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Ibis Rice exports on horizon

Workers process and pack rice into bags at the Ibis Rice mill in Phnom Penh
Workers process and pack rice into bags at the Ibis Rice mill in Phnom Penh. The project has this year seen rice production hit a surplus for the first time. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Ibis Rice exports on horizon

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) says its Ibis Rice project has recorded a production surplus for the first time in its five-year history, prompting a bid to export the boutique product overseas.

Concentrated in Preah Vihear province, Ibis Rice farmers produced more than 435 tonnes of organically grown, fragrant Malis rice during the 2013-14 harvest season, up 54 per cent from the previous season, according to a WCS report.

The Ibis Rice project is operated by NGO Sansom Mlup Prey (SMP) and pays farmers a premium of up to 150 riel ($0.03) per kilogram more than other local buyers. In return, farmers commit to strict regulations barring them from additional land clearances, thereby protecting surrounding wildlife areas including the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary.

More than 300 farmers participating in the Ibis Rice project collectively earned upwards of $12,400 more selling to the wildlife-friendly project than if they had sold paddy to local buyers, the March update said.

The WCS estimates that 90 per cent of all participating members adhere to the project’s land clearance restrictions and that, in the past five years, habitat clearance rates have been halved as a result.

Karen Nielsen, conservation livelihoods adviser for the group, said that with the positive 2013-14 harvest results, the WCS and SMP are looking for exporters to ship the rice to American and European markets.

“At the end of 2013, there was a surplus for the very first time, which is good news . . . The new challenge now is to find more markets for our increased volumes, which are going to continue to grow,” Nielsen said.

“Unlike most consumer products, Ibis Rice’s growth is not driven by demand, though it’s there. That being said, there have been quite a number of queries from exporters,” she added.

Being an NGO, WCS is not legally allowed to export products and needs to sell its product to a third party exporter to tap into off-shore markets. Ibis Rice is currently sold locally to a handful of hotels and the Lucky Supermarket chain.

Srey Chanty, an independent economist specialising in the agriculture sector, said Ibis Rice’s efforts are honourable but that there would need to be continued work to make the most of the farmers’ restricted cultivation area.

“The NGO needs to address the necessity for improved productivity so farmers can continue to provide for their families without expanding their lands,” he said.

David Van, deputy general secretary of the Alliance of Rice Producers & Exporters of Cambodia, commended the Ibis Rice project’s design; however, he warned that it is
a tough export market for small producers.

“I would honestly say an annual production of . . . less than 500 tonnes is negligible,” Van said in an email.

“Ibis’ format/approach is far too small in cultivated surface area and tonnage produced to be at anytime commercially viable,” he added, citing the project’s premium buying stance as a potential
set back.

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