Climate Change is affecting lives around the world. In order to address this and other global issues, on 25 September 2015, at the United Nations, the World Leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets. Within that framework, SDG 15 aims “To protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”.
Land degradation is an important issue for Cambodia as it can severely influence populations' livelihood by restricting people from vital ecosystem services (including food and water) and increasing the risk of poverty. Therefore, achieving Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) is important to meet the Royal Government of Cambodia’s (RGC) objectives for food security, poverty reduction, and increased climate resilience and competitiveness of farming systems.
The RGC is also committed to combating climate change and accelerating the transition to a climate-resilient, low-carbon, sustainable mode of development. Cambodia has been a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) since 1996, the Kyoto Protocol since 2002, and the Paris Climate Agreement since 2017. Cambodia on December 30, 2021, submitted its Carbon Long-Term Development Strategy (LTS4CN) to the Secretariat of the UNFCCC. The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has also developed National Action Programme (NAP) (2018-2027), National Strategic Plan on Green Growth (2013-2030), National Forest Program (2010-2029), White Paper on Land (as of August 2015), and National Strategic Plan in Response to Climate Change (2014-2023) as commitments to UN’s 3 Rio Conventions, including Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).
Land degradation is a crucial issue for Cambodia. In 2010, 6.3 million Cambodians were living on degrading agricultural land. This marked an increase of 38% in a decade, bringing the share of rural residents who inhabit degraded agricultural land up to 55% of the total rural population. Furthermore, the annual cost of land degradation in Cambodia is estimated at 677 million United States dollars (USD). This is equal to 8% of the country's Gross Domestic Product (UNCCD Report).
Land degradation leads to reduction in the provision of ecosystem services that takes different forms such as deterioration in food availability, soil fertility, carbon sequestration capacity, wood production, groundwater recharge, etc. with significant social and economic costs to the country. However, there are mitigation and adaptation measures in place. Among those, land-based mitigation options rank among the most cost-effective opportunities to sequester carbon emissions. Economic evaluations of various climate change mitigation alternatives show that capturing carbon through restoring degraded lands (including degraded) is a cost-effective option that offers multiple co-benefits.
Therefore, there is a need for the Cambodian agriculture sector to reinvent itself by shifting from increased production through land expansion towards Regenerative Agriculture (Conservation Agriculture and Sustainable Intensification). Regenerative Agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. These benefits results from the practice of minimum mechanical soil disturbance. (i.e. no tillage) through direct seed and/or fertilizer placement, implementing permanent soil organic cover with crop residues and/or cover crops and species diversification.
The practice of Conservation Agriculture and Sustainable Intensification (CA/SI) has been gaining momentum in Cambodia; however, it is still in its nascent stage. The work on CA/SI has been vastly researched but practiced mainly on station (Bos Khnor, Kampong Cham) and on small farmers’ networks and is being driven primarily by MSMEs.
The development of regenerative agriculture in Cambodia has been benefited from the technical and financial support from various development projects and programs with institutional support and commitment from the RGC through the MAFF since the commencement of the design and testing of CA-based cropping in different agroecological systems in Cambodia in 2004. This was the first CA-related research activity in Cambodia, and it was part of the Crop Diversification and Smallholder Rubber Development Project (SRDP) Phase 2, funded by the French Agency for Development (AFD) and implemented by the General Directorate of Rubber of MAFF in partnership with the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD).
Over the years, regenerative agriculture has moved from the domain of research to commercialization. Service provision of CA/SI implements, and technologies started in 2013. However, for a sustainable change to occur in farming systems, private sector engagement was crucial. Therefore, from 2018 to 2020, the Mekong Inclusive Growth and Innovation Programme (MIGIP) the Phase 1 of the current Innovation for Sustainable Agriculture project and Conservation Agriculture Service with a Fee (CASF) project supported in private sector engagement. Finally in 2021, regenerative agriculture was also included in the domain of policy dialogue and extension services through initiatives such as Conservation Agriculture and Sustainable Intensification Consortium (CASIC) and MetKasekor. All these efforts have proved effective as Cambodia saw an exponential growth in the uptake of CA/SI over the past decade.
Facilitating the transition from conventional practices towards regenerative agriculture is not without challenges. One of the biggest challenges to adoption of regenerative agriculture practices was the lack of coordination due to different approaches of the stakeholders and fragmented efforts between the government, development partners and the private sector. The fragmented coordination did not allow for the development of a clear common strategic vision. Since, regenerative agriculture was primarily in the domain of research institutions, there was also a lack of technical human resources and private sector engagement which made it difficult to commercialize the practices and make it accessible to small holder farmers.
However, this has changed over last few years. There has been a much more coordinated efforts between the public-private and development partners. This partnership has facilitated the development and implementation of multiple interventions aiming at introducing and promoting regenerative agriculture practices. The experiences from implementing these interventions, has also enabled the development of a systemic approach for the public, private and development partners to effectively lead the transition towards regenerative agriculture.
ISA along with partners, visualizes six systems (as shown in the image below) that needs to work in cohesion to effectively facilitate the uptake and adoption of regenerative agriculture. Swisscontact through the ISA project has been working closely with key partners Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification at Kansas State University (SIIL/KSU) and the Centre of Excellence on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification and Nutrition (CE SAIN) – housed in Cambodia's Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) to support the initiatives under the systems. The Government counterparts that the collaborating partners are working with are the Department of Agricultural Extension, Forestry and Fisheries (DEAFF), Department of Agriculture Engineering (DAENG), Department of Agriculture Land Resource Management (DALRM), Department of Rice Crop (DRC) and Department of Crop Seeds (DCS).
The six systems include:
To promote R4D on agroecology practices, strengthen research and agroecology skills and improve R4D infrastructure and capacity with the objective to accelerate the transition to Regenerative Agriculture, the Bos Khnor Conservation Agriculture Research for Development Centre (CARDEC) will need to function as Centre of Excellence for Research for Development (R4D) in the agroecology. A 5-year strategic roadmap of the Bos Khnor Center has been finalized with the support of CIRAD and Swisscontact. The roadmap is the property of the Department of Land Resources Management (DALRM).
To develop skills and human resources in Regenerative Agriculture, the InGuider Model serves as an education and apprenticeship platform connecting higher education and private sectors in the field of Agroecology. The skilled human resources will then be able to provide technical knowledge to smallholder farmers. However, much work needs to be done. Regenerative Agriculture curriculum need to be designed. Courses need to be offered to students. There is huge investment that needs to be made in this area.
To strengthen coordination and support stakeholders to promote Regenerative Agriculture, the Conservation Agriculture and Sustainable Intensification Consortium (CASIC) functions as a national mechanism that collaborates and coordinates with a network of organizations that are implementing activities related to Conservation Agriculture (CA) in Cambodia such as marketing, research, policy and service delivery etc. by promoting CA practices, creating demand for CA machinery and implements, increase the diversiﬁcation of crops, the accessibility of cover crops, and the participation of the private sector to meet the needs.
To provide technical information and know how to facilitate the adoption of regenerative agriculture, “MetKasekor’’ (meaning farmers’ friend in Khmer), an initiative of the Government of Cambodia, functions as an early adopter led extension service model, which focuses on ’opening the market’ for private sector investments on Sustainable Intensification via government agents and the private sector to smallholder farmers in Cambodia. MetKasekor is in the first year of its four years pilot. The pilot is supported by the Center of Excellence Sustainable Agricultural Intensification (CESAIN), Kansas State University, French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and Swisscontact.
To strengthen the commercialization of technologies and practices related to Regenerative Agriculture, multiple initiatives have been established. The initiatives include:
To address the challenges of incentivizing farmers on change of practice and ultimately facilitating the transition towards Regenerative Agriculture, Dei Meas (Golden Soil) functions as a financial mechanism to reward farmers for their investment into the production of ecosystem services and public goods. Therefore, within the framework of the project "Agroecology and Safe food System Transitions in South-East Asia" (ASSET, FFEM), SmartAgro, CIRAD and Swisscontact are currently working on a 3 year pilot of Dei Meas that will support the transition and bridge the financing gap by incentivizing smallholder farmers already in the first year of transition to foster the uptake of agroecological practices. Dei Meas will be under the steering of the Department of Agricultural Land Resources Management (DALRM).
It is well known that most of the agricultural production in Cambodia is dependent on the monsoon rain and natural floods/recession of the Tonle Sap River and Lake and are restricted to growing single crop during the wet season. This leaves small holder farmers particularly vulnerable to climate change given their high dependence on rainfall and minimal crop diversification. This, coupled with the threat of land degradation and soil fertility depletion, agricultural intensification has entailed the destruction of Cambodia’s natural assets.
The six initiatives in cohesion play an important role in accelerating the uptake of regenerative agriculture practices in Cambodia. This is not only significant for Cambodia’s vision of a carbon neutral economy, its commitments to Land Degradation Neutrality and to the UN conventions but also has real on-ground implications as it plays a huge role in supporting smallholder farmers and service providers to increase their productivity and income. This systemic approach lights up the pathway towards regenerative agriculture and provides a roadmap on commercializing regenerative agriculture practices that can make the agricultural production in Cambodia more sustainable and resilient to the effects of climate change.