Volume 15 Number 6
Greening up the Killing Fields
01 December 2002

Australian Harry Nesbitt had to contend with danger and hardship in his bid to rebuild the base of Cambodia's shattered agriculture, writes Brad Collis.

Perched on a roof above Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, two Australians pulled the stopper from a bottle of Russian champagne and made a toast. It was a poignant snap shot; the buildings blackened by mildew and war and the brown puddled streets empty of life.

It was 1988, the champagne was warm and the toast was sombre. The two men, Harry Nesbitt and Glenn Denning, were at the start of an incredible journey that would challenge their courage, their skills and their endurance. The task being asked of them was to bring the ancient Khmer rice culture back to life—in effect, to resurrect the killing fields.

As the pair sat in the heavy tropical silence, they felt the full weight of this expectation. They were in a country isolated from the western world, where people were starving, where desperate farmers were being killed and maimed by landmines in their fields and where, in the mountains, the Khmer Rouge, driven from the capital eight years earlier by the Vietnamese Army, was still a threat.

Almost all the knowledge of traditional rice varieties and their traits, of the different soils, of irrigation and drainage, of plant breeding, cultivation, and pest management was gone. The country’s trained agriculturalists had either been murdered or forced to flee, farmers had been relocated to unfamiliar soils and terrain, and most of the traditional Cambodian seed had been eaten. Many farmers were now struggling with unsuitable Chinese rice varieties.

With quiet understatement, Nesbitt recalled the moment of the toast and their naively high hopes: ‘It wasn’t until a few days later when we started to look around that we realized what we had got ourselves into. Villages had been razed and traditional village life all but extinguished. People were dying from hunger, and what they had been through was still staring them in the face. Human bones were stacked in the centre of most of the major towns. A quarter of the population, anyone educated, skilled or who had worked with westerners, was killed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.’

The recovery plan, still being fine-tuned as Nesbitt and Denning sat on the building given to them by the departing Vietnamese army, was for Nesbitt to begin an urgent rice-production programme using Cambodian seed collected before the war and stored in the International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) germplasm bank in the Philippines. Nesbitt also had to start training a local support team. Denning’s job was to direct the overall science from his existing IRRI base in the Philippines. With no time for genetic crossing, it was a case of identifying the best traditional varieties, planting them out, and selecting the highest yielding plants.

At the same time, Nesbitt said, ‘We basically had to build a whole new farming infrastructure, including a system of national agricultural research for the Cambodians to later take over. This meant training people up to PhD level. But most urgent of all was to raise basic household food production.’

The programme, eventually to be called the Cambodian-IRRI-Australia Project (CIAP) was boldly funded by AusAID in defiance of the US which remained hostile to Cambodia.

The effort needed large measures of practical science, humour and courage. When Nesbitt’s first plant-breeding trials were run on disputed land, the CIAP office was destroyed in a grenade attack, rifle shots were fired into Nesbitt’s house and a price was put on his head: ‘We would clean up and move on, trying not to think about another attack.’

Even normal day-to-day living was a trial. ‘For the first four months I was constantly ill,’ said Nesbitt. ‘The living conditions were grim, the few eating places that had opened were filthy. We worked long hours for six days and the seventh, Sunday, was spent scouring the city for food and basics like soap.’


Nesbitt never considered giving up—even in 1997 during another attempted coup when most of the expatriate population fled, Nesbitt stayed, bolstering the morale of his Khmer staff, and demonstrating that he would not leave until the job was done. When that moment arrived near the end of 2001, he had emerged from the mud, the dust and the blood a Cambodian legend; the unheralded scientist behind one of the most remarkable recoveries in modern history.

When Nesbitt arrived in Cambodia in November 1988, rice production, which by the end of the Khmer Rouge reign in 1979 had plummeted by 84 per cent in five years, was still abysmally low. The country was a wasteland, scarred by thousands of kilometres of slave-built irrigation channels that were utterly useless.

With the help of the Department of Agronomy in the new Cambodian Government, Nesbitt assembled a small team of local trainees and started testing the most promising Cambodian rice varieties, as well as the high-yielding IRRI-developed IR66 variety which allowed two crops a year.

The CIAP team also had to start working with farmers to prepare them for the changes and new technologies, such as modern fertilizers and their application, irrigation (which the high-yielding rice varieties needed) and new harvest technologies. The team was expanded to include a prominent Indian plant breeder, Ram Chaudhary, and an American social scientist, Richard Lando, who had to pretend he was Dutch.


Nesbitt and Denning immersed themselves in people’s personal stories: ‘When people started to tell you a bit about themselves the constant phrase was, “I’m the only one left?, and you began to realize how fragile the place was.

‘We actually made a point of going to Chung Eck, the killing fields near Phnom Penh, to try and understand better how people were feeling. The open graves were still littered with bones, fragments of clothing, teeth. It was sickening, but it helped us appreciate why people might be frightened of more change and why we needed to assure them we’d be staying for the long haul. This was neither the place nor the time for quick fixes.’

Setting up irrigation systems meant mobilizing the population once again to construct irrigation canals. Typically 20 to 30 kilometres long, these were built under a ‘food for work’ scheme which attracted thousands of willing hands.

By this stage the CIAP team was attracting support from a number of other international government and non-government organizations, in particular World Vision, the large German aid organization, GTZ, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Catholic Relief Services and OXFAM, which funded the technical expertise for the canal construction.

Not long after Nesbitt and Chaudhary started they were joined by two young local graduates from Russian universities, Chan Phaloeun and Men Sarom, who represented the start of the Cambodian Government’s long-term aspirations of having its own institute of agricultural research.

Phaloeun, who was assigned to work with Nesbitt, had only just survived the Khmer Rouge labour camp where her father, a pharmacist, had committed suicide when he became too ill to work. Phaloeun had nearly died from starvation. This became a powerful experience in her life, changing a girl who had grown up in middle-class comfort into someone acutely sensitive to the suffering caused by hunger and poverty. Helping farmers improve food production became a quest.

The chance to work with a western agronomist seemed at first like a dream: ‘In 1988 you were only allowed to study in Russian or Vietnamese. This was a chance to learn English and to learn how to do proper scientific research. I was so excited, especially when Harry and I started driving to the provinces to find farmers to work with us. We had the only car so it was always full of people. I was proud to be part of it.’

By 1995, just seven years after Nesbitt and Denning had sat on their Phnom Penh roof and pondered the future, the national rice harvest achieved a small surplus. It didn’t mean everyone had enough to eat, but it did mean the country had a foundation on which to begin building a sustainable economy.


Interviewed a decade later, farmers and their families tell stories that have a common thread—in a remarkably short period they have moved from hunger to relative prosperity.

Ouk Chor, a community leader at Tongke Village in Takeo province held off until 1998 before asking the CIAP team for help. ‘We were all hungry, there was never enough rice. So we decided to risk the new varieties and learn about fertilizers and how to make more efficient use of the soil with irrigation... and we have doubled the harvest. We are growing two, sometimes three crops a year, the village is making money and we are considering diversifying into melons and mung beans. In 1998 we could only think of how hungry we were. Now we are building a business.’

To the east in the Svay Rieng district, a widow whose husband was murdered by Pol Pot forces celebrates a more modest result. The improved production from her small farm allowed her to pay for two daughters’ weddings, buy a second-hand battery-powered television set, and, even more critically, earn enough money to pay medical bills.

In provinces where farmers were now bringing in tonnes rather than kilograms a hectare due to the new varieties, new farming methods and multiple crops, Nesbitt was afforded the deference of a god. At the growing number of farmer field schools now run by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) his name would trigger spontaneous applause.

If Cambodia returns to an era of agricultural prosperity, it will be thanks not to war or revolution, but to a rice god named Harry.
Brad Collis

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