The story of Madame Sophea and her plan to grow coconuts.
Madam Sophea and her husband plan to grow coconuts.
Madame Sith Sophea has lived her whole life in Dar village in northeast Cambodia. Now 45 years old, she was born into a country in turmoil. In 1978, the year Madame Sophea was born, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge still maintained their stranglehold on the population.
“Life was very hard when we were growing up. We had nothing: no work, no money, no food, no schools and no doctors.” she says in her quiet voice.
But year by year, things improved. The Khmer Rouge regime ended, international aid started to flow into the country, peace was slowly established, and people could lead more normal lives.
Madame Sophea met her husband, Khemra, who is from another district in the same Kratie province as Dar village. Like many Cambodians they married very young, and quickly started a family. Sophea has three children. Her eldest son is 25, and has given Sophea a 3-year grandchild, Malis, who Sophea tends while Malis’ parents are at work.
Through hard work, and buying only essentials, Sophea and Khemra saved enough money to buy a piece of land. They have owned the 2 hectares for ten years and are one of the few families in the area that has a secure land title.
At first, they tried to grow rice, but there was never enough water. The land is now fallow and returning to wilderness. “It’s such a waste” bemoans Sophea. “We know we could grow some types of trees on this land, even without good water supply.” says Khemra, adding “But we don’t have the capital to buy seedlings”.
The family gets by on income from raising cows, but there is never enough money. Khemra could previously earn some income from laboring work, but his health has not been good for a couple of years, and he now loses income and must buy medicine.
A few weeks ago, the village chief approached them. “He said ‘CRDT are starting an agroforestry program.’”
Sophea says “We already knew of CRDT. They are a local NGO who have been active in the area for many years, helping farmers, and providing clean water supply in villages like ours. But we had no idea what ‘agroforestry’ meant.” She had to ask the village chief to explain. He was not so sure either, but told Sophea that “CRDT are looking for vacant land, and might help people grow trees.”
Of course, this was exciting news for Sophea, so she and her husband went along to a meeting in the village hall, where CRDT explained the program. There were about 30 people at the meeting, all local smallholders like Sophea. The CRDT team explained that they were working with a partner called VNV. CRDT would give tree seedlings to plant on our land. VNV would sell carbon credits related to the trees, and then help CRDT to continue agricultural and community development in the area.
CRDT staff explaining the carbon cycle and carbon credits in a village focus group discussion
“We were very confused about this ‘carbon’” says Sophea. “And why would people give us free seeds? Was there some catch?” But with patience and illustrations, the CRDT team made things clearer.
“We went home after the meeting, feeling very hopeful.” say Sophea. The family discussed what sort of trees they would grow.
“Coconuts!” said Khemra.
When asked why coconuts were their choice, Sophea and Khemra had many reasons. First, they would do well on their land. The need little maintenance. Marketing is easy – buyers come with motorcycle trailers and take them to market. Once ripe the nuts stay fresh on the tree, or on the ground, so there is no spoilage. They would welcome CRDT’s advice on selecting the best cultivar but were confident that they could plant the seedlings and bring them to maturity with no further help. “We just need the seedlings.” says Sophea.
The couple expect to sell a coconut for 1000 Cambodian Riel (about $0.25 USD). They hope their 2-hectare plot might earn $750 a year. But coconuts will take five years to reach full yield. To help them make it through this phase, CRDT plans to support the family to grow an intercrop between the rows of coconuts. Sophea plans to grow pumpkin (squash), and perhaps cucumber in the rainy season.
But what about climbing the coconut trees to harvest the nuts– won’t that be hard? Sophea had a quick answer for that. “We don’t climb the trees!” she said. “The buyer’s do all that. We just sit and watch and wait for the money.”