Plants and Their Stories
Finally, it’s time. As a team we have arrived in Cambodia—a geographer and an anthropologist embarking on a journey that we have joyfully planned for the last few months.
The project we are working on is Plant Planet Plate, which brings together the work of the Green Shoots Foundation, which is led by me (a geographer), in rural development and agriculture with the research and skills in plant humanities of Dr. Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam, a medical anthropologist. Our fieldwork consists of conducting 50 interviews with people living in Oddar Meanchey Province, located in the North West of Cambodia, on wild foods and medicinal plants that they forage. We also intend to take voucher specimens of plants we come across to be submitted to the herbarium at Royal University of Phnom Penh. Once the data is collected, we will analyse and conduct further desk-based research to write essays on the different plants we think stand out in cultural significance and overall preference. A crucial component of the work is having these essays available online in English, Khmer, and French, so they are more accessible to both Khmer nationals and those abroad. This is essential for science communication and knowledge sharing, especially as it relates to biodiversity preservation initiatives, along with a greater understanding of food ingredients, where they come from, perhaps even how they got there and ensure sustainable diets for all.
In many ways we are bringing to the table a decade of work from different angles and seeing how they complement each other while creating new information, ascertaining the best modes of sharing it, and broadening the horizons of our inquiry. Having the information we collect available digitally is very important, whether it is through essays available on the plant database or through informative videos on social media. For us, it makes information easily accessible, shareable, and relatable. To date, much of plant knowledge is available within academic institutions or botanical gardens, which makes it credible and reliable but not accessible to everyone. During the initial planning stages of our study Dr. Thao and I both agreed that local farmers and foragers are custodians of plant knowledge that has been orally passed down through families (particularly if they were Khmer Traditional Healers)—however, there is a disconnect between (i) the role of traditional ecological knowledge within legitimate and “acceptable” plant knowledge and (ii) how information can be shared between the two groups.
In the past, the flow of information and knowledge within farmer communities has been through the work of NGOs, especially those offering extension services for agriculture or running programs such as Farmer Field Schools. It makes one wonder about the value that traditional knowledge can add to global understandings of preserving biodiversity, for example.
In the Field
I stare out the window of the taxi taking us from Siem Reap to Samrong, a small and remote town in Oddar Meanchey province—my occasional home for the past ten years. I see many rice paddies being prepped or tended to, some half ploughed, some with farmers scattering their seeds using the traditional method of rice planting. It is a landscape and terrain I know so well. As an organisation working in agriculture and food growing, I know the soil, its composition, and its variations across the province.
Over the last ten years I have tried to understand rural life within the province, people’s behaviour, and movements as they relate to the land. For example, many young people choose to migrate out of the rural areas and across the Thai border (which is around 40 Km away) in search of better opportunities. In contrast, others continue with tending their rice fields, whilst running other small businesses such as coffee kiosks, restaurants, or clothes stalls. From my initial observations and discussions with local NGOs in 2013, there seems to have been a lack of development in techniques for rice farming in this part of the province. Oddar Meanchey in the north west of Cambodia was heavily mined during the Khmer Rouge era (also referred to as the K5 zone). In 1999 the administrative area was carved out from parts of neighbouring provinces (Siem Reap and Bantey Meanchey) and much of the forested land was converted into villages.
Many NGOs now operating in the area were initially refugee resettlement partners: they assisted with rehabilitation of individuals and forming villages. When discussing methods of rice farming, meetings with NGOs such as Halo Trust indicated that most families that settled here in the 90s started by the “broadcasting” or scattering method of rice farming, as it is the least disturbing to the ground and hence reduces the risk of setting off unexploded ordnance that may be lying beneath. Demining efforts are still underway in Cambodia.
As a geographer, the work I do has been extensively led by understanding variation (and patterns) spatially. As an NGO focusing on rural skills development, our mission is to upskill farmers, share knowledge with them on climate change, and “better” farming practices. In the case of rice farming, it is to introduce techniques such as transplanting, which can be higher yielding—such as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) where farmers meticulously plant one rice seed at a time and when the seedlings reach a certain height, they are transplanted, by hand, in the rice paddy. Around the 90s and onwards this was gaining more and more popularity in South Asia. A study conducted in India showed a nearly 40% increase in yield when applying the SRI method as well as reduction in water needs. One of the first initiatives that Green Shoots launched in Cambodia was the management of a five-hectare rice paddy showcasing and comparing different types of rice farming techniques according to how labour intensive and high yielding they are. The SRI method, whilst labour intensive, was the higher yielding and the broadcasting seeds method was the least labour intensive and yielding.
As my time with the organisation matured, I began to see how seasonality and climate plays such an important part in day-to-day rural life. Green Shoots established its AgriTech centre, which is a fully functioning farm following the principles of permaculture. That is a closed loop design system that applies the principles of earthcare, fareshare, and peoplecare. It utilises concepts such as biomimicry, where we learn from nature, and often advocates for emulating natural cycles.
In running a farm, it also embedded us into daily rural life in Cambodia. With a minimal budget and COVID-19, we experienced first-hand some of the hardships of being a farmer, such as the planning of activities around the rainy and dry seasons. We continued our work also comparing and promoting different rice farming techniques.
The AgriTech Centre also became an ideal launch pad for Plant Planet Plate, which has the practice of foraging at its core. In December 2021, Green Shoots conducted a community study to understand household coping strategies during COVID 19 lockdowns. The study indicated that many households relied on wild foods to supplement their diets and maintain food security (unlike many households in Phnom Penh that were severely food insecure). This was also the starting point for Green Shoots’ correspondence with Dr. Ashley Thuthao Keng Dam. We built the idea for Plant Planet Plate and were interested in understanding how foraging is done, where people go to collect plants, how they are prepared, and how this knowledge is passed on within communities and beyond. The end-goal of Plant Planet Plate is to make information and anecdotes about these plants we have collected available online through a database, to share it across the world with academics, food enthusiasts, botanists and foragers themselves, to name a few.
We saw it necessary to collect this information first-hand through interviews, because it is normally passed down orally from elders of the family. For me, it added extensively to the work of Green Shoots, especially in terms of food security, sustainable diets and, to some extent, food preferences. It sat well within the realms of seasonality, as the rainy season is when foraging is at its height and we anticipate families to go foraging to supplement diets.
Hence why, in the middle of June, we had arrived for our three weeks of fieldwork in villages around Samroang, Oddar Meanchey Province, Cambodia to conduct 50 semi-structured interviews. Accompanying us was Mr. Sarin Sak, an agronomist who had worked extensively with Green Shoots in the past and was now running his own farm. Most lunch times he would go to feed his pigs—he was raising around 40 of them!
Edible Lessons and Discoveries
As the days of fieldwork commenced, we fell into the routine of interviews in the morning followed by team discussions during lunch and strategising for the next day. I also began to wonder about the interdisciplinary approach of our work. Whilst geography and anthropology are extremely complementary, there are noticeable variations. One key distinction I noticed in the approach to work and sampling was depth and breadth of research. Whilst a geographer is interested in achieving a wealth of knowledge spatially, anthropological inquiry is more interested in the richness of information. For example, geographical sampling methods would avoid interviewing family members or neighbours or friends in the aim of getting a broader range of answers to perhaps identify a pattern. In contrast, an anthropological semi-structured interview conducted by us in the field could take from 30 minutes to an hour each and include more than one participant. That certainly made for easier fieldwork when there are three people riding one motorbike. I also noticed that group interviews were actually favourable, as foraging itself is a social activity usually done with family-members or neighbours. As we interviewed people together, their recall on plant varieties, plant availability, foraging locations, and ways of consuming was better. This was particularly true when it came to interviewing elders in the village, who had long foregone the practice, given their old age. Instead, they would comment on the changing of the landscape and how the forest (pantry) at their doorstep was no more as people developed land to make way for more rice and cassava fields.
After having worked extensively on vegetable production, it excited me to see the numerous edible wild plants and mushrooms people relied on for their diets. These wild foods were eaten not merely out of necessity, but because of food preferences, seasonality, and taste. As we learned, particular plants would be at their best at specific times of the year and it was almost a given that groups would pile up into their Kuoyon (hand tractors) to have a day of foraging. The most coveted of these was a mushroom found slightly underground that foragers would use a spoon to dig out. We once went to a foraging location with a group of high school students that used careful and precise movements to gently disturb the soil. You could see the rounded top of the mushroom poking out and ready to be scooped using a spoon. The spoon ensured that the perfect spherical shape remained intact and undented.
We have yet to discover the scientific name for this mushroom, and one of our lunch time discussions also involved deciding whether fungi deserved its own list or could come under “plants” from Plant Planet Plates.
Nonetheless, after three weeks, we had collected the names of 125 wild plants and fungi available in the area; and if we were given the chance to research a little longer, I am sure we would add to the list. Besides plant species, what was more interesting for me was the foraging locations, which we recently mapped out on ArcGIS in relation to villages we interviewed people in. People went to local forests or wild areas to mostly gather mushrooms; otherwise, they foraged edible plants at their own rice paddies. Small discoveries or anecdotes shared during fieldwork enriched and affirmed the data we were collecting. This included anything from how a certain dish was prepared to which colour flowers of a certain edible Zingiberaceae tasted better. Were they the same species or different? As we began to compile the list of names in Khmer and spell them out phonetically, empty Excel columns stared back at us demanding the scientific names, common names, and families these plants came from. The more plant names we added to the spreadsheet, the more important this task became, to ultimately form a link between the traditional knowledge we were acquiring with the legitimate and accepted information housed in the likes of Kew Gardens, and physic gardens around the world.
This is how I ended up at the herbarium at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. My main task was sitting with the list of 125 names of plants in Khmer writing (and phonetically spelt out) and finding the corresponding scientific names for each plant. A stark contrast to the three weeks I spent in Samrong, I was seated in a white lab coat, in an air-conditioned room, going through lists of plant names. Helping me out was a fourth-year biology student, Senghong Lao, who had excellent plant knowledge. During his free time he volunteers at the university herbarium and is helping to document and digitise their collection of voucher specimens. Given the language barrier, I am not sure how much of our study he understood. However, with his help I was able to obtain at least 40 scientific names using various textbooks.
Besides the joy of seeing our Excel spreadsheet getting populated, another observation during the analysis stage was seeing the three main foraging locations: (i) the forest, mostly for mushrooms, (ii) around the house, and (iii) the rice paddy.
Rethinking the Rice Paddy
One thing apparent from our interviews was the role of wild foods in supplementing household diets. From all the houses we approached, it was rare to be turned away or refused an interview because a family did not forage. The timing of our research during the rainy season meant interviewees were prepping meals or beverages using foraged foods.
The rainy season is also when the rice is planted and looked after. The rice paddy is almost a daily visitation by most families. Whilst speaking to another NGO worker and thinking back to the principles of permaculture, I began to wonder about rice farming practices and why one might be more favourable over the other. Permaculture thinking maintains a special place for “edges and boundaries”—where they believe biodiversity thrives, i.e., the most productive space is where two boundaries meet. In the practice of broadcasting/scattering seeds, this is created through haphazard technique (no straight lines or manicured edges).
It also got me thinking about the farmers I saw scattering seeds or prepping their rice at the start of the fieldwork. I saw them in a new light. I began to wonder about all the different plants and species they may collect around their rice paddy every year and the multi-purpose importance of the paddy in supplementing rural diets.
This led to a shift in my thinking of scattering as an “ineffective rice farming practice” to being an ecosystem service by the farmers for improving and maintaining biodiversity, and also ensuring diversity in their diet. The paddy can be framed as a wild pantry, as the plants collected can include herbs to add to salads or soups. The paddy is also a source of protein (such as snails, fish, and crabs), however this was not part of our Plant Planet Plate study.
Being a geographer allows me to always take a critical approach when it comes to NGOs designing interventions and how we can at times fail to understand the nuances in why people follow certain practices. Interdisciplinary, first-hand research such as what we are undertaking not only adds greater context, but having a database and giving local foragers and farmers a platform allows their knowledge and experiences to be shared globally. Ultimately, our interdisciplinary approach between geography and anthropology allows for innovations and larger connections between more technical fields like agronomy, biology, or rural economics (as an example), to explain why people relate to their plants the way they do and (like in the example of rice farming) continue to farm in the way that they do despite being lower yielding. I am also quite certain it wouldn’t be lost on food enthusiasts curious about ingredients or the history of certain foods.