In the verdant fields of Cambodia, the IBIS Rice initiative is leading an important transformation. As part of the wildlife conservation programme, farmers are shifting from traditional rice cultivation to the environmentally sustainable and economically empowering practice of growing Srov Trayang, also known as IBIS Rice. 

Growing this organic rice is viewed by many as more advantageous and marketable. Farmers have experienced increased prosperity, as higher sale prices in the new year have helped them meet daily expenses. Surplus funds are utilised for home renovations, purchasing supplies and acquiring livestock.

While inspecting the location of a new pond, Phon Vann, a 50-year-old resident of Khe Krom village in Stung Treng province’s Siem Pang district, explained that since 2018, he has transitioned from using outdated techniques and the use of chemicals to participating in the organic rice programme which employs modern agricultural methods.

He says that growing organic rice is straightforward and highly beneficial, providing him with nutritious milled rice to sell and eat. 

Previously, when he cultivated rice using chemical fertilisers, his rice sales were not very favourable. 

In 2023, he harvested several tonnes of pesticide-free rice, earning more than 10 million riel ($2,500) through sales while retaining some for his family’s use throughout the year.

Vann explains that before participating in the initiative, established by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Cambodia, his family faced many difficulties. However, since adopting organic farming practices, his income has risen, enabling him to save for a new motorcycle, four cows and essential home improvements. 

Wildlife-friendly farming

“Before, my life was uncomfortable because my family couldn’t afford livestock like others. However, since joining the wildlife-friendly rice farming initiative, I can breathe easier. I typically sell between three and five tonnes of organic rice annually,” Vann says.

He says cultivating eco-friendly rice benefits both people’s health and livelihoods, while also aiding in the preservation of natural resources like forests and wildlife. In the past, many people entered the Siem Pang Wildlife Sanctuary to hunt animals and cut down trees for a living. However, over 200 households have now shifted from these activities to sustainable farming, securing a decent income to support their livelihoods.

“Ninety per cent of farmers in my village are now involved in the project. Each family gets a lot of benefits; some sell two to three tonnes, others one or one and a half. For me, I sold four or five tonnes this year,” he says. 

Chan Dara, a 21-year-old resident of Narong village in Preah Vihear province’s Chheb district, says that cultivating chemical-free rice surpasses traditional methods. 

Firstly, she says, organic rice enjoys a ready market, unlike synthetically fertilised rice, which often sells for lower prices. Secondly, organic rice promotes health as it lacks inorganic residues. Also, a portion of the yield fetches high prices, while the remainder can be stored as food throughout the year.

“When cultivating traditionally, the yield remains consistent, yet selling is difficult as traders offer low prices, so we kept it for our own use. But with untreated rice, we get higher prices and still retain enough for daily use,” she says.

Improved quality of life

The young farmer, a member of the sustainable rice cultivation programme for five years, attributes her family’s increased income and improved quality of life to the initiative. This year, she proudly reports harvesting and selling more than 3 million riel ($737.27) worth of rice.

San Srey Nim, a 23-year-old resident of Krala Peas village in Choam Ksan district, explains: “Before, I sold my rice to traders for a small amount, but after joining this organisation, I’ve been able to sell my paddy rice at a higher price and there’s always a market for it”.

Srey Nim, a member of the programme since 2019, attests to the benefits of organic rice farming. Through the affiliation, she has mastered effective organic cultivation techniques, enhancing both her income and family life. Although not affluent, she finds planting pesticide-free rice considerably more manageable and is happy she has transitioned to sustainable farming practices.

“Life has improved compared to the past. Now, when we farm, we don’t worry about finding a market. Someone came to teach us and gave us knowledge. We also receive incentives that help make our lives better,” says Srey Nim.

She emphasises that participating in the initiative makes an important contribution to safeguarding biodiversity and forests for future generations. 

This commitment to conservation is evident throughout the project, which prohibits the use of chemicals, fertilisers, forest encroachment and hunting. Farmers engaged in the practice reap personal benefits, enjoying the health advantages of nutrient-rich rice.

Srey Nim adds that previously, certain villagers ventured into the forest to hunt boars, primarily to safeguard their crops from destruction by the animals. Despite this, the community now shows increased concern for various endangered species, even though some community members have not yet engaged in the programme.

Countering harmful practises

Keo Socheat, executive director of Sansom Mlup Prey (SMP), an NGO dedicated to promoting agricultural livelihoods and combating harmful activities such as logging and poaching, reports a significant increase in the number of organic rice farmers in 2023. 

The figure rose from 1,500 households in 2022 to 2,371 in targeted regions across Preah Vihear, Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri provinces. He says his group aims to bolster the production of chemical-free rice, while simultaneously supporting forest conservation and wildlife protection efforts.

In 2023, participating farmers could sell their rice at a 54% premium compared to the market price, which ranges from 1,850 to 2,050 riel ($0.455 to $0.504) per kilogramme. 

He explains that cultivating organic rice not only provides farmers with a clear market and higher prices but also boosts income to support families. Participating in the programme and using the latest farming techniques also helps protect natural resources, combat climate change and ensure access to safe food.

“The implementation of the IBIS Rice project has enhanced livelihoods and incentivised farmers residing in or near protected areas to engage in resource conservation through organic farming. This approach offers a discernible market, elevated prices and adherence to principles safeguarding wildlife,” he says.

He adds that cultivating organic rice also contributes to ensuring food security in the targeted areas.

According to the organisation, organic rice in the four targeted areas has resulted in higher-than-anticipated yields, with sales increasing by 76.6 per cent in 2023 compared to the previous year. The surge in sales has led members to earn an average income of nearly 3.3 million riel ($811) per household.

The Wildlife Organic Friendly Rice Project (IBIS Rice) is being supported and co-operated by the Ministry of Environment, USAID Morodok Baitang, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Conservation International (CI) Cambodia, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), IBIS Rice Conservation Co Ltd,  Keo Seima REDD+, Rising Phoenix, and NatureLife Cambodia.