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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cattle rustlers herd up the price of meat

Cattle rustlers herd up the price of meat

Cambodian farmers are taking evasive action amid a wave of cattle rustling that authorities

say is linked to increased beef prices and smuggling rackets across the borders in

Vietnam and Thailand.

Private security is being bolstered at the village level, fences built and the occasional

gunfight with the knock-on effect of smuggling hitting the price of meat at the corner

market and creating headaches for legitimate business.

Historically, Cambodian cattle are cheaper than Thai or Vietnamese steers and smugglers

are cashing-up through that price differential - buying and rustling here then illegally

exporting the cargo for the higher prices of neighboring markets.

"Cambodians are realizing that there is more money in selling cattle as meat

to neighboring countries as opposed to traditional use as work animals for hoeing

the fields," said one Western cattle owner, who declined to be named.

Three months ago the price of a fully grown cow was around US$300 but seasonal demand

and that shift in farming attitudes has pushed the price of cattle to between $500

and $750 a head.

"Prices are all over the place, with speculators creating price distortions.

I know that one cow was recently sold for more than $1,000; that would be something

of a record, but that also appears to be an aberration," he said.

He said increased prices had led to increased theft and his cattle now required minders

who maintained a permanent vigil over the livestock.

Smugglers are taking advantage of vast improvements made to Cambodia's roads over

the last two years, then switch to back roads nearing the border. Routes 6 and 21

are popular, with more than 200 head of cattle being smuggled into Vietnam each day

and extra police deployed to catch the thieves almost powerless to act.

So Vitou, chief of the government livestock office in Kampot Province, said rustlers

were masquerading in military uniform, were well-armed and using trucks that carried

military license plates, making it difficult for police to discriminate between soldiers

and thieves.

"At times they have opened fire at my officials when they attempted to stop

the trucks carrying cattle," he said. "When they are stopped, the thieves

maintain they are royal military officers and intimidate the police into letting

them pass."

He said cattle prices in Cambodia were still 50 percent cheaper than livestock in

Vietnam and Thailand, prompting farmers to sell, while some were stealing, and rustling

was happening across the country.

One trick favored by thieves, particularly in the north and northwest of the country,

is to obtain a letter from provincial authorities permitting the transport of livestock

for slaughter in Phnom Penh.

"But instead they go straight through to Vietnam via Kampot and Takeo provinces,"

he said.

Attempts to curb the cattle rackets follow a series of orders by livestock authorities

operating under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries authorizing a

crackdown on the illegal trade at the provincial level.

Diplomatic sources said cattle smuggling into Thailand was active along the porous

northwest borders, particularly around the former Khmer Rouge strongholds outsde

of Anlong Veng. And one provincial governor has warned that cattle smuggling has

grown from a minor petty crime to "anarchy of great proportions".

"Cows and buffaloes are important tools for plowing rice," Kampong Thom

Governor Nam Tum recently told the Khmer language Kampuchea Thmei.

But he said this was changing, with farmers selling cattle on to the black export

market and using the cash to buy second-hand and substandard Thai and Vietnamese

farming machinery, which they believed would reduce labor and improve productivity.

This was backfiring. Tum said the costs of gasoline and a lack of spare parts was

rendering the machinery useless, thus having a negative impact on production.

Mao Sor, Governor of Koh Thom district in Kandal province who is responsible for

route 21 at the Vietnamese border, said increased cattle rustling and smuggling into

Vietnam had resulted in the deployment of extra police in the district.

"But no arrests had been made," he said. "The real problem is that

most of the smuggling takes place at night; they are well organized and difficult

to catch."

Millionaire businessman Mong Reththy said cattle rustling and prices had increased

since he received a license in June to lift his exports to 15,000 head of cattle

to Malaysia each year. In 2003 he exported 7,429.

"Cattle is a lucrative business for Cambodians and the price is increasing from

day to day," he said " But I am not happy with the rustling. There are

always people trying to sell stolen cattle. We will only buy livestock that come

with the proper papers.

"I have asked the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries to crack down

on rustling. But the illegal transportation still goes ahead," he said. "It's

no good for business, rustlers cause too much trouble."

In Phnom Penh, meat prices have risen by 20 to 50 percent since Khmer New Year in

mid-April - partly due to illegal exports creating a scarcity in the market place.

A kilogram of prime cut steak is fetching 16,000 riel per kilogram in the capital's

meat markets while lesser cuts like stewing steak are worth 14,000 riel/kg.

Meat small goods producer Rolf Lanzinger said further hikes are expected.

"Cambodian cows are cheaper than in Thailand or Vietnam, but the quality is

also lower," he said. "Still, if a farmer believes he can get another 100

riel a pound from across the border then that's enough for him to smuggle it.

"Normally the cows are driven to the border and the buyers and sellers estimate

the weight and then the bargaining begins. It's interesting because they don't actually

scale a cow, though they do scale pigs," he said of the smuggling rackets.

However, other factors, including a recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, had

also contributed to the rising cost of meat in Cambodia.

Lanzinger said prices usually rose ahead of major Cambodian festivals like Khmer

New Year or the Water Festival and although prices tended to ease afterwards they

never returned to pre-festival levels.

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