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The Aussie who helped Cambodia's rice resurgence

The Aussie who helped Cambodia's rice resurgence


Dr Harry Nesbitt is an Australian agricultural scientist whose

Cambodian rice project is the subject of a new book, The Burning of the Rice, by

Don Puckridge, to be published this month. Jim Pollard, a journalist resident in

Bangkok, takes a look at Nesbitt's work.

Harry Nesbitt outside the Cambodian Agricultural Research Development Institute, where in 1993 disgruntled landowners put a $1,500 bounty on his head.

IN late 1988, a West Australian agronomist arrived in Phnom Penh as part of an international

effort to boost Cambodian rice production. Dr Harry Nesbitt had been given the task

of leading a project devised by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)

and funded by the Australian government.

IRRI and heads of the Agriculture Ministry were concerned about the poor state of

farming and the devastation caused by the Khmer Rouge years. Average rice yields

were about 1.1 tonnes per hectare , "little different to rice yields during

the pinnacle of the Khmer civilization 1000 years earlier", writes Australian

agricultural scientist Don Puckridge in The Burning of the Rice.

"Over 90 per cent of the rice crops depended solely on the variable monsoon

rains for their growth," he writes.

"The population was still on the edge of famine and the tools for assisting

in crop recovery - experiment stations, equipment, records and supplies - had all

been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge." The Cambodia-IRRI-Australia Project (CIAP)

was set up to restore rice farming systems and "to ensure food security for

the country as a whole".

Puckridge worked on the lead-up to the 14-year project, which he hails for helping

to move Cambodia "from famine to rice sufficiency and then to surplus rice production".

One of the greatest triumphs of CIAP and Harry Nesbitt's team was the introduction

of new high-yielding rice strains, which had a dramatic effect on the living standard

of many poor farmers.

The US$20 million project, funded mainly by the Australian government, also helped

create the Cambodian Agricultural Research Development Institute, otherwise known


The book's cover carries the subtitle "A Cambodian Success Story", but

the text reveals a long, tough slog.

I interviewed Nesbitt, a delightful man known locally as "Dr Rice", several

times from 1998 prior to his return to Western Australia two years ago. At that stage

he was reluctant to go on the record about some of the more testing dramas he and

his wife Betty had faced.

But with the Nesbitt family now back in Australia, Puckridge has been able to reveal

serious concerns linked to the project, notably death threats relating to a dispute

over the price to be paid for land earmarked for CARDI about 20km south of Phnom

Penh on Route 3.

Nesbitt negotiated with local villagers, but with the government nearly broke, it

was years before ministers made a decision on the land.

The arrival of UN troops in 1992 caused a mad hike in land prices and briefly inflamed

the dispute.

"A bullet shot through the gate of the IRRI villa the day Harry returned from

Australia in May 1993, demonstrated an even more militant attitude by disgruntled

landowners," Puckridge writes in the book.

"The gate was just below his apartment and Harry considered the bullet definitely

a warning.

"'One guy had threatened to cut out my liver and eat it while I was still alive,

and they put a bounty on my head,' said Harry. 'It was only worth $1,500 but in the

local community $1,500 was a lot of money'."

Shortly after, a mob of villagers burnt down the CIAP building on the site.

The trying saga of the land purchase, not resolved till 1999, is fully documented

by Puckridge.

Local residents ended up properly compensated and Cambodia got a top facility when

it opened in November 2000, he says.

"CARDI is now considered to be a world-class research and development center,

fully equipped with modern facilities and equipment. Fourteen years earlier most

of the present staff had never seen a computer."

Puckridge says CIAP was money well spent, but there was considerable international

pressure against such aid when the project began.

"The Australian foreign minister recalled that the US Secretary of State was

particularly abrasive, and that China and a few other countries weren't happy,"

he writes.

For Nesbitt, the additional returns for 1.5 million peasant farmers made the years

of tough living and sporadic civil unrest well worthwhile.

He said in June 2001 the tiny Cambodian economy had received additional income returns

of well over a US$700 million - with the production of extra rice worth well in excess

of $70 million a year over the previous decade.

Puckridge is more conservative, however, in regard to the financial benefits, referring

to AusAID's assessment of an additional $40 million a year to the local economy.

Rice farmers on small family holdings make up the bulk of the agricultural labor


And agriculture - mainly rice - still accounts for nearly half the national gross

domestic product.

Rice varieties collected in Cambodia in the early 1970s were reintroduced and evaluated

against strains that survived the Pol Pot period.

After trials, varieties best suited for lowland, upland and deepwater (flooded) rice-plots

were gradually released to farmers.

"It was an exciting time," Nesbitt recalled, "because we knew that

if we made any advances they were going to be very significant.

And I'm very happy to say, we - the Ministry of Agriculture and the project - made

very significant increases in production and productivity of farming systems, so

much so, in fact, that now Cambodia is an exporting nation again." Dry season

varieties, which grow from about December to May, made a very big initial impact,

boosting yields in some areas by half a tonne per hectare.

One, known as IR66, became the main variety in irrigated areas.

"It eventually covered about 90 per cent of the dry season and early wet season

rice area and had a major effect on increased rice production and food security in

Cambodia," the author says.

Puckridge also documents the work done to protect crops against pests (without using

dangerous pesticides), assessment and enrichment of local soils, and the significant

benefits achieved simply by leveling a farmer's rice plot (which gives much better

water control and can dramatically reduce the amount of weeding that needs to be


In developed nations, farmers access this sort of information through a variety of

sources such as television, or today, the Internet.

But getting such invaluable knowledge to farmers in Cambodia was a real challenge.

"What we did was put in these on-farm trials, spread throughout the growing

areas of Cambodia," Nesbitt recalled.

"We put in about 1,000 to 1,200 trials a year. And we'd try to ask the farmers

to put them on the side of roads or next to tracks where a large number of farmers

walked or traveled past on their bicycles or motos. They could then view the technology

and adopt it."

They also worked closely with non-government organizations to spread the word and

boost the number of people likely to benefit from the new developments.

Innovations and assistance were lapped up, because farmers were keen to improve their


Harry Nesbitt and his Canadian wife Betty were the third-longest-serving expatriates

in Phnom Penh before their departure in late 2001.

They witnessed dramatic changes in Phnom Penh, which was a very different city in

late 1988.

There were virtually no cars on the roads, no supermarkets, and few people other

than foreigners could afford a fridge.

Aside from the land dispute, a grenade blew out the front of the CIAP office in April

1989 before they moved into the Agriculture Ministry.

"It took a while to figure out what was happening," Nesbitt recalled. "They

said it was a random act. And in those days there were a lot of random acts - a lot

of explosions going on in town."

Foreigners had to get permission to travel to the provinces, and there were very

few hotels to stay in and certainly no electricity or running water.

Wherever they went there was someone watching and reporting back to the Interior


Dramatic changes followed the UNTAC period, and agriculture spread with improved


In 1995 the Aussie-IRRI scheme helped Cambodia attain a significant milestone - the

first rice surplus in 25 years.

Harry Nesbitt was honored by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Australian Government

for his leadership of the rice project.

But Puckridge's book tells the story of the many others involved : CARDI director

Men Sarom and his deputy Chan Phaloeun, Minister Chhea Song, plus local graduates

Mak Solieng, Miech Phalla; American entomologist Gary Jahn, soil specialist Peter

White, IRRI's Glenn Denning (who also received the Sahavetrej gold medal for outstanding

service from Hun Sen), Ram Chaudhary and plant breeder Edwin Javier, Peter Cox and

farm engineer Joe Rickman.

The training of Cambodians through the project was very significant, Puckridge says.

People initially too afraid to speak in public ended up applying for scholarships,

taking language courses and writing research proposals.

"Of the 34 research staff working with CIAP all achieved at least a diploma

or bachelor degree, and 23 gained a masters or PhD degree."

Individuals such as Men Sarom, who did his PhD at the University of Western Australia

in Perth, now run CARDI.

"The net outcome was self-sufficiency in rice production over most of the country,"

the book concludes.

* The Burning of the Rice is published by Sid Harta in Melbourne.


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