Two farmers pluck bunches of young rice plants from their seed beds and whack them against their feet to knock off excess dirt.
The story of Cambodia in 1998 is predominantly a political one - it is an election
year that will set the course of this fledgling democracy's governance for the next
But behind the headlines of the post-election political crisis, another potential
crisis has loomed in the shadows of this agrarian country - drought and hunger. Threatened
by a lack of rain and dogged by several pest outbreaks, many Cambodian rice farmers
fear their crops might fail this year.
Sen Iam, a 54-year-old farmer in Senday commune of Kampong Speu, watched helplessly
in early August as two of his four beds of rice seedlings were ravaged by a vicious
outbreak of brown planthoppers. Swarms of the insects turned half of his lush green
fields into cemeteries of brown and withered vegetation in a phenomenon referred
to by rice experts as "planthopper burn".
With the seasonal monsoon rains still not in sight in the third week of August, Sen
Iam estimated that he and most of the farmers in his village would only harvest one-quarter
of a normal year's crop.
"It is a really big problem because some people here already don't have enough
food," he said while he and his family worked to transplant the remaining seedlings
to his main field. Although there was still not enough water, time was running out
- transplanting any later could mean there would not be enough time for the crop
to mature. Like many others, Sen Iam felt forced to gamble that rain would come.
By early September, the monsoon rains appeared to have finally arrived and the threat
of disaster has diminished for Sen Iam and thousands of others. There has been a
collective sigh of relief, but aid workers warn that farmers are not out of the woods
"The rains have come and people are transplanting, but the rains have to keep
coming," World Food Program Country Director Ken Davies said. "You need
Last year the rains were also late, but when they arrived they came with a force
that saw concerns quickly shift from drought to floods. Although El Niño weather
patterns have been blamed for much of the recent unpredictability in the rains, the
weather is merely one factor in the annual specter of hunger that haunts Cambodia
after two decades of war-induced food shortages.
A lack of modern growing techniques and technology - including chemical fertilizers,
insecticides, water management and high-yield strains of rice - keep Cambodian yields
significantly lower than neighboring Vietnam and Thailand.
Additionally, lingering weapons of war - landmines and unexploded ordnance - have
contributed to a loss of 500,000 hectares of land for cultivation compared to 1969,
the year the nation recorded a record crop yield of 3.8 million tons of rice.
"There's definitely potential for higher yields," said Gary Jahn, a crop
protection specialist at the Cambodia-IRRI-Australia Project (CIAP), a joint venture
between the International Rice Research Institute and the Ministry of Agriculture.
"But most of the farmers here can't get out of this vicious cycle of poverty;
they are continuously borrowing money to farm their land," Jahn said.
The debt spiral
Outbreaks of the brown planthopper (left) and the army worm (right) struck rice fields in various parts of the country this year. Although some unlucky farmers' crops were hit hard by the plagues, the effect on the national yield was minimal.
Sen Iam has been sucked into the debt spiral. After an unsatisfactory crop yield
last season, he was forced to borrow money from a loan shark at the provincial capital's
market to buy supplies for this season. He must pay back the money, plus 100 percent
in interest, after he harvests what is left of his pest-ridden crop
A recent report by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI) found that
rural Cambodians also must compete with wealthy agriculture businesses that are snapping
up the most desirable pieces of available land.
"Compared with many other Asian countries, Cambodia has plenty of land to go
round and has had the benefit of a recent land reform. Yet the poor have increasingly
limited access to land," a CDRI release stated.
In a three-year study of 244 households in three provinces, CDRI found that the richest
10% of rural villagers owned 33% of the land, while the poorest 20% owned less than
4% of the available land.
"Some [of the poor] are becoming virtually full-time hunter/gatherers, at a
time when the more productive water bodies are being leased out to powerful commercial
interests," CDRI stated.
"Migration in search of wage jobs is desperate in some places, with women in
particular taking on heavier work in agriculture, construction and pond-digging in
order to pay off loans."
The World Food Program has been keeping a close eye on Cambodia's rural poor through
its annual Crop and Food Assessment missions. During the "hungry season"
between September and December when food stocks run low, a "Food for Work"
program - run by the WFP and the Ministry of Rural Development - has kept afloat
the hundreds of thousands of poor farmers identified by the surveys.
The program, which costs the WFP about $17 million annually, supported in 1997 about
750,000 people in 18 provinces by exchanging food for manual labor on local development
projects. This year 100,000 more have been added to the list as the country faces
back-to-back years of unfavorable weather conditions.The hardest hit areas this year
have been in the extreme southeast of the country, where the lack of rain has been
particularly severe. Many rural families have flocked to Phnom Penh in search of
jobs to make up for lost crops in recent months, but Ken Davies cautioned that their
presence in the capital is not a sign of severe drought, but an annual migration
for many rural poor.
"There are a lot of people in a normal year who do not have enough food,"
he said. "The people you see in Phnom Penh with the hoes and the baskets are
here every year."
Surpluses and shortages
PRAYING FOR RAIN
Farmers replant their seedlings into their main fields. Although the fields were still too dry, the gamble had to be made on the rains, which eventually arrived.
Hungry farmers may come as a bit of a surprise to those who remember the government's
proud announcement that Cambodia managed a rice surplus of 104,000 tons at the end
of last year's harvest.
Davies explained that 75% of the vaunted surplus was produced by just 25% of the
rice-growing communes in the country. "But the other 75% of the rice-growing
communes are not in such good shape. These are the ones we're worried about."
The WFP plans to provide 38,000 tons of rice over the next two months to 1.2 million
Cambodians - far less than the 250,000 tons the government recently said it would
need to stave off drought- and pest-induced hunger.
The apparent exaggeration has been blamed by some aid workers on the source of the
estimates - local and provincial leaders who hoped to be given free rice to reward
their constituencies after the CPP's resounding victory in the July 26 election.
Davies said the increase in requests for food aid began in June and may be partly
attributed to pre-election jitters. "I was very wary that some requests might
have been political... We have been very careful in assessing needs."
Disturbing images of swarming pests on television and in the local press have also
probably contributed to the government's estimation, but Gary Jahn said the effect
of pests - although devastating for individual farmers whose fields become infested
- have only destroyed about 700 hectares out of 2 million planted.
Army worms, locusts and brown planthoppers have all made headlines as outbreaks occurred
in various areas of the country, with the planthoppers being by far the most destructive.
Fields in Kampong Speu, Takeo and Kandal were decimated by planthopper burn.
"If there are many planthoppers on one stalk of rice, they feed in such a way
that they literally suck all the fluids out of it... and leave a dry brown plant,"
Jahn explained. "[Compared to other infestations this season] the brown planthopper
was actually quite serious. A field can't recover from hopper burn."
Hopper infestations were identified and tackled by NGOs working in rural areas, such
as Concern in Kampong Speu, by using methods as varied as insecticide spraying, field
flooding and lighting bonfires at dusk - which incites planthoppers to kamikaze into
the blazes like a moth into a candle flame.
An army-worm outbreak occurred in Kampong Cham earlier in the growing season. Efforts
to halt the outbreak were mostly ineffective because the bacterial insecticide used
was later found to be spoiled, Jahn said. But because the worms - actually a type
of moth caterpillar - ate only leaves that can quickly be replaced by a healthy young
rice plant, the damage was negligible.
"Our feeling is the next time this happens, especially if it is in the seedbeds,
is that it is not a very big concern," Jahn said. "They aren't that bad,
they just look bad."
Rat infestations come later in the growing season as the rodents move northwest up
the Mekong River flood plain in search of high ground. Because of this western movement,
Cambodians in eastern provinces often blame the rats on Vietnam.
The 1997 harvest of 3.6 million tons fell just short of the 1969 record, but CIAP
experts said the number does not mean Cambodia has completely bounced back from the
"Keep in mind that 3.6 million has to feed more Cambodians. Now there are 11
million, compared to 6 million in 1969," Jahn said.
A long-term strategy toward increased yields and steady exports must increase the
availability of land and intensify production in existing areas through fertilization,
pesticides and better water management, according to CIAP.
An increase in the use of chemical fertilizer has been responsible for much of the
recent increase in yields. "The Cambodian soil is poor so it responds very much
to fertilization. You can increase your yield by 100%, or double, by introducing
fertilizer," CIAP soil scientist Ros Chhay explained.
Jahn said that along with most farmers' shoestring budgets, a lack of proper import
regulations has helped make proper fertilizers unattainable to many farmers.
Although CIAP has been determining which fertilizers are best for Cambodian soil
and passing on its recommendations to the government, a draft of the Agriculture
Materials Import Law, which could increase the availability of fertilizers, has languished
at the National Assembly since political turmoil struck Cambodia early last year.
"Under that law it would be easier for foreign companies to import fertilizers,
but now it is difficult," Jahn said. "For small companies it isn't difficult...
but for a big company like DuPont, you don't want to set up a big operation when
there aren't set regulations. They are afraid the rules will change over night."
A recent CIAP report claimed that "the key to expanding production and turning
Cambodia, once again, into a regular exporter" is dry-season rice.
The report stated that improving dry-season yields is easier for farmers than during
the wet season because they have better control of growing conditions in irrigated
fields. There is a potential to boost dry-season yields by 50%, according to CIAP
An increase in the use of high-yield varieties of rice could also go a long way to
increasing the annual harvest, according to CIAP experts. IR66, which was used in
10.8% of national growing areas in 1996, can produce three times as much rice per
hectare as the most commonly used variety of local rice, Neang Minh.
But most high-yield varieties are unfortunately not as hearty as local rice, Jahn
said. Because they are more susceptible to varying local conditions, farmers may
feel safer sticking to local varieties.
Pray for rain and stability
54-year-old farmer Sen Iam lost half of his crop to brown planthoppers.
In the meantime, farmers and aid workers are keeping their heads up and hoping the
current deluge of rain continues.
When asked for his projections for the future, Jahn said: "Short-term it is
very hard to say; that will depend on the weather... It will be until mid-September
until we really know.
"In the long-term, one can say there has been a trend toward an increase in
production. There is still plenty of potential to increase rice production."
Davies was also optimistic for the long-term future, noting that the government had
recently requested a long-term Crop and Food Supply Assessment from the WFP and the
Food and Agriculture Organization.
He added that much will depend on regional economic stability if Cambodia is to see
the dramatic increase in food production that countries like India and Vietnam have
experienced with the help of UN agricultural programs.
"I think the government has been very prudent and wise in trying to assess their
needs," Davies said. "What you need now is economic growth to increase
the standard of living of the poor and food-insecure."
Study says Khmers eat too much rice
PERHAPS unsurprising in a country where consuming a meal is referred to as "eating
rice", the Cambodia Development Resource Institute (CDRI) has determined that
Cambodians eat too much rice and would benefit from a more varied diet.
In a three-year study of 244 households in three provinces, CDRI found that although
rural poverty is "a serious problem", malnutrition was found in food-secure
households as well as poor homes.
"Average calorie intake compares unfavorably with the widely used FAO [UN Food
and Agriculture Organization] norm of 2,100 calories per person, but there is little
variation between classes, which suggests that intake may be socio-culturally determined
rather than related only to income," a CDRI summary of the study stated.
Rice accounted for 80-84% of the calorie intake in the area studied, CDRI found,
and for 38-50% of expenditures on food. "A more varied diet would improve nutrition
and reduce vulnerability to the effects of crop fluctuations," the summary stated.
The CDRI study found a that 39% of rural children surveyed suffered from moderate
malnutrition and that 10-40% of the households lived in poverty.
The report noted that a national survey in 1997 found that 43% of Cambodians live
below the poverty line.