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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rice surplus heads for border while some face hunger

Rice surplus heads for border while some face hunger


Government figures announcing a national surplus do little to soothe farmers who say they are starving. Svay Rieng province reap in a surplus while drought affected areas like Kampong Speu go without. Officials fear that high transportation costs and poorly coordinated domestic markets are leading farmers to sell their grain across the border.

The government has forecast a surplus of almost half a million tons of rice this

harvest, but worries about the sale of rice abroad undermining the country's food


In his weekly report to Prime Minister Hun Sen, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry

and Fisheries (MAFF) Chan Sarun said Cambodia could expect a harvest of four million

tons of unhusked rice; which is a 463,00 ton surplus above expected domestic consumption.

However, the January 20 report said that with some areas facing food shortages after

a lack of rain last year, farmers should be wary of selling themselves short.

"There was information that some provinces in the south of Vietnam plan to buy

four million tons of rice - that is the concern to curb the rice exporting,"

stated the report.

The report did not specify whether Vietnam was planing to buy all of the four million

tons from Cambodia.

Nguyen Thanh Duc, press attache at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the

report may be a misunderstanding, as Cambodia does not have enough of a surplus to

export such a large amount of rice to Vietnam.

On January 14, MAFF sent a letter to its provincial offices asking them to advise

farmers to keep enough rice for their own food security.

But despite the government's confidence in an overall surplus, farmers from drought

affected areas say they are in for hard times. Eighty farmers from the Tramkak district

in Takeo province traveled to Phnom Penh on January 24 to appeal for government and

NGO assistance, claiming that they had not had enough food to eat for three months.

Koy Horn, 52, a Takeo farmer said people from his village had already become sick

and died.

"If we come here and no one helps, we will not be able to afford to come again.

We'll just wait and die," Horn said at the sit-down protest in front of the

National Assembly.

Across Cambodia, 191,000 hectares of cultivated rice was lost this season, mostly

due to drought but also because of pests and flood, according to the MAFF report.

An official in Kampong Speu province, one of the hardest hit, said people are currently

facing eight months without food, after only half of the 82,700 hectares of cultivated

wet season crop was harvested.

Seng Soeung, deputy chief of agriculture in Kampong Speu, said his staff were encouraging

people to find other ways to secure food, such as growing vegetables and keeping


"The provincial authority has bought about 100 tons of rice seed to be planted

in the early wet season [around April, for harvesting three months later], but the

demand is still much greater," Soeung said.

He said that five times as much seed was needed to make up the shortcomings throughout

the whole province.

Three districts in Kampong Speu have started planting dry season rice, but Soeung

doubted they had enough water to irrigate the interim crop.

Harry Nesbitt, an agricultural consultant, agreed that provinces already lacking

water would have trouble growing dry season rice, as the yield of each plant is directly

dependant on the amount of water it gets.

"In the drought affected areas around Kampong Speu, Kampong Chhnang and Kampong

Thom, they probably either didn't plant their wet season rice at all, or the crops

ran out of water and they didn't yield very much," said Nesbitt.

He said the high cost of storing grain also meant that many farmers in the eastern

provinces sell surplus rice across the border to Vietnam; a practice Nesbitt said

was natural considering the different harvest cycles of the countries.

The MAFF report said 700 tons of rice were being exported each day from Battambang

province to Thailand and 580 tons from Banteay Meanchey province. Exports were smaller

across the eastern border, with 240 tons being sold daily to Vietnam from Takeo and

110 tons a day from Svay Rieng.

A steady increase in the price the Vietnamese are paying for rice is attracting exports

from as far away as Banteay Meanchey, where the prices paid by Thais were dropping,

said the MAFF report.

Traders are buying rice for 550 riels a kilogram from Cambodian farmers, which is

being sold for 570 riel in Vietnam, said Thach Ratana, deputy chief of agriculture

in Svay Rieng province.

While rice traders are transporting grain across the country in search of better

profit margins, Kean Sophea, who works on food security with MAFF and the Food and

Agriculture Organization (FAO), said local farmers lacked the capacity to distribute

their products.

Cambodia's high transportation costs and underdeveloped distribution network meant

it was often easier and cheaper to sell abroad, said Sophea.

"If you wanted to bring rice from Battambang to Prey Veng or Svay Rieng it is

very costly," Sophea said. "We have a poor marketing network and nobody


In late 2004, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned of the risk of food shortages due to

the lack of rain, even asking monks to donate money so the government could buy fuel

for irrigation pumps.

Ramarat Sarabanamuttu, deputy country director of the UN's World Food Program (WFP),

said there was no longer a question of assisting with the harvest, but of providing


"We have already provided 1,000 metric tons of rice to drought affected areas,"

Sarabanamuttu said.

He added that the WFP was assessing the situation and further responses could include

the free distribution of rice in areas where no other options were available.



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