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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Forget the vegetables, farmers pinning hopes on dope

Forget the vegetables, farmers pinning hopes on dope

WAT SVAY ISLAND, KEAN SVAY - Hun Li, 17, was busy helping her father and sisters

cultivate the ganga crop they're growing with their chili.

A number of rainfalls over the past weeks have caused the young leaves to flourish,

but that didn't make Li happy. Her chance to put a good price on her product has

been ruined by the rain.

"When it rains, the leaves grow faster but the buds do not yield. The merchants

buy ganga because of the buds and a good price also depends on them," Li said.

The 1.5 hectares of land her family leases is fully covered by the weed. At 4,000

riel per kilo, Li's father Hun Larn, 59, has collected about 500,000 riel ($200)

from selling his first ganga harvest last month.

"Growing ganga is easier than growing tobacco, which you have to nurture a lot.

You can just drop the seed onto the ground after clearing the vegetation and ploughing

the soil," Li said.

There is a drawback of sorts, however. Li added: "I always feel drunk whenever

I work on the farm."

Marijuana - declared illegal in many countries around the world - is a booming industry

on this tiny island which sits in Mekong river about 15 km southeast of Phnom Penh.

It is cash-crop farming which does not require much investment but can offer a good

turnover compared to other plants, according to farmers and local authorities.

Police Commissioner Maing Pech said that 16.8 hectares of farm land in this district

of Kean Svay alone, in Kandal province, had been planted in marijuana plants.

"A few years ago, there was little attention on people growing ganga. They used

to grow in small amounts - unlike this year. Maybe behind them there are merchants

who encourage them to do that," Commissioner Pech said.

For Nou Soeung, a 44-year-old farmer, tobacco used to be his prime source of income.

But since its market price dropped from 5,000 to 1,600 riels per kilo, he does not

grow it any longer.

The reason, he said, was the increase in imports of cigarettes from outside the country.

From last year's harvest, he said he still had about 300 kilos of tobacco unsold

even at the current low price of 1,600 riels per kilo.

"Before, people used to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes but now even tobacco farmers

themselves smoke the packed ones. Before, a family used to produce two to three tons

of tobacco a year but some farmers have stopped growing it for good," Soeung

said.

On the two hectares of land he leases, Soeung grows other plants such as corn, papaya,

pumpkin and castor bean. But he said that revenues collected from these products

were enough just to cover the cost of his labor and leasing fees.

With 11 people in his extended family, seven of whom are his children, Soeung is

sweating not just to feed them but to fulfill his dream about saving extra cash.

To achieve the dream, he pins his hope on the ganga he is now growing.

"If I don't grow ganga, I wouldn't have money to save. I hope 100 percent on

it this year. If I can sell it along with other products, I can save about one million

riels in profit," he said.

Though it's unclear exactly why the ganga farming industry has boomed so much this

year, the locals put it down to one thing: word of mouth. The idea spread quickly

through the subsistence communities, and one after another farmer diversified from

growing traditional crops.

Soeung said: "People panicked one after another to grow [ganga] because they

were told they could sell it for a good price.

"Ganga is the most important plant for this year," Soeung said.

Among foreign tourists, Cambodia has a reputation as a marijuana "haven".

In Vietnam and Thailand the weed is generally readily available, but there are legal

penalties involved and it is generally considered inadvisable to smoke marijuana

in public in those countries.

In Cambodia however, it is commonplace and accepted that many foreigners smoke marijuana

- despite laws prohibiting its use and possession, which are not enforced.

And for most Westerners who have become used to paying around $US130 to $200 an ounce

in their home countries - or around $16,000 a kilo - the Cambodian retail price at

around $2-$5 a kilo (depending on the quality) is ridiculously cheap.

Some Cambodian noodle shops use ganga in soup, but the general feeling among all

levels of the Kingdom's society about smoking ganga is one of indifference.

Soeung said he did not smoke it and did not know what ganga tasted like. But his

wife Hel Cheng did.

Cheng recalled her first experience of marijuana when she was 12 years old. She said

she ate chicken-grass soup cooked by her aunt.

"I did not know she put ganga in the soup. It was very tasty. I was drunk and

my mother cried as she fearfully thought that I already died," Cheng, 43, said.

Alerted by the new wave of ganga business, authorities have launched several campaigns

to curb the source of demand. They believed cracking down on the buyers would in

turn suffocate supply.

Commissioner Pech said that about 900 kilos of dried marijuana were seized from house-hold

stocks in the district during a number of police raids early this month.

Although no muscle-flexing measures were being taken yet against growers, the commissioner

said his men had warned them to stop growing the crop.

"We have collected signatures from the farmers promising not to grow ganga anymore

next year. If they remain stubborn in doing so we will destroy their farms,"

Pech said.

"People don't understand that ganga is listed among addictive things. What's

important for them is it [ganga] is easy to grow and make money," he added.

"That's tragic, it's outrageous," said one Western artist, well-known among

the foreign community as a ganga connoisseur. "This is a plant of nature. How

can you ban nature?"

That may destroy Soeung's dreams about bigger bucks.

He predicted next year's farming season would be the worst ever for his family if

he could grow no more ganga.

However, he said: "I don't mind if they stop me from growing ganga but they

should instead advice us what else to grow to alleviate our living conditions. Whatever

we can make money from keeps us happy."

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