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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Getting farmers to teach each other

Getting farmers to teach each other

Attempts, mainly by NGOs, to help farmers improve their yields and become more

self sufficient in food have had mixed results in Cambodia. Often the information

has been good but it just never got through because of the way it was explained.

But as Bou Saroeun discovered, one group of NGOs has found the ideal teachers

- the farmers themselves.

IT was easy to spot that Mey Som was a farmer as he sat cross legged on a chair,

his hands and arms lean and sinewy, his skin dark from long days in the sun. What

was not so clear was that he was also a teacher sharing his knowledge with anyone

interested. What has made him a better farmer and an effective teacher is the combination

of his own experience combined with relevant and appropriate additional training.

This has lead the 56-year-old from Trapang Rang village to find ways to radically

improve his yield from rice and vegetables - knowledge he is now keen to share with

others.

Som's training has come from the Farmers Participatory Extension. The program was

set up by several NGOs who realized that the farmers sharing their own techniques

and successes were far better teachers than a foreign agricultural expert standing

up and lecturing groups for hours on end.

Som grows more food than he and his family need but it has not always been that way.

Som shared knowledge and a small amount of technical assistance has moved him from

a barely subsistence life to security.

He said his vegetables and rice crops are so good that his neighbors come to him

for advice.

"I have to follow Ta to get more crops," he said the villagers say to each

other about him.

He is proud of what he has achieved and he said if villagers come to ask him for

a herb such as lemon grass, chili, basil or mint he gives them not only the plant

but also a seed so they can then grow if for themselves.

He said that only a few years ago he could not grow enough rice to support the family,

and now he has a surplus even though his children are grown up and eat more.

Herman Brouwer from Scale Southeast Asian Outreach (SAO), one of the NGO's involved

in the program said that many farmers didn't trust outside experts because they have

no real involvement in the community - they arrive, they speak, they go. He

said the farmers had far more faith in their neighbors who shared and understood

their own problems.

He said they therefore decided to use those attitudes to educate farmers.

The project works by encouraging small groups of farmers to exchange ideas and experiences

at the same time working in new ideas and techniques for the farmers to take back

to their own communities.

Tuy Samrang the senior project officer for Catholic Relief Services said that in

the past farmer education was conducted as a dissemination from the top to the bottom

but now they were aiming to remove the hierarchical aspect and make it an exchange.

He said that the Cambodian people have had the bad habit of waiting for other people

to take the initiative and then following and when everyone is in the same business

like farming they tend to stagnate.

One problem program organizers said is prevalent in farmer education is a legacy

of the communist times.

They said that if the farmers were called to attend a meeting they tended to it quietly

and listened to the speakers, collect a gift if one was offered and then leave. The

idea of participation was completely alien.

The organizers said they have managed to eliminate those problems by keeping groups

small or by farm visits.

Som is an example of how techniques succeed. He now attends program meetings as a

representative from his village. He is enthusiastic about what he has learnt and

taught, and would like to see more people participate.

It is not just land farming that is taught - Ngan Ben, 50, attends a program

to exchange information on small scale aquaculture.

He said that he decided to farm fish because there appeared to be a declining number

of fish in the lakes and rivers.

He said he was happy to share his experiences with the other participants and at

the same time learn more himself.

He said that the idea of a farmer participatory extension is very good because the

farmers are close to each other and knowledge can be exchanged easily.

Meas Pot, 59, the farmer representative from the Romeas Hek district said that his

skills were in fish culture and fish seed production.

But he also grows crops and has developed his own motto: "there is water - there

is fish, there is land - there is vegetables and in the fields we have the rice."

The program has drawn heavily on overseas experience. Last week's meeting - the

biggest so far - was attended by Scott Killough from the International Institute

of Rural Reconstruction in the Philippines.

He said it was important to look at the program as a process not just a "one-way

transfer of information."

He said it was essential that the farmers not only learned and shared techniques

and information but that they were the center of the process. He said they needed

to be involved in technology development, research as well as training.

He added that it was important that the program provided answers in the search for

alternative farming practices and methodologies in an effort to make up for previous

short comings in farmer education.

Dr. Young Sang Koma, another NGO worker said that in the past farmer training had

been limited because of the relative lack of funding as well as qualified and motivated

extension workers.

He said that there were a lot of agriculture development projects which had been

implemented by mainly international NGOs and IOs, but the farmer extension project

seemed to be the most successful so far.

He said that there were strong indications that the information was now starting

to spread.

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