Jesuit steps out of the rice paddies to share his story

Br Noel Oliver SJ, who will visit Australia next month, has been helming a project in Cambodia that supports a new method of farming which can triple rice yields for subsistence farmers, writes Victoria Graham.

Br Noel Oliver SJ will be visiting Australia from Cambodia during May 2019 as a guest of Jesuit Mission Australia.

Born in India, Br Noel has been a Jesuit for 59 years, since the young age of 20. He has worked tirelessly in education, development, fundraising, refugee welfare, and agriculture.

In recent times, in Cambodia, he has been helming a project promulgating a new method of farming that has seen a tripling of rice crop yields.



Br Noel became a mechanical engineer and spent many years as a teacher and principal in India, first at St Joseph’s Technical Institute, Pune, and then at Xavier Technical Training Centre, Shrirampur.  

Br Noel Oliver SJ

Br Noel Oliver SJ

In rural Shrirampur Br Noel ran agricultural, training, infrastructure and water (solar distillation) projects. He was instrumental in providing access to basic mechanical training for 300 women, and in recent years initiated a project, ‘For the Empowerment of Women’. Br Noel was later appointed the Province Development Director in Pune.

In 1980, during a six-month break from his work in India, Br Noel set up a youth training centre in a Thai refugee camp in Bangkok. The trainees were taught basic carpentry skills and most were subsequently accepted to migrate to various countries and start new lives.

On a later visit to the same camp in 1988, he met Australian Jesuit Fr Mark Raper, who was working with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

Br Noel consolidated his previous work by accepting Fr Mark’s offer to present a proposal to the UN Agency ESCAP for the vocational training of youth in refugee camps. A proposal to set up five vocational training centres in refugee camps in Thailand was later accepted.


Br Noel and Cambodia

The following year, in 1989, Br Noel visited Cambodia for the first time. Here he met (now) Bishop Enrique ‘Kike’ Figaredo SJ. Bishop Kike and Br Noel identified that very little was being done to help people in Cambodia. They offered assistance to the Ministry of Social Action, which was warmly accepted.

This prompted Br Noel to join JRS in Cambodia. The JRS team established a Vocational Training Centre for the disabled called Banteay Prieb, which has now flourished for over 20 years, employing graduates and selling sculpture and craftwork from its Craft Peace Café.

Br Noel worked another ten years in India, then returned to Cambodia in 2003. Since 2015 he has been based in Phnom Penh, where he serves as secretary and treasurer of the region.

He has raised funds for many projects in Cambodia over the years, one of which became very significant: the SRI project.


Changing the lives of rice farmers

SRI stands for ‘the System of Rice Intensification’. It is transforming the lives of subsistence rice farmers in Cambodia.

SRI is a simple but revolutionary method of rice farming. Instead of direct broadcasting of seeds or planting clumps of seedlings, farmers transplant individual seedlings. This saves on the cost of seeds, provides seedlings more space to grow, and can triple the rice harvest for small landholders.

Invented by a Jesuit priest, the SRI system also uses half the usual water and no harmful chemicals. Farmers are taught to use compost or organic fertiliser, which saves them more money and increases sustainability.

Br Noel established a demonstration farm near a main road where passing farmers can see the results of SRI. He is building a marketing outlet to provide a centre for rice sales, which will reduce transport costs to market. Plans to open a café promoting SRI are also in motion.

In the meantime, there are plans to introduce SRI to seven more communities. Farmer’s groups, women’s groups and youth groups will be invited to the demonstration farm with a view to introducing SRI on their own rice plots this year.

‘Our hope is that farmers will have the courage to try it out on a small part of their fields and see the difference’, says Br Noel. ‘That will be the motivating force. Seeing is believing, and the whole family benefits.

Victoria Graham is Communications Coordinator of Jesuit Mission

The SRI Project is proudly supported by Jesuit Mission. To read more and see a video of the project, go to


Br Noel’s 2019 Australian visit:

4 May — Maytime Fair at Xavier College, Kew, Vic.

7 May — Address to geography and agricultural science students at Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview.

17–18 May — Visit to Sawtell Parish near Coffs Harbour. Fr Colin Reinhard and his parish at Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church funded the building of a much-needed rice storage facility for villagers near Pursat in Cambodia.