There is a story behind every story, and “The Burning of Rice” is no exemption. This report shall not only critique style and substance of the book, but importantly, delve deeper into the people and circumstances that resulted to nothing short of a miracle in Cambodia.

The Story


It was year 1985 when the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea invited the International Rice research Institute (IRRI) to help the country rehabilitate its damaged rural economy from previous government oppression.

IRRI however, had a hard time in coming up with donors. Political isolation of Cambodia at the time excluded the country receiving assistance from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, major UN development organizations and through direct bi-lateral aid from western countries. The situation was politically difficult, but IRRI could operate because it was a non-government organization and though internationally funded was accepted as being politically independent. Despite international pressure not to do so, the Australian Government agreed to fund initial studies through IRRI’s IndoChina program with special emphasis on Cambodia. The Cambodia-IRRI-Australia Project (CIAP) soon emerged from this small pilot project.

The program was run by two agronomists, Harry Nesbitt and Glenn Denning. According to Nesbitt, "We basically had to build a whole new farming infrastructure, including a system of national agricultural research for the Cambodians to later take over. This meant training people up to PhD level. But the most urgent need of all was to raise basic household food production."

With the help of the Department of Agronomy in the new Cambodian Government, Nesbitt assembled a small team of local trainees and started training the most promising Cambodian rice varieties assessed at IRRI.

Nesbitt was further quoted, "The people here aren't looking to hook into global, vertically-integrated agriculture. They are looking for something they can control and which gives them security. A modest, reliable rice crop every year gives them that. They won't get rich, but they know they will live."

The unsaid story

(The Cambodian Killing Fields)

Much of what caused the damage in Cambodia was left in the peripheries of the story. The history is mostly constrained on the footnotes, which sometimes cover more than half the page and is a little sore to the eyes.

Focusing on the developments that transpired rather than the evil that happened, history is only mentioned in passing. It is apparent that the target audience of the author is presumed to be knowledgeable of it because not much was mentioned.

The reporter offers a synopsis of what was left out from the book. This is fitted so as to understand why the book is titled as thus.

On April 17th, 1975 the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group led by Pol Pot, took power in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. During their rule, it is estimated that 2 million approximately 30% Cambodians died by starvation, torture or execution. It was one of the most violent regimes of the 20th century often compared with the regimes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong. In terms of the number of people killed as a proportion of the population of the country it ruled and time in power, it was the most lethal regime of the 20th century.

The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia to year zero. They banned all institutions, including stores, banks, hospitals, schools, religion, and the family. Everyone was forced to work 12 - 14 hours a day, every day. Children were separated from their parents to work in mobile groups or as soldiers. People were fed one watery bowl of soup with a few grains of rice thrown in. Babies, children, adults and the elderly were killed everywhere. The Khmer Rouge killed people if they didn’t like them, if didn’t work hard enough, if they were educated, if they came from different ethnic groups, or if they showed sympathy when their family members were taken away to be killed. All were killed without reason. It was a campaign based on instilling constant fear and keeping their victims off balance.

The Khmer Rouge spurned anyone with money or education. The revolution derived its energy, they believed, from the empowerment of the rural poor. In 1976 a hastily written Four Year Plan sought to triple the country's agricultural production within a year--without fertilizer, modern tools or material incentives. The plan paid no attention to Cambodian geography or common sense; the nation's farmers were prostrate after five years of civil war. Attempting to meet impossible quotas and frightened of reprisals, Khmer Rouge workers cut back the grain allotted for consumption. Tens of thousands of Cambodians starved to death. Thousands more collapsed from overwork and the almost total absence throughout the country of medical attention.

Cambodia was a major rice exporting nation in the 1960’s during a period of political stability following independence from the French in 1953. In 1964/65 rice exports exceeded 500,000 t/year and Cambodia was considered as being a rice bowl of SE Asia. By 1975, when Phnom Penh finally fell to the communist Khmer Rouge, the area under rice had declined by 77% and rice production had decreased by 84% of the 1970 level.

By 1980 there was a dire shortage of qualified personnel to help rejuvenate the shattered economy. The green revolution had virtually passed by Cambodia and its farmers continued to use traditional practices, many of which had been in operation for over a thousand years. To make matters worse, the Pol Pot policy of dislocating the farmers from their accustomed ecosystems resulted in many of the traditional rice varieties being lost. Cambodian farmers desperately needed access to improved technologies. However, there were few technicians capable of developing or adapting higher yielding practices for Cambodian conditions, a national technology evaluation system was non existent and agricultural extension was under-resourced.

The author’s story

(His personal style)

If anything, the story is a personal account of the author. It not only narrates happened to CIAP but also what happened to him, the love stories of his friends, the restaurants, hotels, bathrooms that they have used and everything else which he thinks matter. It is so personal that one ends up feeling like it is the next-door-neighbor’s tale, details and all. This doesn’t discount though that it is one extraordinary tale at that.

Perhaps because of being too personal, the book had a weak introduction to such that it does not engage the interest of any ordinary reader. Obviously, his target readers are his co-workers, the scientists involved in the same cause. There is much wisdom in his book however for anyone especially those involved in development or aid programs.

Most of the Introduction narrates his travels prior to coming to Cambodia. This includes trips to Bangkok, Thailand, Philippines and Australia. Name-dropping is very prominent throughout, which mostly consists of scientists he personally knew from IRRI. The reporter feels it might have been more effective to start with a setting of the current Cambodia in relation to its past to aid the readers put the story in the right context.

To illustrate further, here is a paragraph which the author used to narrate his experience about his stay-in place:

Rooms in the Monorom were not as spatially grand as the Samaki hotel and bed bugs were sometimes unwanted companions. I found that spraying under the one sheet with insecticide carried for the purpose could solve the problem.

Though the reporter sometimes sees it as unnecessary, such personal method however resulted into a telling and lively account of the 1985-2001 efforts and achievements of CIAP. The author's acute observation, knowledge of practical agriculture and vivid word pictures of situations and personalities involved enable the reader to grasp the cooperative hard work which went into the project and into the country's progress to self sufficiency in rice. For one of its merits though, the author’s personal accounts was not absent of humor:

There are other challenges. When I saw a three-meter-long cobra gliding through waist-deep water several times faster than it was for me to wade it occurred to me that using a boat could be a better option to inspect the crops. On the other hand, a colleague told me of his experience in Bangladesh were a snake decided that traveling by boat was a good idea and joined the passengers. Not surprisingly that human occupants quickly, but perhaps not wisely, jumped out

Sometimes, sarcasm does the job:

In an open field two cows and a calf tethered near a 30-metre wide bomb crater were peacefully grazing on the few green plants appearing after the rains. The deep pools in bomb craters served as both water resources and fishponds, but there must be a cheaper and friendlier method of excavating ponds.

The author’s candidness however, is devoid of mushy and exaggerated sentimentality. His off–hand comments are very picturesque such as, “Parts of the landscape was scarred by bombs of ten years earlier, with as many as 200 craters to be seen in one frame of my camera viewfinder.”

Inspite of his personal accounts, Puckridge also manage to interweave the lives of the project workers with the stories of the Cambodian people they meet and work with, and sets this within the recent and ancient history of the country. His book provides a moving account of the impact of science with a human side. He manages to combine his personal views and observations with the more objective story of the project progression.

Generally, this is not only a story about himself but more importantly, a story about others. Afterall, according to the author in his 1st chapter: “In less than 15 years a starving nation learned to feed itself as a few expatriates and many Cambodians put their collective efforts in the task. This is their story, and as far as possible it is told in their own words.”

The Development Story

(Issues and Approaches)

Development in Cambodia was integrated from four aspects:

1. Training: teach Cambodian scientists to conduct and manage research as well as farmers in better practices for their fields.

2. Research: develop a program to conduct crop protection research for Cambodian rice.

3. Policy: assist the Government of Cambodia formulate policies that will support small farmers.

4. Extension: Communicate research results to the general public and apply research to identify opportunities for gains and help solve rice farmers’ problems.

In every phase of this development story, communication proved to be a vital part for it success. This is evident by the fact that just by Integrated Pest Management (IPM) alone, the non-chemical control of insects, there are various published materials for its dissemination of information and technology. Publications released are through 29 presentations, 11 AgNotes, 25 press releases and 71 CIAP Bulletin articles. The CIAP IPM Program has brought the general public information on the management of rice pests, the hazards of pesticide abuse, and forecasts of pest outbreaks.

Problems encountered are inevitable. For example, the identification of rice diseases by farmers is problematic. Both yellow and brown leaves are often called “red leaves” by Cambodian farmers. There are numerous causes of yellow leaves (e.g. water stress, nutrient deficiencies, tungro disease, nematodes, etc.) Because of this, constant communication with the grassroots level is important. Publications from the educated ones are just not enough, it is equally important to also hear the farmers, a two-way flow of communication.

Participatory theories of development communication take a full play in the success story of Cambodia. This meant the systematic utilization of communication channels and techniques to increase people's participation in development and to inform, motivate, and train rural populations mainly at the grassroots. It stresses that development communication needed to be human- rather than media-centered.

Communication means a process of creating and stimulating understanding as the basis for development rather than information transmission). Communication is the articulation of social relations among people. People should not be forced to adopt new practices no matter how beneficial they seem in the eyes of agencies and governments. Instead, people needed to be encouraged to participate rather than adopt new practices based on information.

CIAP used this approach by through NGO interactions. CIAP had a very strong impact on the institutional capacity of NGOs by training Cambodian NGO staff members, the formation of a technical group responsible for information dissemination (resulting in the formation of the Cambodian Society of Agriculture). NGOs played a key role in disseminating and adapting CIAP technology for use by farmers. They have key access to farmer’s problems at the grassroots level and provided feedback to CIAP on the requirements for research.

Other than this, the CIAP team members themselves have direct interaction with the farmers. While growing the new varieties to determine how to farm them under the varying Cambodian soil and climatic conditions, the team also started working with farmers to prepare them for the changes and new technologies. Examples of these are modern fertilizers and their application, irrigation, new harvest and post-harvest technologies, IPM.

It was an unceasing race against time; keeping hunger at bay while engendering an agricultural revolution, which was greeted by the bulk of the population with anxiety. Most of the farmers were still traumatized by the events of the previous two decades, and lacked the confidence to experiment with new methods or rice varieties in case the crop failed. Nesbitt and Denning immersed themselves into people's personal stories; to understand their state of mind: "When people started to tell you a bit about themselves the constant phrase was, “I'm the only one left."

The participatory approach was further put into practice with the Farmer Participatory Research (FPR) which was conducted in 4 provinces. In this CIAP developed a set of recommendations for sustainable rat management in different rice ecosystems in Cambodia. The participatory approach used to develop these recommendations aided in making them more sustainable. The reasons to such being that: the rat management techniques were targeted to the requirements of the problem owners, some options were dismissed early in the process as the farmers knew these would be unaffordable or in conflict with their other practices, novel options were generated by farmers, the technology was rapidly modified to adapt it to the local farming system, and it provided a framework for technology evaluation.

Working with NGOs, CIAP identified opportunities for immediate gains, tested new rat management methods, and evaluated the farmers’ methods. In the process, farmers made their own innovations and adaptations of control tactics.

FPR indicated that no form of rat control by itself is completely effective. Various combinations of sanitation, cultural practices, hunting, digging of burrows, trapping, a trap-barrier system, and baiting is the best way to manage rice field rats. The specific techniques recommended depend on the rice ecosystem, the risk of yield loss to rats, the economic status of the farmers, and the preferences of villagers. This combined effort even resulted into organizing two or three village rat hunts per season to keep rat populations low.

There was a lot of work put into marrying IRRI science with problem-based learning programs. Nesbitt was quoted saying, "It (the program) was aimed at empowering farmers to work towards us… to push questions at us rather than us pushing answers at them."

Participatory approach also has its limitations though, as in the case of the Golden Apple snail. CIAP discovered the snail in Cambodia in August of 1995. They soon found that it was being sold in Phnom Penh markets and being transported to the provinces. This exotic snail, believed to be of South American origin, was already a major rice pest in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, as well as the Philippines and Malaysia.

The CIAP IPM Program immediately made numerous presentations and press releases to alert the government and the public to the danger of spreading this snail throughout Cambodia. Largely as a result of these efforts, in 1997 the Office of Plant Protection and Phytosanitary Inspection banned the transport of golden apple snails to the provinces from Phnom Penh.

In the above-mentioned example, one can identify setbacks in participatory models. In some cases such as epidemics and other public crises, quick and top-down solutions could achieve better results. Participation communication ignores that expediency may also positively contribute to development. Belaboring through grassroots decision-making process is slower than centralized decisions, and thus not advisable in cases that require prompt resolutions. Participation might be a good long-term strategy but has shortcomings when applied to short-term and urgent issues.

Gender Issues, though not a priority, were also being addressed in the context of economical progress. This is in line also of ultimate aim of Development Communication which seeks greater social equity in all aspects.

After the Pol Pot years, 65 per cent of the farming population was female. Seventy percent of the men had died under the five years of Khmer rouge. Because most Cambodian farm family members were involved in agricultural activities, many operations were gender specific. Gender preferences were therefore of importance during problem identification and technology development.

The disproportionate ratio of the sexes resulted into social disruption and lack of male muscle power for heavy farm work. The loss of animals due to the effects pf war, widespread diseases and over-work took their toll as well. The author narrated how on one occasion he saw “a young woman with a yoke over her shoulders straining to pull a plough while an old woman behind it guided the blade in the furrow.”

A social survey a few years later found that such women had less access to animals and other resources, and though they were the major borrowers of informal loans they had less access to information. Even though they may have been the only adult in the family there was still the cultural perception that they were not farmers, but were mere helpers and housewives. Women who did not own animals also provided labor in exchange for cow manure for use as fertilizer on their fields and they were often exploited because they lacked cash or other assets.

Gender issues were, however, not necessarily foremost in the minds of poor farmers. One of the author’s friends commented that frankly that he didn’t believe farmers without enough to eat have the luxury to think about democracy or gender issues.

However, women’s labor requirements intensified when farmers adopted CIAP’s high yielding rice varieties (HYV). This means more work was also involved with extra fertilizer applications, improved seed storage techniques and knowledge intensive activities like IPM. Demand for women’s labor decreased by land leveling and direct seeding. Conversely, farm diversification recommendations hold tremendous potential for improving the economies of female headed households.

The reporter’s story


“Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

The “Burning of Rice” is a story of stories because ultimately it wouldn’t have been possible without the stories of each contributing individual. Cambodia could have never done it on its own. Collaborative science and research were the underlying reasons for the success of its restoration. Cooperation between local and overseas technical support was vital. This story is an inspiring example of how the lives of millions can be permanently improved when governments, aid agencies and NGO’s cooperate to support those efforts.

Up until now, the local Agriculture division of Cambodia need to maintain strong linkages with local and overseas organizations to retain an up to date and focused research program. It already has collaborative projects with UN agencies, NGOs, bi and multi-lateral aid agencies in Cambodia, and projects with ACIAR, IRRI and the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC).

Globalization made our world smaller, we are all became neighbors. The expatriates who sacrificed years of their career for Cambodia exemplified how working for development sees no race, gender or political discriminations.

It is simply not enough to want to help. Sometimes, it entails fighting and risking to help. The CIAP program began in 1987 when the Australian Government, through AusAID, decided to defy the United States, and send in a team of agricultural scientists to help rebuild Cambodia's farming infrastructure. At that time the US was still hostile towards Cambodia in the lingering aftermath of the Vietnam War.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Nelson Mandela

We all have our own wars to wage, including unemployment and soaring school expenses. But we should not be disheartened, education is, afterall, not constrained to the bureaucracy of school systems. Educational Communication acknowledges education in its formal, non-formal and informal aspects.

The story of “The Burning of the Rice” strengthened the confidence of the reporter in this course. With the grace of God, the reporter will hopefully collect her hard-earned diploma, but the lessons and the deadlines are far from over. There’s always some part of the world that needs help. It might be right under one’s nose.

Though the book ended with the 326th page, the story never ends. Whenever we come to stories such as this, it is our inherent obligation to retell it, perhaps not verbally, but certainly, through interweaving it with the stories of our life.

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