Rice to the tiller

 David Dawe   |  

Perhaps surprisingly, farmers do not perform most of the labor on rice farms in South and Southeast Asia. In the Philippines and on the Indonesian island of Java, for example, rice farm families work  on average less than 40 days per year on the fundamental tasks of growing rice. If both husband and wife share this labor, each averages 13 hours per month.

This is good for farmers because growing rice is hard work. Plowing 1 ha with a water buffalo requires the farmer to slog 30 km through shin-deep, clinging mud, all the while muscling the reins and plow — just for one pass. Transplanting 1 ha of rice by hand means bending over to place up to a quarter million separate hills.

Relief from this backbreaking labor has not come from mechanization. Most of the work is done by often-forgotten rural laborers who are landless or own only a tiny plot just big enough for a hut. They work land owned by others to make ends meet. China and Vietnam are exceptions, as radical land reforms many years ago mean that farm families there satisfy most of their own labor needs. But in India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines, hired workers provide the vast bulk of labor on rice farms. Landless laborers are numerous in these countries. In Bangladesh, nearly half of rural residents own insufficient land to grow enough rice to feed family members even half the amount that the average Bangladeshi consumes. In the Philippines, agricultural laborers account for 13% of the rural labor force. On Java, 45% of all rural households do not own any agricultural land. Besides working on farms, the rural landless catch fish or work in construction or public transport. Most juggle a combination of jobs to make ends meet.

Furthermore, these people are often anonymous, without any political voice even at the local level, much less nationally. Their plight is poorly understood for lack of research focused on them. One Bangladeshi laborer stated that the major difference that Green Revolution modern varieties made in his life was that farmers were now forced to extend the courtesy of calling him by name to ensure that he showed up when hired to collect the much larger harvest.

Even when landless laborers are paid in-kind for their work on rice farms, they do not receive enough rice to meet the needs of their family for the whole year. As a result, some spend 30-40% of their annual income just to buy rice — let alone meat, fish, dairy products or vegetables. A study by Steven Block of Tufts University showed that higher rice prices in Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s caused many poor families to cut spending on food other than rice, leading to a measurable fall in children’s blood hemoglobin levels.

Spending on education or health care for their children is a luxury many rural poor cannot afford at all. This condemns one generation after another to a prison of poverty and debt reinforced by debilitating ignorance and ill health.

These rice consumers are the poorest of the poor in Asia, the continent that is home to most of the world’s poor. For them, nothing can be more urgent than agricultural research to make their main source of calories — their biggest and least discretionary expense — more affordable.


David Dawe is an economist. 

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