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A farmer holds fresh pepper corns after they were harvested from a plantation in Ratanakkiri.
A farmer holds fresh pepper corns after they were harvested from a plantation in Ratanakkiri. Pha Lina

Reaping what you sow

At the end of the 13th century, the Chinese emperor sent an envoy to King Indravarman III’s Angkor to deliver an official message. The young diplomat, Zhou Daguan, would spend 11 months in these parts and though the exact message he was sent to deliver has been lost to history, after his return Zhou wrote a fascinating account of life in Angkor. One of the many interesting details that Zhou touches on is the pepper that was grown here. He describes the pepper vines and describes tasting their fruits.

Clearly, Cambodia’s connection to the pepper corn goes way back. By the early 19th century, pepper from Kampot had become an established trading commodity and by the end of that century it gained culinary renown around the world. In the 1970s and ’80s pepper cultivation, together with so many of Cambodia’s traditions, came under the threat of violence and poverty but thankfully (as in so many other fields) the Cambodian people proved resilient, and today, more than 700 years after the visit of young Zhou, pepper cultivation remains alive and kicking.

Food is central to people’s cultural history and heritage. This is as true in Southeast Asia as it is in Europe. Like the pepper of Kampot, many of the culinary specialities of the member countries of the European Union (EU) also date back centuries. In the 14th century an Italian poet already sung the praise of cheese from the region of Parma, and France’s Bordeaux region is estimated to have been making wine for over 2,000 years.

After centuries of developing their pepper cultivation, it is only fair that the right to use the name “Kampot” for pepper should be restricted to producers and traders who really are connected to the region and who are committed to its tradition.

To protect agricultural products in this way the EU, together with many countries around the world, uses what are called “geographical indications” or “GIs” for short. A GI certifies that a product comes from a particular geographical place and that it has specific qualities directly associated to that origin.

Most GIs include a geographical name, as in the case of “Champagne”. By protecting the names that describe our traditional foods and drinks, we protect producers as the guardians of tradition, and protect consumers because they know that what they are buying is the real thing.

For the European Union the protection of GIs is not only about safeguarding cultural heritage but also about protecting an economic resource, so GIs are something to be proud of and benefit from at the same time. GIs have tremendous potential as a source of economic development. Some years ago, a study put the total sales value of the EU’s GIs at €54 billion. In Cambodia too, the potential of geographical indications as an income earner has been solidly demonstrated over the past years. Whereas in 2008 just 4 tonnes of Kampot pepper were sold, in 2015 sales had risen more than 15-fold while the prices of the various colours of pepper roughly doubled.

In February this year, Kampot pepper became the first Cambodian product to be recognised by the EU as a Geographical Indication. In their hard work to arrive at that moment, the Kampot Pepper Producers Association and the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce received support from the EU’s ECAP III project, from the French development agency AFD and from the UN agency FAO, among others. Together, we worked on quality standards for the product and on developing the necessary legal framework.

The registration was rightly celebrated as a proud moment for Cambodia. Now Kampot pepper is protected on the EU market against any imitations trying to ride on its reputation. And thanks to the EU Geographical Indications logo, 500 million European consumers can see that they are getting the real deal.

Cambodia is now pushing ahead with more applications for GI registration both here and in the EU, such as for the excellent palm sugar from Kampong Speu province. The development of more geographical indications can give a much-needed helping hand to Cambodia’s farmers and traders, to improve Cambodia’s agriculture and to protect its cultural and culinary heritage. They allow Cambodians to proudly reap the benefits of what, over the course of so many centuries, they have been sowing.

A national seminar on the protection of Geographical Indications takes place today, organised by the Ministry of Commerce with the support of UN FAO and the French Development Agency in collaboration with the European Union delegation to Cambodia.

George Edgar is the European Union’s ambassador to Cambodia.

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