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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's silk industry could face collapse: prince

Cambodia's silk industry could face collapse: prince

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Prince Pheanuroth warns that a drop in domestic silk farming and threat of declining imports could kill a vital industry trade

Heng Chivoan

Cambodian silk weaving is less competitive than in neighbouring countries.

CAMBODIA'S silk weaving industry could face colapse, with supplies from Vietnam and China expected to dry up, Prince Sisowath Pheanuroth told the Post last week.

"We want the government and concerned NGOs to help expand the cultivation of mulberry trees and silkworms [in Cambodia] without delay," said Prince Pheanuroth, who coordinates the Phnom Penh-based NGO Cambodian Sector-Wide Silk Project.

Cambodia imports about 700 tonnes of raw silk a year from Vietnam and China, at a cost of US$28,500 per tonne, or $20 million every year - a 10 percent increase over last year, Prince Pheanuroth said.

But with large silk factories in China and Vietnam coming online, local silk producers may be starved out of feedstocks.

About 400 tonnes go to local manufacturers, while the balance gets exported to Thailand, he added.

"The import of large amounts of raw silk is not good because imported silk is poorer in quality than Cambodian silk," Prince Pheanuroth said.

The local industry has become dependent on the low-quality imports, he said.

"Vietnam and China ... have been focusing their silk industry on textile factories," he said.

"When demand increases in those countries, they will no longer be able to satisfy the Cambodian market."

The prince called for greater government involvement to prevent the decline of the silk industry.

"We know that Cambodia cannot compete in the silk sector because [Vietnam and China] have a much greater capacity for silk production. The government must encourage more silk production at home if it hopes to avoid shortages in the future," he said.

The prince said that prior to 1998, Cambodia had about 2,000 silk-producing families.

That number has fallen to 700 today as farmers turn to more easily produced crops or decide to sell their mulberry plantations - the principal source of food for silkworms - to capitalise on rising land prices.

Domestic farmers produced about 50 tonnes of raw silk per year during the 1960s, he said, but the turbulence of the 1970s and the civil war that followed effectively ended the manufacture and trade of silk.

A vital sector

Men Sineoun, executive director of the Cambodian Handicraft Association, said imported silk is vital to the sustainability of the silk sector.

He said the association, which comprises 43 NGOs and some 2,000 members, accounted for about $2.5 million of exports in 2008 to 16 countries in Europe, North America and Asia.

"Ninety-five percent of our finished goods use imported raw silk," he said.

"If there were no imports, we would face difficulties. Cambodia's silk market should be a priority because foreign markets still desire handmade products," he added.

Mao Thora, secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce, said Cambodia needs about 400 tonnes of raw silk per year to sustain the industry and called for greater investment from the private sector.

"Cambodian farmers can only produce about three to five tonnes per year," he said.

Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association, agreed that private investment was important but stressed a greater governmental role in bolstering the sector.

"The government should encourage private companies to invest in this sector ... and encourage farmers through start-up capital, new mulberry plantations and an increase in silk worm farming," he told the Post.

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