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The Promise of Irrigation: Changes in Cambodian Rice Agriculture

Authors: W. Nathan Green*, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Development, Agricultural Geography
Keywords: rice, agriculture, agrarian change, irrigation, Cambodia, development
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


For the past two decades, Cambodia has increased agricultural production primarily by extending and intensifying rice cultivation. Major investments in irrigation infrastructure have facilitated much of this growth. However, increased access to irrigation—in conjunction with agricultural commodification, livelihood diversification, and rural out-migration—has also contributed to challenges long associated with capitalist agrarian change, such as economic precarity and agro-ecological degradation. In this presentation, I argue that these challenges are exacerbated by the mismatch between farmers’ imaginaries of irrigation and its technological and institutional realities. Both the Cambodian government and its international investors have made bold promises that irrigation will enable farmers to practice multiple cropping even in the face of droughts and floods associated with climate change. In part due to these promises, farmers who have recently gained access to irrigation have adopted high-yield varietals of rice that require greater capital and material inputs. When irrigation systems fail to deliver, however, vulnerable households have found themselves overstretched economically and technically. They receive little help from the Cambodian government, which provides limited financial or extension support to farmers. To make my argument, I use data from a survey of 240 rice-farming households in Battambang Province, one of Cambodia’s main rice producing areas. I also draw on key informant interviews with farmers and government officials conducted in January and June 2019. This presentation advances scholarship on agrarian change within and beyond Southeast Asia by analyzing the socio-ecological dynamics of irrigation infrastructure that persistently escape the narrow, technocratic framing of irrigation-led rural development.

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