One of my favourite aspects of the Cambodian research project is our collaboration with agricultural students at Prek Leap National School of Agriculture. They are an invaluable part of the project, because of their central role in the ethnographic data collection. Our students are going to live in the targeted villages for more than a month, staying with farmers and contributing to their households. We hope that this integration into village life will help the project better understand the decision making that goes on in villages and amongst farming families during the current period of rapid agrarian change.
As part of the project, we agreed to provide training for the students, whose interests are mainly in the agricultural sciences, but who want to better understand decision making and governance. I was fortunate to get this opportunity, and spent several days with individuals from the school, explaining, discussing, and practicing semi-structured interviews, participant observation, photographic methods, focus groups, and ethnography. In addition to the methods, we debated research ethics, research design, research questions, data collection and analysis, intensive and extensive approaches, and structure and agency. It was a busy, but really rewarding, experience for me; for the students, I think it was a little overwhelming, but they will soon go into the field for a practice period (and we’ll follow-up afterwards), which should help them make sense of all the topics.
One of the big challenges and questions that we hope to explore is the tendency in Cambodia to attempt to ‘inform’ farmers about the practices of farming. This is not simply over-confident scientists neglecting to partner with locals, as many farmers have little connection to the land or history of farming due to the long period of war and socialist engineering. Most famers acquired their land in post-war efforts to create a lasting peace, which means that people are (somewhat) detached from the lands they rely upon. This means that many practices are unsuited or mis-applied by standard practices; whether this is because of ignorance or because of cultural, political, or economic reasons is one of the questions our work will attempt to answer.
There is no doubt that sustainability and development are at odds in Cambodia. There is likely no answer or solution, but there appear to be countless opportunities to help. The people are incredibly generous with their thoughts, and in many cases seek input or thoughts. Whether they need foreign expertise and technologies is probably too simple a way of looking at the issues, but what is certain is that there is a very resilient people that should become partners with the plethora of interventions currently underway in Cambodia. Hopefully we can help with this.