Hello cashew, goodbye chamka
Chamka, the traditional and diverse farming system of Cambodia, is at risk from expansion of new cash crops, particularly, cashew plantations. How is this affecting the food security of the people?
Chamka describes a mixed, upland rice system practised during the rainy season by the indigenous populations of Ratanakiri Province in northeastern Cambodia. Different rice varieties are grown with vegetables, such as cucumber and pumpkin, spices and maize. The seeds are distributed among community members and passed down from generation to generation. Traditionally, it is practised as shifting cultivation with a cropping cycle of 3–4 years and a 10-year fallow. Chamka features in many cultural practices and rituals.
In the dry season, the land is prepared so that with the arrival of the rains, vegetables and maize can be planted sparsely across the plot in purposefully selected spots for each. Then different rice varieties are planted, typically, in four-to-five sections with each featuring a particular variety. During the fallow, the staple crops are grown in other locations.
Food insecurity affects up to 50% of the households in the province between August and October. The first harvest of chamka rice usually ends this.
‘First, we have to grow rice for our food and then we have to grow cashew for income’, explained a young female farmer in Lumphat District, underscoring the importance of chamka.
From a food-security perspective, the chamka system has several advantages: a diverse and nutritious diet of stable crops and vegetables with lower risk of insecurity if one crop fails; and reduced storage time and losses because rice is available for consumption over an extended period.
But today, many parts of Ratanakiri lack suitable land for chamka because of a shift since the early 2000s towards cash crops, mainly cashew plantations. In addition, between 1998 and 2013, the population of Ratanakiri doubled, primarily owing to in-migration by Cham and Khmer peoples who sought opportunities in agriculture or work on commercial plantations. Establishment of the large-scale plantations, with accompanying logging concessions and deforestation, affected land previously used for traditional agricultural systems, such as chamka.
As a female farmer in Lumphat put it, ‘The brown land is not good for chamka. Before, we had enough nice red land. We miss it’.
This was reinforced by a male farmer in Koun Moun District: ‘Nowadays, there is not enough land to practise 10 years of fallow’.
The reduction in chamka has changed the way people secure their food supply.
‘In the past, there was no need to buy rice’, said a village official in Lumphat. ‘But now there is no land for new chamka’.
Failures in cash crops result in income shortages, leaving households unable to buy the rice they need for survival. Households are also more vulnerable to market-price fluctuations, both in the crops they buy and those they sell. Consequently, the shift towards cash-crop systems has generated mixed feelings.
‘Before, life was easy’, said one commune chief. ‘Then the companies came and traded land and the rich people are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer’.
This resonates with the observation of a village assistant in Lumphat: ‘Fifty percent of the families became richer because of cashew. But not everybody has the money or land to grow cashew’.
These issues arose during the characterization of different cropping systems in Cambodia for the Agro-climate Information Services for Women and Ethnic Minority farmers in Southeast Asia (ACIS) project. ACIS, which is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), aims to increase the adaptive capacity to climate variability among ethnic minorities and particularly women by developing an actionable agro-climate information service in Viet Nam, Lao PDR and Cambodia. It is implemented by the World Agroforestry Centre and CARE. In Cambodia, CARE and the local partner, Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, work in 15 villages in Ratanakiri Province.
Blog by Patrick Smytzek
Patrick Smytzek is an MSc student from SupAgro and Copenhagen University who is conducting field work at ACIS project sites in Cambodia between May and October 2017. His tasks are to characterize the different cropping systems and how they are affected by climatic variability. His interest in the chamka system started while developing seasonal agro-climatic advisory material.
ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.