By Laura Sheahen, CRS Communications Officer
After a flash flood overwhelmed the motorcycle-driven “tuk tuk” carriage I was riding in last week, I faced the unappetizing prospect of slogging through foot-high water to my apartment, or waiting the storm out on a sidewalk. In the city where I live–Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh–heavy downpours are common during the rainy season. What was unexpected was just how much rain we’ve been getting lately. There have been monsoon-level rains several times a day, and this in October, when the rain is supposed to be tapering off. There had been so much rain earlier in the day that I thought I’d be fine while I ran my errand.
The water level on the side street where I stood wasn’t going down and the hard rain wasn’t letting up. So I sloshed the four blocks home, watching plastic bags and fruit rinds float by me. At home, I peeled off my soggy and disturbingly gray-looking socks, wishing I’d been able to gauge the weather better.
Farmers all over Asia are facing the same dilemma. Patterns they used to see—for rain, for drought, for windstorms—aren’t always reliable any more. And the stakes are the highest: if they can’t grow food, their own families and the people they sell to could go hungry.
But farmers can adapt to some of the changes. Sharing that knowledge is the goal of a conference being held in Cambodia this week. Over 200 farmers from 13 Asian countries—including Mongolia, Pakistan, and China—have gathered for the meeting, which was organised by Caritas.
The conference takes farmers out to the field to talk about the best growing methods. The men and women share advice about irrigation, seeds, and battling pests.
The conference encourages organic farming methods, telling growers about problems that can occur with chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
At a learning event today in Phnom Penh, farmers went to an outdoor exhibition space to see produce brought from thousands of miles away and learn how it was grown. They walk down a small avenue of stalls heaped with gourds, onions, cucumbers and more.
At the Caritas Mongolia stall, a staffer explains how to use natural methods to grow seabuckthorn, an orange berry-like fruit. Their pamphlets explain how to layer manure and use organic pesticides to improve yields.
Nearby, Caritas Pakistan staff are also talking pesticides, showing me bags of neem leaves they grind with other types of leaves to make natural bug repellent.
A staff member of Srer Khmer, a group that helps Cambodian farmers grow more food, says that cashew growers used to spray their plants with three different kinds of pesticide. “It’s not good for our health,” he says.
In the conference hall, Gabriel Baroi of Caritas Asia succinctly sums up the impact of climate change on farmers. “Rainfall patterns are changing every year,” he says. “Indigenous knowledge is sometimes no longer applicable.”
A panel of farmers from different countries lists the main challenges they face. Maria Michael, a farmer from Pakistan, mentions outbreaks of new pests she’s seen. Another farmer says he’s planting more trees to protect his vegetable garden, as barriers for flooding.
Hean Van Han of Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries talks about some manmade problems that can be avoided, like slash and burn methods, clear cutting, and soil erosion due to deforestation. He also says that changing weather patterns mean farmers may have to change some traditional habits, such as when to transplant rice seedlings. “This land is from our ancestors,” he says. “If we misuse it, we’ll damage the fertility of the land.”
The crowd of 200 listens with laserlike focus as Van Han shows a slide of a yellow, wormlike pest plaguing Cambodia, and another of beetle-like insects swarming over a rice plant. These are the enemy, but if farmers use the wrong methods to get rid of them, they could cause themselves even more problems.
Speaking of metals like arsenic and mercury, Van Han shows a map of Cambodia with trouble spots in red and warns against using certain chemicals. “The heavy metals seep into the water underground,” he points out.
The weeklong conference gives Asian farmers a chance to grow in knowledge–and to realize they are not alone in their struggle against everything from beetles to the elements. “Climate change impacts the entire region,” says Kim Rattana of Caritas Cambodia, speaking for all the far-flung nations gathered here. “We have to work together to mitigate the impact.”
(Catholic Relief Services is a Caritas member based in the US and was one of the sponsors of the Southeast Asian Farmers’ (SAFaR) Conference 2010)