Saturday, September 10, 2011

A volunteer's reflections: Rice Banks

by Amanda King
Individual volunteer from Illinois

It's amazing how one crop can so define a culture the way rice defines Cambodia — and all of Southeast Asia, for that matter.

Rice is not just a food (that happens to be consumed at least two times a day by the entire populace). It's so much more than that. It's the livelihood for millions of Cambodians. In actuality, it's a way of life.

The crop's sphere of influence reaches far beyond the rice paddies or even the dinner table and into everyday life. So strong is this country's tie to the grain that it is often used as currency to buy goods or services. Loans can be taken out in terms of kilos of rice. Even the Methodist Bible School in Phnom Penh accepts tuition payments in rice (50kg per semester, to be exact).

But Cambodia's standing as a single-crop country also makes it particularly vulnerable to droughts, floods and disease — anything that could adversely affect the rice harvest.

This is especially true of the rural population. Typically, peasant farmers can only afford to raise enough rice to sustain their own families. In this situation, a bad harvest can be devastating.

That's where rice banks come into play. These initiatives, funded by loans through the church's Community Health and Agricultural Development program, help communities build and maintain a rice storage facility, which is filled in times of plenty, then borrowed from when families run out of their own harvest.

These rice loans, given out to needy families in the community, are then scheduled to be repaid in-kind at the next harvest (usually in December). The committee in charge of the bank has the authority to set the interest rate on the loans, but it is usually just enough to help grow the supply in order to help more families the next year.

And that, my friends, is a rice bank.

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