Helping organize a conference on conservation agriculture in Cambodia was quite the novel experience for me. I was excited, nervous, and a bit frazzled. In the end I thought that the conference itself was very successful. With the aid of a photo montage I shall share with you my observations of some interesting aspects of the Cambodian culture and also give you a look at what went on at the 4th International Conference on Conservation Agriculture in Southeast Asia.
When I travel to new places, I like to visit a local market so that I can ogle the fresh fruits and vegetables and learn more about the local foodways. My first day in Cambodia, prior to a mid-morning trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, I woke up early and took a tuk tuk with Tom to Siem Reap’s downtown market. The market was bursting with locals who were doing their weekend grocery shopping. There were a number of items my colleague Tom and I had never seen before, and vendors were more than happy to help us by trying to give these mysterious edibles English names. Tom decided he needed a haircut so he could look his best for the conference, but all of the women barbers at the market claimed they did not know how to trim a man’s hair. We were, however, in luck. The sole male barber was able to give Tom a stylish do.
The conference began at the University of Battambang (UBB) with introductory remarks from speakers that included the new president of UBB, Dr. Sieng Emtotim, and Dr. Waded Cruzado, president of Montana State University and member of USAID’s Board for International Food Agriculture and Development. During the conference, there were a range of presentations related to conservation agriculture—including my own, titled “The Paradigm of Sustainable Intensification: A Multi-faceted Systematic Approach.” My favorite workshop was one Tom led on agriculture, education and technology in Cambodia. The room split up into groups which were tasked with coming up with responses to questions about obstacles and strategies for building human and institutional capacity in conservation agriculture in Cambodia. The enthusiasm from the participants was infectious. Every group wanted to present their ideas first, with the UBB student team particularly eager to show off their prowess.
We brought a group of farmers from both Battambang and Siem Reap to speak at the conference and answer questions. Women farmers in Siem Reap grow vegetables and are part of a collective group. The project helped these farmers install drip irrigation in their plots. They have also set up on-farm trials. The conference included trips to the farmer field sites in Siem Reap and also the SANREM trial sites in Battambang. Almost 200 people participated in these field trips. At the field sites in Battambang, our SANREM Cambodia country director, Rada Kong, talked about our field trials and the extension services we provide to the community. A no-till seeder demonstration garnered much interest. After the machine did its thing, everyone was on the ground digging away to find the no-tilled seeds the machine had planted. Rada Kong also showed how minimally tilled soil holds its structure for a longer time in water than conventionally tilled soil. In Siem Reap, the women farmers, with the help of an NGO member that SANREM works with, explained what they were doing with SANREM and what they want to do using pictures they drew themselves.
On the final night of the conference, UBB hosted a large dinner party for us. They set up tables, chairs, and a large stage by the river. UBB had some really great surprises in store for us that night, including a live band and performances from the student dance club. You could tell these students loved to dance. The UBB president told me that they travel to nearby countries to perform traditional Cambodian dances in competitions. Near the end of the night, everyone was ushered onto the dance floor to dance Cambodian style in a large circle with the men on one side and the women on the other. As the laughing and dancing went on, more and more people joined in, and the two genders mingled with one another. Since I was a conference organizer (and I am sure they heard me talk one too many times on the microphone), everyone wanted their picture with me. It was almost like I was a movie star for the night.
The trip ended with a visit to the temples of Angkor Wat. My bus’ tour guide, Peaches, regaled us with stories about the history of the Cambodian people and traditional religious tales and myths which were illustrated on the temple walls. The carvings on the walls were really amazing, and I particularly liked how many of them depicted the activities of everyday life thousands of years ago, giving us more of an idea of what it was like to live back then. I even spotted two people playing an ancient form of chess.