Climate change has left a bitter taste for the Kampong Speu palm sugar trade, leading to an estimated 50 per cent drop in production this year despite an upturn in market demand.
Palm sugar is made from the sap of the flowers of the palmyra palm (Borassus flabellifer) in the dry season, typically from November to end-May, with peak season starting in April – the hottest month of the year in Cambodia.
Kampong Speu palm sugar, or “Skor Thnot Kampong Speu”, is a variety certified with geographical indication (GI) status, protections of which restrict production to only three of Cambodia’s 176 districts, which form a continuous region that borders Phnom Penh to the west.
Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association (KSPSPA) president Sam Saroeun told The Post that climate change has made rainfall patterns unpredictable, with unseasonal showers starting from April stalling harvests and sugar production, resulting in insufficient supply to meet demand.
Due to the unfavourable weather, association members have produced a mere 70-80 tonnes this season, or just over half of normal, compared to the 150 tonnes ordered by exporters, Saroeun lamented. He affirmed that production had reached 157 tonnes last year.
Saroeun noted that one of Kampong Speu palm sugar’s requirements as a GI is that it be produced in the namesake province’s Oudong or Samrong Tong districts, or Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, which borders the former two on the east.
He explained that soils in the three districts are well-drained and sandy throughout at least the upper 0.8m, with a layer of gravel below. Soil conditions are ideal for palmyra palm trees to make a top-notch, delectable sugar with a colour reminiscent of pumpkin pulp, he said.
Saroeun declined to put a price tag on the prized commodity, saying that disclosure would undermine exporters’ interests. However, he said a household of growers could earn $4,000-5,000 per season from the trade.
He said three companies and one local trader had bought palm sugar for an undisclosed number of exporters to ship to markets such as South Korea and China.
Saroeun was hesitant to make predictions about the production of Kampong Speu palm sugar next year. “We’ll have to wait and see what the weather has in store, but as long as the farmers can produce it, then these companies will buy it all,” he said.
Hay Ly Eang, CEO of Confirel Co Ltd,a major exporter of Kampong Speu palm sugar, confirmed the shortfall in the GI product’s supply as well as its uptick in international demand, which he credited to its “well-known reputation” abroad for taste and quality.
“Our palm sugar has received a lot of attention from the European market as a high-quality product, unlike the palm sugar sold on the domestic market,” he said.
Although Confirel conducts thorough analyses of market demand before buying palm sugar from farmers, estimates can never be 100 per cent accurate, Ly Eang conceded, declaring that next year the company would set out to stimulate production, to keep pace with the growing appetite for the natural sweetener.
Confirel buys more than 100 tonnes of Kampong Speu palm sugar every year, about 60 per cent of which is imported by its main markets – the EU, US and Japan.
In 2010, the Ministry of Commerce granted domestic GI status to “Kampong Speu Palm Sugar” under the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.
And on April 2, 2019, the European Commission (EC) – the EU’s executive body – announced that it would join Kampot pepper in its registry of protected GIs (PGI), just over three years after the fruit was awarded the status on February 18, 2016.
Any product sold in EU countries purporting to be “Skor Thnot Kampong Speu”, as it was registered, must carry the “EU PGI logo” which certifies that it originates from either Kampong Speu province’s Oudong or Samrong Tong districts, or Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, the EC says.