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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Silk village struggles to survive

Silk village struggles to survive

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Van Chan Thoeu weaves among the last of her silk creations Tuesday at Lvea Krom village, Koh Dach in Kandal province. The 48-year-old widow says she will be the latest silk weaver in the village to shut up shop next month.

Weavers say their livelihood is disappearing due to high costs

About 80 percent of silk makers in Koh Dach commune have shut down their silk weaving businesses."

WEAVERS in one of Cambodia’s most famous silk villages say they face severe food shortages after the price of raw silk traded to the Kandal community doubled within a year.

Representatives from leading silk organisations and residents of Lvea Krom village, Koh Dach, in Mok Kampol district, Kandal province, estimate that up to 80 percent of weavers have ceased work after the tradition became unprofitable.

A walk down the main street of Lvea Krom reveals empty looms in nearly every home. Some are being used as make-shift washing racks, ending generations of Cambodian textile production.

Van Chan Thoeu, 48, a widow who has an elderly mother and two children to support, is using up the last of her silk reserves before shutting up shop in one month’s time.

“We are in a very difficult situation and some people here are starving,” she explained on Tuesday.

While the cost of buying a traditional skirt from the weavers has remained steady – at US$10 – the price of raw thread, imported from Vietnam and China, has soared from $40 per kilogram to $80 per kilogram since 2008.

Although they are still selling all their goods, weavers report making either no money or operating at a loss in the last year thanks to reduced profit margins.

Some of the worst off have had their houses seized and are now homeless.

Muom Lon, 58, stopped weaving in November after 43 years. Her family members, like many, are now working in Phnom Penh garment factories.
She estimates that the family of four’s income has dropped from $300 to $400 a month to just $100.

“We are living hand to mouth now,” she said. “Before the crisis, you could see women weaving and hear the clack of the looms. But now Koh Dach is very empty.”

Traders are deserting the island. Would-be weavers must now travel to Phnom Penh to buy raw silk.

Experts throughout Cambodia are considering the fallout from rises in raw silk on the international market.

According to the Cambodia Handicraft Association (CHA), the Kingdom is dependent on Vietnam and Cambodia for around 98.7 percent of the 350 tonnes of raw silk yarn needed by the industry each year.

Men Sineoun, executive director of the CHA, which represents 50 producers, enterprises and NGOs, said Monday that raw silk prices have increased by 42.5 percent in the last two months, from $27,000 a tonne in October to $38,500 a tonne.

He believes that demand for thread from a recently launched Vietnamese silk-processing factory coupled with floods in mulberry producing areas could have contributed to the hikes, adding: “I expect that about 80 percent of silk makers in Koh Dach commune in Kandal province and Takeo province have shut down their silk weaving businesses.”

Men Sinoun said he believes the global financial crisis has affected Cambodia’s exports of silk products, which he said have declined by an estimated 30 percent year on year.

“We’ve seen a decline in purchase orders. Producers are still able to sustain their operations at the moment, but it’s rather difficult,” he said.

Hor Chamnap, marketing manager at Khmer Silk village, which represents 1,500 silk worm breeders and silk weavers in Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Cham, Kandal, Prey Veng, Siem Reap and Takeo, said that the increase in prices remains in line with foreign markets.

He said the price hikes could be good for the limited number of domestic raw silk producers. Cambodian raw silk sale prices have risen 10
percent in recent months, to $33,000 per tonne from $30,000 a tonne last October.

Interest groups are encouraging the Kingdom’s farmers to become less reliant on foreign markets by cultivating mulberry trees, worms and thread.

In September, the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) said that if the silk industry developed to meet domestic demand, it would generate employment for some 25,000 additional people and result in import savings of about $10 million per year.

Despite several projects, including a $475,000 FAO drive to set up silkworm production centre, domestic production of raw silk has declined to around 3.5 tonnes in 2009 from an estimated 4.5 tonnes in 2008.

“Khmer raw silk production is very low but demand is still high. However, some farmers have abandoned growing mulberry trees to feed silk worms, because they are difficult to take care. They are growing cassava or corn instead,” said Hor Chamnap.

Along the production line, some businesses that have diversified their silk products are weathering the storm.

Janne Ritskes, of Tabitha Cambodia, an NGO based in Phnom Penh, has plans to expand her company – which employs 3,000 weavers – despite silk price hikes.

She said that Koh Dach may be suffering because the weavers are offering traditional products, such as patterned skirts, and missing out on more marketable products such as plain silk bed covers and furniture.

“The silk here is very, very good, and that is valuable. But you also have to produce something that will to appeal to people,” she said.

When contacted by the Post, several representatives from the Ministry of Commerce declined to comment.

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