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Turning pepper into 'black gold'

091007_09
A farmer sorts Kampot peppercorns. Kampot farmers say they should see prices improve further once their crop receives GI status this year.

With the launch of Cambodia’s campaign to promote Kampot pepper, farmers and distributors hope its forthcoming geographic indicator status can boost the prices and exports of their crop

Of all the pepper sold in Europe under the name, a tiny amount is real.

APROMOTIONAL dinner at Phnom Penh’s Malis restaurant tonight is to kick off a campaign to seal Kampot pepper’s reception of the first-ever geographical indicator status awarded by the Ministry of Commerce.

Kampot’s farmers, as well as pepper distributors and would-be exporters, hope geographical indicator status (GI) will translate into higher prices for their product by tapping into overseas markets.

Based on World Trade Organisation (WTO) guidelines, GI strictly regulates every aspect of a product’s properties to assure both its high quality and regional distinctiveness – values that have been known among the growers for decades.

Nguon Ly, a 61-year-old farmer from Kampot province’s Kampong Trach district, says he began growing pepper at age 15 during the boom times of the French colonial period.

“At that time, pepper sold quite well. Having pepper was like having gold,” says Nguon Lay. “The soil condition in our coastal province is favourable for the pepper crop.”

According to a brand booklet to be distributed at tonight’s launch event, the mid-20th century saw Kampot producing 3,000 tonnes of pepper annually. Though annual volume had peaked at 8,000 tonnes 50 years before around the turn of the century, the later, smaller yields were “of exceptional quality”, making Kampot pepper “the spice of choice for French restaurants”.

However, like almost every aspect of life in the Kingdom, the recent tragic legacy of war and genocide killed the trade.

“Five years of [Khmer Rouge] terror and the 30 years of civil war that followed put a stop to pepper production in Kampot,” the booklet notes.
When the farmers who had grown Kampot pepper for generations returned to the region during the 1990s, there was no export market to prop up prices and most switched to other crops. Kampot pepper was off the map.

But a few farmers like Nguon Ly continued to grow the pepper, perhaps, as his explanation suggests, out of force of habit as much as the need to restore a tradition.

“We loved this profession because it was what we had left from our parents. On the other hand, we did not have any other skills but growing pepper,” he says.

Angela Westergaard, marketing director of Cambodia-registered agro-business Farmlink, said that beginning in the late 1990s, numerous NGOs tried unsuccessfully to revive cultivation of Kampot pepper. She said that Farmlink, which she founded with Jerome Benezech in 2004, was able to succeed where others failed because, as a private company, it uses a market-directed approach.

“NGOs get big support from international donors – a private company doesn’t. If you don’t have backing, you have to fight harder,” she says.
To distribute and export Kampot pepper, Farmlink needed to work with farmers to ensure a dependable supply. According to Westergaard, the key to achieving this was the development of a farmers’ association that sought to raise crop prices, prompting farmers to return to growing pepper.

“If you buy from the farmers’ association, it’s at a set kilo price … part of that price guarantees a wage for the farmers,” she said. Today the association represents about 130 families who grow GI-ready pepper.

Nguon Lay, president of the Kampot Pepper Farmers’ Association, agreed that prices have returned to a reasonable level: US$10 per kilogram for refined white pepper, $8 for the rarer pink pepper and $5 for the standard black variety.

Nguon Lay says the association will continue to raise prices, despite the economic downturn, when Kampot pepper is finally accredited as a GI product later this year.

“It’s still black gold despite a year of poor sales,” he says.

Once that all-important status is granted, the farmer’s association will become the sole legitimate source of Kampot’s famous pepper, and, as in the days of French rule, the product will be sold for a premium outside of the Kingdom.

Global recognition
According to Jean-Marie Brun of GRET, a French NGO involved in setting GI rules for Kampot pepper, “GI means something to consumers in Europe”, where countries such as France, Spain and Italy all pride themselves on regionally protected goods, with champagne the obvious example.

Though part of GI’s value comes from guarantees, such as fertiliser- and pesticide-free growing methods and fair wages that appeal to the socially and environmentally conscious Western consumer, its most important role for the Kampot pepper brand is to separate imitations from the real thing.

Brun says that only 20 tonnes of genuine Kampot pepper are grown every year, equivalent to just a fraction of the pepper on foreign shelves that now uses the “Kampot” name.

“If you look at France, you will see a lot of counterfeit [Kampot pepper] on the market,” says Brun. “Of all the pepper sold in Europe under the name, a tiny amount is real Kampot pepper.”

But these varieties are also likely to prosper. GI status for the genuine article looks set to boost demand for non-accredited pepper grown in and around Kampot, said Stephane Bourcier, who runs the Senteurs D’Angkor workshop in Siem Reap, a processor of Kampot pepper since 1998.

“[But] I will have much less benefit at first because I will have to buy from the association, whose pepper will now be more expensive to grow,” he said.

Bourcier said that although GI supporters such as himself will be “easy to control”, he has no doubt that many will take advantage of a less-than-discerning marketplace.

Until the GI mark is effectively enforced and production begins to approach potential demand, promoters of Kampot pepper hope that recognition by a handful of elite chefs and food vendors around the globe will safeguard the brand’s core asset: exceptional quality.

In France, renowned restaurateur Olivier Roellinger has championed Kampot pepper, selling Cambodia’s black gold on his Web site.

And in New York Michael Laskionis has created a Kampot black pepper ice cream at Le Bernadin, a restaurant accredited with three Michelin stars, as featured in the promotional material for the GI launch.

In the introduction, Rick Stein of the well-known Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, England, pays tribute to Cambodia’s best-known culinary export. “I can certainly understand how the Kampot pepper, once rated the best in the world by French chefs, will [begin] the renaissance of those lovely pepper farms,” he writes.

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