tamoung village, Takeo province – So many years have been hard for Teav Chon.
After the Khmer Rouge regime she returned to her village with no money, no land and poor health. Drought and flooding destroyed rice crops, and it was difficult finding food to feed her family.
But now, said 50-year-old Teav Chon, “my life is changed.”
The change is resounding.
Before, Teav Chon never had enough rice seed. Today she has as much seed as she can plant, supplied through a community rice bank set up by HEKS, a Swiss NGO helping farmers improve their agricultural techniques.
“I’ve got a cow, 50 fruit trees, a water pump and rice seed,” said Teav Chon’s neighbor, Long Oeun, another participant in the program. “I’m not worried about a shortage of rice seed.”
The rice seed, fruit trees and animals are not free. Rather, they are a loan that must be repaid. But farmers do not need capital to acquire the products and the interest rates are low—far lower than the rates of local usurers that can cripple families.
The interest payments, paid in the form of rice or livestock, are then put back into the program, boosting the supply of products available to the community.
“I feel that, personally, there is no other way to improve families’ living conditions besides villagers helping each other create rice seed and capital resource,” said Bernard Freymond, the Swiss ambassador to Thailand and Cambodia, who toured a HEKS project site in Takeo this week.
Several NGOs in Cambodia run similar programs, helping the rural poor to help themselves.
“The programs have good results,” said Nyna U, of the UN Development Program’s Carere.
There are currently 80 villages in six provinces, with a total of about 10,000 households, participating in the HEKS programs. Most of the families were in debt before they joined the program. And with living expenses outpacing money made from farming, they had no way to improve their farms and no way to free themselves of the debt.
The total cost of living for the 10,000 households is about 12.8 billion riel ($3.3 million). But their total income is 6.4 billion riel ($1.64 million), leaving a deficit of 6.4 billion riel.
The HEKS programs are designed to slowly chip away at the debt, giving villagers more ways to earn money, supplementing their usual farming income, and giving them a cushion when times are tough.
The rice bank is a simple concept. Farmers borrow rice seed from the bank and repay the loan at harvest time, seven months later, with 20 percent interest. If they borrowed 100 kg, they give back 120 kg.
Farmers who borrow from local usurers, on the other hand, might pay interest rates of 100 percent to 240 percent, HEKS officials said.
All of the interest paid to the rice bank is added to the bank’s stockpile and loaned out in the next planting season. If a farmer defaults on his loan, the group as a whole cannot borrow from the rice bank until the loan is repayed—whether by the farmer or the group.
In 16 Takeo villages, where the program has been operating for several years, the rice bank has ballooned from 73,000 kg to more than 106,000 kg last year.
Takeo Governor Kep Chuktema says the assistance is welcome. Eighty percent of the province’s 800,000 residents are farmers. “The key problem of the poor,” he said, “is the rice fields flooding every year.”
While rice banks do not prevent flooding, they serve as a sort of insurance policy. Whereas a flood or drought might have devastated a farm family, rice banks help them recover quicker.
Other components of the HEKS program are aimed at reducing farmers’ dependence on their rice crops, giving them alternative ways of making money like growing fruit trees to sell fruit at the market and feed their family.
Under the cattle-raising program a household is given a cow free-of-charge, but must pay back two calves in the next 36 months. After that, the cow belongs to the household and the two calves paid to the program are given to other villagers.
Without cattle, “farms are practically at a standstill,” a HEKS report states. “Farming households without draft animals usually hire other farmers’ draft animals for land preparation. Upon harvest, about four to six months later, they pay some 100 kg for the borrowed service. The fee eats deeply into the meager harvest.”
There are similar programs for poultry and pigs.
Six blacksmith shops also started by HEKS in three provinces have produced more than 2,000 farm implements that went to 700 households at a reduced cost. Hundreds more farm tools were repaired in the shops.
It is not HEKS policy to distribute rice and medicine in villages, said Samuel Andres, the agency’s chief of development services for Asia. “We’re providing lessons and materials…so they can change their lives by themselves.”