will all be stolen when I’m not around,” Ms. Sovannary said.
“My village does not have rules to prevent frog harvesting like in others,” she added.
Bred in rice fields, frogs eat the insects that feast on rice seedlings, leading to higher rice yields and eliminating the need for costly and often toxic chemicals.
But Ms. Sovannary, instead of letting frogs ward off destructive insects during rice cultivation, hunts them to eat or sell at the start of the rainy season when they are most abundant. Otherwise, someone else would get them first.
Since 1997, the Cambodia Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC) has been spreading the message to farmers that frogs can play a vital role in preventing insect damage to crops and fertilizing soil.
Despite the NGO’s efforts across 22 provinces and over nearly two decades, the idea has gained only modest traction.
“There are two reasons,” said CEDAC communications officer Him Khortieth. “The first is a lack of awareness among rice farmers about the benefits of having frogs in their fields, and the second is the lack of collaboration from local authorities.”
Soum Phasothseuth, the chief of Taphem commune, where Ms. Sovannary’s farm is located, says he has imposed rules on frog harvesting—resulting in a 50 percent drop in the practice—but has no power to deal with those who ignore him.
“There should be a clear measure to punish people, otherwise the future will be the same,” he said.
Yang Saing Koma, CEDAC president, said that ideally he would like to see legislation introduced to prohibit frog harvesting during the early rainy season, but education at a local level was a more pragmatic place to start.
“I think this is one of their [commune chiefs] responsibilities, to educate the citizens in their own communes,” he said.
The widespread use of chemical pesticides on rice fields also threatens the country’s native frogs, he added.
“We use [pesticides] a lot and they’re not good for the frogs because they are very sensitive to the chemicals,” Mr. Saing Koma said. “If you spray or use chemicals it reduces the life span of the frogs.”
Pen Vuth, deputy director general of the Agriculture Ministry’s agriculture department, said he also wanted to promote the practice of raising frogs in rice fields, but did not have the means to train farmers.
Ros Mao, a rice farmer in Takeo province’s Popel commune, is proof that raising frogs can lead to big payoffs.
Since he began the practice in 2006, his yields have nearly doubled from 3 tons to 5.5 tons per hectare. He can also sell the frogs for 8,000 riel, about $2, per kilogram after each harvest.
Mr. Mao said it only became possible after the commune chief, concerned about the frogs’ survival, banned villagers from collecting frogs during the rainy season.
“[Before] people would come at night with their equipment to catch the frogs,” he said.
“At night I had to get up four to five times to check on my paddy because I was afraid the people would step on my rice seedlings.”
However, the lack of regulations is only one side of the coin. Raising frogs can be costly and time-consuming.
Mr. Mao made an initial investment of 100,000 riel, about $25, in poles and netting to keep the frogs in his paddies and even created an artificial pond for them. He estimates that in his commune only 30 percent of farmers are raising frogs.
“They are not very interested in it, and they have a habit of sticking to what they traditionally do,” he said.
“Habits are hard to change.”