The road leading from the temple of Banan, a few kilometres outside the city of Battambang, to the village of Tomnup Karhot used to be lined with orange trees. Now this pastoral landscape is broken by an occasional mango tree.
Like most of the villagers around here, Mon Sakhoeun’s family have grown oranges for about 10 years. A few years ago, they had between 600 and 700 orange trees.
Now Mon Sakhoeun stands in the middle of a field surrounded by dead or dying trees. It’s easy to snap branches from their trunks.
“They died two or three years ago,” Mon Sakhoeun, 23, says.
“We tried to pump water to them, but the leaves turned red and they never have any fruit.”
Mon Sakhoeun has cut down about half her trees, keeping as many as she can.
“Some trees still have green leaves and still produce fruit,” she says. Others have become part of the fence that protects the unproductive land.
Now her family has begun to grow mangoes, as well as a few papayas and bananas.
“Before, there used to be orange trees all around here,” Mon Sakhoeun says. “But when they began to die, people cleared the land and started growing mangoes.”
There can be no quick fix for the villagers of Tomnup Karhot, as it takes three years until newly planted trees bear fruit.
“We are sorry the orange trees are dying, because our region is very famous for oranges,” Mon Sakhoeun says.
“We want to grow oranges again, but we don’t know when.”
Down the road, Khek Oeur, 52, has been growing oranges since 1993. “The trees began to die in 2008, little by little,” she says.
“They say orange trees last only 15 years and then die, and we have seen some disease. Insects have eaten the roots of the trees.”
Khek Oeur’s daughter, Pov Chenda, 25, says the lack of any information from officials of the Ministry of Agriculture has left them in a state of limbo.
“We don’t yet know how long we have to wait, because the reason [for the death of the trees] they [ministry officials] have not told us,” she says.
The family has resorted to seeking advice from merchants selling fertiliser at the market.
“We do not plan to plant oranges yet because the fertiliser merchants say the insects are still in the land and will destroy the new trees,” Pov Chenda says.
Khek Oeur has three small groves on which she used to have 750 orange trees.
“In the first one, all the trees have died, in the second a few are left and in the third I have about 100,” she says.
Her friend Vat Him, 42, also had 750 trees on three groves. She has fared even worse than Khek Oeur.
“I lost them all,” she says.
Although she could earn as much as US$10,000 for her orange crop, Vat Him now depends on the $250 she receives for the corn she grows in its place.
Khek Oeur grows seasonal crops such as beans, chillis and pumpkins.
“We have to live according to our conditions,” Vat Him says. “It’s difficult, but we don’t know what else to do.”
None of the farmers has received any compensation.
“We don’t know about the fut-ure. If we can grow, we will grow. If we cannot grow … ,” Khek Oeur’s words trail off into a laugh.
For now, all she can do is wait.
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY