Project: Rice farmers pay the price for conservation in the Mekong Basin

A woman collecting water in a bucket

Shaurya Kshatri


Rice farmers pay the price for conservation in the Mekong Basin

This series follows rice farmers from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake downstream to the Delta in Vietnam where the Mekong River joins the South China Sea. Rice farming is a major industry and food source, but is under threat from a changing climate. As farmers face pressure to change how they farm in an effort to conserve the waterways, the lives and livelihoods of the small-scale farmers who fill the world’s rice bowl are being upended.

    Reported from
  • Cambodia
  • Vietnam
  • COPA (Feature article — academic / silver)
  • COPA (Video content — academic / finalist)
  • One World (Student / longlist)

Small farmers in limbo as Cambodia wavers on Tonle Sap conservation rules


Rice farmers in the flood plains of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake were evicted from their land after a government conservation crackdown in 2021. But ahead of the upcoming national election, officials are backpedaling, returning land to some farmers while leaving others uncertain of their fate.

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A longtail boat cuts across the flooded forest on Tonle Sap Lake.

Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia — Dec 16, 2022The floodwaters surrounding the lake have begun to recede, revealing sediment-rich, fertile land. Much of the land surrounding the lake is designated as conservation areas where farming is banned. Thomas Cristofoletti

A man in a green shirt facing forward.

Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia — Dec 10, 2022Vorn Keo once had a rice farm in the conservation area where the government began enforcing a farming ban in 2021. He says he inherited the land from his mother who had been farming in the area since 1952. Shaurya Kshatri

Rice fields with a small tree in the foreground.

Battambang, Cambodia — Dec 12, 2022Rice farmers in Cambodia are struggling with a multitude of crises, including unpredictable crop prices, skyrocketing costs of fertilizers, and extreme weather. Hanna Hett

A woman weaving a basket.

Kork Thlork, Cambodia — Dec 10, 2022Since losing her rice farm in the conservation area in 2021, Lun Yi works as a day laborer and weaves baskets out of bamboo strips, which she sells for about $0.62 USD. Shaurya Kshatri


Growing rice in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where fresh water is no longer a sure thing


Farmers in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta face worsening impacts of a changing climate making it tougher to farm what is one of the country’s biggest exports — rice. In response, the Vietnamese government is pushing for more sustainable farming methods.

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A farmer in a red shirt working a rice farm.

TRA VINH, VIETNAM — DECEMBER 10, 2022A rice farm in Tra Vinh, Vietnam is almost ready for harvest. Flooded up to the ankle, these farms need a significant amount of water to keep the rice crops submerged throughout the growing period. JJ Mazzucotelli

A man balancing on the edge of a canal.

PHU CAN COOPERATIVE, VIETNAM — APRIL 17, 2023Thach Ren is one of many rice farmers in Vietnam who gets his water from a complex canal system that pumps water from the Mekong River across the country. These canals allow for multiple harvests per year, but farmers have limited control over the water flow. Giang Pham

A man in a blue shirt facing forward.

PHU CAN COOPERATIVE, VIETNAM — APRIL 17, 2023Nam Dung has been farming rice for nearly three decades. He’s been using the alternate wetting and drying (AWD) farming method for more than ten years. He participated in a pilot program to test out a new technology using “smart” pumps. He still uses that technique today. Giang Pham

A man checks his phone.

PHU CAN COOPERATIVE, VIETNAM — APRIL 17, 2023In 2017 Tra Vinh University installed “smart” pumps for AWD farmers like Thach Ren so they could use their smartphones to check the water level in their rice fields without being there in person. Giang Pham


A Mekong island too tiny for industrial farming now points to Vietnam’s future


GRP Fellow Sonal Gupta reports on how the small Vietnamese island of Con Chim could be a model for more sustainable agriculture and tourism. Produced with additional reporting support from Kathryn Gretsinger, Giang Pham, Sen Nguyen, Dung Le, JJ Mazzucotelli, and Hafsa Maqsood.

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Close-up image of rice being poured into a pile.

Harvested rice is processed through a thresher, where rice grains are separated from the straws, the rice is then spread out on a tarp for drying. Sonal Gupta

A woman fishing by the river.

A resident scoops a writhing fish net out of the river with the day’s catch. Sonal Gupta

A person passing cooking pots to another person.

Locals work together to load surplus produce and food onto boats sent off for sale at the main farmer’s market in Tra Vinh. JJ Mazzucotelli

Additional reporting from Cambodia

Microfinance was meant to help the world’s poor, but in Cambodia, it’s plunging people deeper into debt

The World

Microfinance was hailed as a way to change the lives of hundreds of millions of people without access to credit. Global Reporting Program fellow Hanna Hett reports that in Cambodia, borrowers are now drowning in debt and being forced off their land.

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Close-up image of rice being poured into a pile.

Kum Sreymom looks out onto the rice fields planted on the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s great lake, flood plain. She’s had a challenging year rice farming—with droughts, floods and the high cost of farming inputs forcing her to take out multiple loans. Hanna Hett/The World

A woman fishing by the river.

Kum Sreymom had to take out over $12,000 USD of loans to keep farming last year. The rising cost of farming inputs, like fertilizer and fuel, alongside low rice prices and climate change have driven her deep into debt. Hanna Hett/The World