16 February 2023

Turning from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture in Cambodia: a “Double Loss” for rural communities

Double Loss is a 18-minute documentary sharing first-hand accounts of the challenges faced by Cambodian rural communities when turning to commercial agriculture – from gender disparities in workload and responsibilities to growing indebtedness and new forms of food insecurity. The film is based on DEMETER, a six-year research project carried out by a team from the Graduate Institute’ Gender Centre together with Cambodian researchers. Christophe Gironde, Senior Researcher in Development Studies and a project member, tells us more about it. 

What is Double Loss about?

Double Loss recounts the transformation of the livelihoods of the rural populations of Cambodia, the accelerated development of cash crops intended for the markets of the other Mekong countries and China, the development of salaried work and small own-account commercial activities and services. Since the 2000s, rural populations are enduring a “double loss”: they first lost the land they had easy access to for farming and for collecting natural resources, and they are in jeopardy of losing any remaining land if they prove unable to reimburse the banks for loans they needed to engage in commercial agriculture. For the vast majority of families, the drastic conversion to cash crops is not profitable but very costly and results in growing debt, affecting their food safety and food quality. 

The film shows that agricultural policies over the past fifteen years have very uneven consequences depending on social group, ethnicity and gender. It also shows how these transformations differ for men and for women, how gender relations are recomposed with regard to work, decisions within households, the responsibilities of each member. Women bear an increasing burden as they take part in the work of the fields as in the past but must also work as employees and invest themselves like men in commercial and service activities, in addition to doing most of the care work.

What contribution does such a documentary make to research?

One could consider that such a film – six years of research summarised in 18 minutes! – does not contribute much to research and to a better understanding of the process of agrarian change, but this is not the case. When I show it to my students or when it is presented to practitioners and decision-makers, who themselves do not often read scientific articles, it turns out that the visual medium raises questions that the written medium does not. The questions and discussions that it triggers in the audience differ from those arising from more classic academic codes. In this sense, the film contributes to reflection and therefore to a better knowledge. For us academics, it can also contribute to our self-reflection, sometimes to reconsider our approach and our research questions.

Did you have any difficulties in making this film? 

Our main challenge was reducing it to 18 minutes. We could have made a four-hour film! Otherwise, the good surprise was that we were able to shoot it very easily in a country where researchers, documentarists, journalists, activists, etc., can easily be seen as “opposed” to the regime and be blocked in their work. Let’s see now if it will be possible to show it in the country! 

  • Watch the documentary:
“Double Loss”: Commercial agriculture, women and food insecurity in Cambodia

Double Loss is based on DEMETER, a six-year research project carried out by a team from the Geneva Graduate Institute’ Gender Centre together with Cambodian researchers. It is produced by the Graduate Institute in partnership with Louvain-Cooperation, with funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

Banner image: part of an image from Double Loss.