Sunday, November 28

Farmers Tempt Endangered Cranes by Growing Their Favorite Food | Environment

“SSeveral years ago, I counted more than 300 cranes in the wetlands near my rice field, ”says farmer Khean Khoay, recalling the majestic eastern sarus crane. The village of Khoay, Koh Chamkar in Kampot province, is located on the outskirts of the Anlung Pring Protected Landscape in southwestern Cambodia, in the fertile and biodiverse Mekong Delta.

The region has been enriched by centuries of sediment deposited by the Mekong, the longest river in Southeast Asia and a livelihood for millions of people who depend on its resources. But as more and more land is converted for agriculture and aquaculture, and the impacts of the climate crisis, such as erosion and saltwater intrusion, are being felt, the area’s wildlife has become increasingly threatened. .

Among the affected birds are the cranes that once visited the land near the Khoay rice field in large numbers. NatureLife Cambodia, BirdLife InternationalThe in-country partner says only 91 eastern sarus cranes visited Anlung Pring this year. The future of these birds may lie in the hands of 16 farmers from Koh Chamkar village, including Khoay, who rent their land to NatureLife.

At 176 cm (just under 6 feet), the sarus crane is the tallest flying bird and is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. But the eastern sarus crane (Antigone antigone sharpii), which is found in Southeast Asia, is considered highly threatened: fewer than 200 are estimated to remain in the wetlands of Cambodia and Vietnam, a sharp decline from almost 900 in 2002. About half of them visit Anlung Pring during their period of no reproduction, arriving before the rice harvest in late December and remaining until the end of the dry season in May.

Oum Chrein, another farmer involved in the plan, says: “When the harvest has not yet been harvested, the cranes walk along the embankments around the fields and eat the grains of [the stalks at] the edges of the frame “.

Eastern sarus crane near Anlung Pring
The number of eastern sarus cranes has dropped to less than 200 in Cambodia and Vietnam, from about 900 in 2002. Photograph: Courtesy of NatureLife Cambodia

Farmers who lease their land to NatureLife are paid a 10-year advance rent, calculated at 30% more than their net income from the land. NatureLife, supported by the Cambodian Ministry of the Environment and funded by IUCN Netherlands, uses the land to grow native varieties of short grain rice such as reservation teourm and stink paper (Khmer names), which are the favorites of the cranes. At harvest time, half of the harvest on the 17 hectares (42 acres) Leased land is left to supplement the diet of cranes and other birds.

NatureLife also offers farmers the option of a daily allowance to cultivate the land, which provides a regular income. Bou Vorsak, Acting Executive Director of NatureLife, says: “We are committed to farmers that we will use the land only to grow rice and that the soil will remain suitable for cultivation in the long term.”

This arrangement also prevents farmers from selling the land to developers or changing its use, thereby retaining the area to visit the cranes for the next decade.

An eastern sarus crane in a rice field near the protected landscape of Anlung Pring, Cambodia
An eastern sarus crane in a rice field on the outskirts of Anlung Pring. Photograph: Courtesy of NatureLife Cambodia

However, it is not a plan that makes money. The first harvest from NatureLife’s leased land program was in December 2020. High salinity conditions, coupled with the use of organic fertilizers and pesticides (rather than chemicals), meant that the yield was not high, with less than a ton of rice harvested. one hectare, compared to the usual two tons. “We are aware of the performance limitations, but we don’t care as we maintain [half] rice for the cranes, ”says Vorsak.

After milling and packaging, most of the harvested rice was bought by a local Covid relief effort, while the remainder was sold on the open market. One ton was set aside to be used as seed for the next planting season.

The rice did not fetch a good price, says Vorsak, because “we focused on the varieties of rice that the cranes prefer. These indigenous varieties are short-grained and not very soft after cooking. They can’t compete with jasmine rice. “

Jasmine rice, which is popular internationally and earns a premium price, is long-grained and aromatic with a smooth texture after cooking.

Vorsak adds: “A consumer may not see the native rice varieties we grow as premium quality, but we are committed to them, as these are the varieties that cranes prefer.”

Farmer Tom Ke, also from Koh Chamkar, didn’t know much about the eastern sarus crane until he joined another NatureLife project earlier this year. “I just remember seeing this tall, strange bird with a red head,” he says. “Now I have started to pay more attention to them.”

Under this new scheme, participating farmers leave 5% of their rice crop unharvested for birds. They receive seeds at a subsidized rate, organic fertilizers and pesticides, and NatureLife partners provide training in organic farming techniques for free. “With more food available to them, I hope they don’t go extinct,” Ke says.

Farmers must agree to 12 guidelines, the most important being that they will grow a variety of rice preferred by cranes, will not use chemicals in their crops, will not hunt or trap visiting wildlife, and will not encroach on protected lands. . If farmers adhere to all criteria, NatureLife pays the market rate for 5% of the crop left unharvested.

Farmer Tom Ke from Koh Chamkar village is one of 41 farmers collaborating with NatureLife Cambodia.  You will leave 5% of your rice crop unharvested for the cranes.
Farmer Tom Ke from Koh Chamkar village is one of the farmers collaborating with NatureLife Cambodia. You will leave 5% of your rice crop unharvested for the cranes. Photograph: Courtesy of NatureLife Cambodia

More than 40 farmers in and around Koh Chamkar The village of Chress has joined the initiative. In August, they planted reservation teourm on their plots, contributing almost 38 hectares to the program. The first harvest will be in December, of which 5% will be left to rest for the cranes.

Vorsak is hopeful that these crane conservation initiatives are just the beginning and garner more support.

“Together with these private landowners and rice farmers, NatureLife’s long-term vision is to protect more than 1,000 hectares of landscape for cranes,” he says.

Find more coverage on the era of extinction here and follow the biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for the latest news and features

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