COVID-19 in Cambodia: Farmer Experiences, Gendered Impacts and Ways Forward
This post is written by Sara Hendery, Communications Coordinator for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, farmer families are adapting to new realities with the help of ecological farming solutions.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, for example, the lives of La Koeurn and her husband Say Sovanna were transformed when both lost their jobs at the height of the pandemic. Their family of five was forced to rely solely on the small home vegetable garden Koeurn operates. Nevertheless, demand for vegetables had dramatically dropped due to decreased tourism in the area and community need for less perishable items such as rice and canned goods. What used to earn the family $500 a month, now amounted to $50 a month.
Similarly, Chet Chenda and Yun Yoeurn, who live in a different area of Siem Reap, also became unexpectedly dependent on income from the home vegetable garden Chenda manages. Due to the pandemic, Yoeurn lost his job as a receptionist, which typically earned their family $270 a month. With vegetable demand down, the family is now living off of $32 a month.
For many families like Koeurn’s and Chenda’s, farming used to only provide extra income but is now a lifeline. By providing economical, IPM-based strategies to improve both the quality and quantity of yields, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management is working to ensure that lifeline stays afloat.
The IPM Innovation Lab has introduced Koeurn, Chenda, and several other farmers in Cambodia to solutions such as Trichoderma, a naturally occurring fungus that helps boost plant defense mechanisms against soil disease. Trichoderma is simple to produce – in powder, liquid, or compost form – and can easily be applied to seedling trays, which generally help to grow stable plants. The IPM Innovation Lab also introduced farmers to coco-peat or coconut husk. The sterile medium, which can often be found for free along roadsides, improves the soil’s texture and makes it less susceptible to disease.
With soil-grown seedlings frequently carrying bacterial and fungal diseases that lead to crop loss, building resilience against those threats before they arrive is key to improved crop health, particularly when resources are already limited.
“The goal is to improve the reliability of the systems farmers depend on to grow a healthy harvest,” said Kim Hian Seng, an IPM Innovation Lab collaborator at iDE in Cambodia. “With food production so fragile right now, including people afraid to shop at markets, it’s harder than ever for farmers to get a good market price for their produce. Our job is to link farmers to trusted techniques that won’t cost them financially and won’t put at risk human or environmental health, especially when times are so difficult.”
Both Koeurn’s and Chenda’s families grow amaranth, bok choy, and cabbage, but recent long rainy seasons have caused some of the leafy vegetables to rot, and therefore remain unsellable. Additionally, the families often sow seeds directly on the seedbed, leading to major seedling loss amid unpredictable rainfall. To address those crop losses, the IPM Innovation Lab recommended growing a new crop, Chinese kale, using Trichoderma and coco-peat. The crop is more resistant to weather constraints and can be sold at a higher market price than others. Chinese kale can be sold for $1.00-$1.50/kg compared to the other crops the families have been selling at only $0.25-0.50/kg.
The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia – and countries around the world – also shows potential for disproportionate impacts on women. Before the onset of the virus, rural Cambodian women were becoming increasingly responsible for household farm management as men migrated to urban centers seeking opportunities in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Changing norms coupled with women’s greater income-earning capabilities had led to an increased disregard for traditional rules governing mobility. However, while the feminization of agriculture began to open opportunities for women farmers to access and apply information about improved agricultural technologies that could benefit themselves and their families, the return of migrants to their home communities due to COVID-19 has the potential to create additional challenges for women farmers and magnify tensions in farm families.
“Many people are going back to their hometowns because they are losing their jobs and are starting farming activities again or in some cases for the first time,” said Seng. “This is another gap the IPM Innovation Lab is trying to address. Our recommendations help to reduce reliance on synthetic pesticides, which will help farmers save more money in the long run. These savings will help farmers purchase other vital inputs – like high yielding seeds, pest traps, and more – earlier on in the crop production cycle, setting them up for early success.”
Daniel Sumner, Associate Director of Women and Gender in International Development at Virginia Tech, a team that addresses gender and gender research for the IPM Innovation Lab, said that the program continues to recognize that decisions about applying new technologies or practices require a deep understanding of local contexts. More specifically, this applies to exploring the complexity and multiple dimensions of power relations between men and women in the household and the community.