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Wildlife-Friendly Ibis RiceTM Of Cambodia’s Northern Plains


‘Wildlife-Friendly Ibis RiceTM’ is grown in the paddy fields of Preah Vihear province, on Cambodia’s Northern Plains. The Ibis RiceTM project aims to protect critically endangered birds and mammals, and prevent further loss of their habitat, which is being replaced by large and small-scale agriculture. Small-scale farmers from fifteen villages receive a price premium on their rice, in exchange for implementing conservation agreements. These limit the conversion of wetland areas to rice fields, and ban hunting of rare water birds. A partnership of NGOs is behind the Ibis RiceTM project, including the Wildlife Conservation Society – Cambodia and Sansom Mlup Prey (SMP), a non-profit organisation set up in 2009 to purchase, mill and market the rice as “Ibis Rice”. The rice is certified through the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. The project has received a variety of bilateral and multilateral finance, and is supported by the Ministry of the Environment and the Forestry Administration of Cambodia, who recognize its potential for sustainably financing the protected areas where the rice is grown. As a result, local communities are having a better revenue for the sustainably produced rice, thus improving their livelihoods, natural areas are being better protected and pressures over ibis populations significantly decreasing.

Problem, challenge or context: 

Cambodia’s latest submission to the CBD, the Fifth National Report of 2014, has a significant focus on mainstreaming biodiversity, in line with Article 6(b) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which requires that parties “Integrate, as far as possible and as appropriate, the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies.”

This Report emphasises the importance of natural resources to poverty alleviation and growth: approximately 16% of the national land area is used for rice cultivation. The Report lists indicators to measure progress against the Aichi Targets: the indicators for Aichi Target 7 (National Target 5) (on sustainable management of areas under agriculture and forestry) include the number of certified products. WCS is working with the Government to ensure that Ibis RiceTM forms part of progress reporting towards the Aichi Targets, as it can also contribute to Targets 5 (habitat loss), 12 (threatened species), 11 (protected areas) and 14 (ecosystems).

Specific elements of components: 

Cambodia’s Northern Plains host semi-evergreen and deciduous open forests, home to many species on the IUCN Red List, such as the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) and Pileated Gibbon (Hylobates pileatus). Wetlands are home to critically endangered birds, such as the Cambodian national bird: the Giant Ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea), with less than 100 breeding pairs in the wild. In 2014 this topped a list of the most endangered and evolutionarily distinctive birds in the world. High on the same list was the White-shouldered Ibis (Pseudibis davisoni), with an estimated population of 1000 birds. Protected areas in the Northern Plains include Preah Vihear Protected Forest and the 402,500ha Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. However, habitat conversion occurs even within protected areas: it is reported that 15% of the Wildlife Sanctuary has been granted as concessions to agro-industrial companies. These protected areas are remote but inhabited: resident communities are poor, and prior to the project their resource management decisions were typically short-term and unsustainable, with agriculture and hunting threatening ecosystems and species. By fostering incentives for sustainable production of rice in protected areas, involving local communities and having their support, this project has helped to change a situation of land clearing. State support for conservation is essential, as there are grave risks: in November 2015 Sieng Darong and Sab Yoh, a ranger and police officer, were killed as they slept during an overnight patrol in the Preah Vihear Protected Forest. Nevertheless, forestry officials continue to their efforts to stop the illegal logging and poaching and to avoid other major problems such as this one takes place again. Issues of governance and corruption are still to be addressed in order that illicit trade is halted.

The action taken: 

The Ibis RiceTM project operates through partnerships between rice farming villages, WCS, SMP (described in the summary) and the protected area authorities, as follows:

  • Monitoring indicated that threatened species populations were declining as a result of hunting and habitat clearance.
  • Market research by WCS showed significant national demand for a high-quality rice product that benefitted biodiversity and people.
  • Participating villages are selected for their importance for biodiversity. Villages work with WCS to establish a land-use plan that delineates areas for rice, for rice expansion, and for protection. A no-hunting agreement prohibits the hunting and collection of rare water birds and chicks. Farmers join the scheme on a voluntary basis.
  • Each participating village sets up a Village Marketing Network cooperative (VMN) to verify that each member is abiding by the conservation agreements. The VMN buys the rice from compliant farmers, using a cash advance from SMP. A WCS Compliance Unit provides an extra level of data checking.
  • SMP pays the VMN, and collects, transports, mills, packages and markets the rice. Revenue is used to cover the cash advances, operating costs, and any surplus is returned as a compliance dividend to farmers.
  • The farmers also receive improved seeds and training. For example, SMP is engaging soil conservation specialists to improve yields, since farmers are not allowed to expand their land and cannot afford a fallow year.
  • Ibis RiceTM enjoys high-level support from government agencies. At project level, managers of Preah Vihear Protected Forest and Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary support the WCS Compliance Unit in verifying whether farmers have abided by their agreements. District governors approve the village land-use plans.
  • The rice is sold to various buyers, such as supermarkets, hotels and restaurants that are happy to pay a premium for the organically grown, wildlife-friendly, fragrant jasmine rice. Some choose to display the Ibis RiceTM logo, raising awareness of the brand and project.
  • A partner NGO, the Sam Veasna Center for Conservation, organises trips to see Giant Ibis and other birds in the rice fields of participating villages; the villages receive a conservation donation from visiting birdwatchers, conditional on ibis sightings.
  • Independent researchers (e.g. from Imperial College London) assess the impact of Ibis RiceTM on forests and livelihoods.
Key lessons learned: 

Self-regulation within villages by the VMNs is important and leads to a high degree of local ownership; however, some VMNs initially needed support to turn down rice from community members who had not stuck to their agreements. Combining self-regulation with careful record keeping and verification by WCS ensures transparency and confidence in the scheme. While financial benefits to farmers help incentivise sustainable natural resource use decisions, Ibis RiceTM would not be successful without government patrols in protected areas: communities need to see that the government defends the forest against all-comers. WCS is also developing new ways of rewarding farmers, and entire villages, for adhering to the agreements and reducing deforestation. These are expected to benefit communities and forest alike. Rapid business growth created challenges: initially there was not enough capital to buy enough rice to meet demand, but a surplus in 2014 meant the project had to look to export markets. The first exports are expected in 2016 with organic rice – the fastest growing sector in the rice industry. The switch to organic means that if exports can be achieved there will never be a surplus. Ibis RiceTM now only requires donor support (or loans) to expand to new villages. The vision is to expand to every frontier forested area in Cambodia, to stabilize forest clearance and safeguard biodiversity, while enabling local people to fulfill their development aspirations.

Impacts and outcomes: 

Ibis RiceTM has grown quickly, from four villages producing almost 33 tonnes of rice in 2009 to fifteen villages, spread over 300,000ha of deciduous forest, producing nearly 600 tonnes in 2016. Rapid growth has been achieved through a parallel process of training farmers as trainers or scheme advocates at the village level, expanding the product range, and a skilled team who market the rice (e.g. at trade fairs). Donor support has been vital in this expansion, but Ibis RiceTM is now close to financial sustainability. Rice farming is the main livelihood in the north of Cambodia, so many people have benefited: as of 2016, an estimated 10,000 people. Participating farmers benefit financially in at least three ways. Firstly, they receive a price premium of up to 20% above the market price if they keep to the conservation agreements. Secondly, unlike the middlemen, the VMN use accurate scales to weigh the rice, adding an estimated 30% to the price received. Lastly, during early 2016, 40% of Ibis RiceTM fields were certified organic, and these farmers receive an additional 20% price premium. Over the next three years all Ibis RiceTM farmers will go organic, which means greater profits for farmers, and the project will no longer rely on donor support. Analysis of satellite images demonstrates that deforestation rates are significantly lower around Ibis RiceTM villages than control villages. Moreover, populations of threatened species have grown around Ibis RiceTM villages; for instance, the population of White-shouldered Ibis at Tmatbauy village grew from three in 2000 to more than 50 in 2015.

Contact details: 
Simon Mahood, Senior Technical Advisor, WCS-Cambodia
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