Within a week, the Minister of Agriculture Veng Sokhon has gone from apologising to Cambodian farmers on Facebook for not taking action in time over the fast falling prices of the rice paddy to blaming the private sector for being careless and “not smart” enough to compete regionally.
The minister has failed to look at the real picture in the agricultural sector as the falling prices of the rice paddy is one of the effects of a total systematic failure stemming from the lack of a visionary leadership. National policies that should put small-scale farmers first are needed as government’s priority and not large-scale land economic concessions that are in many cases a store front for illegal logging and timber conversion.
When over a thousand farmers in Battambang protested by blocking National Road 5 last weekend their message was not just about the falling prices of rice paddy but a legitimate protest against the years of having to survive floods and droughts with little support.
The losses and damages the farmers and the nation have had to bear are well recorded in the study conducted by a team from the National Committee for Disaster Management and the UNDP. Furthermore, independent economists have long pointed to the need for a low-interest financing for farmers that takes into consideration the harvest cycle. The prime minister has at various times called on microfinance institutions to lower interest rate as farmers are increasingly caught in the cycle of debts.
They ultimately pay for the high costs of production, seeds and transportation. Hundreds and thousands have had to leave their farms and have crossed the border to Thailand to escape their unmet payments and to seek better pay as unskilled workers.
The losses that Cambodia can never recover unless drastic measures and with a strong political will are the accelerated clearances of land for agricultural purposes, which has caused environmental disasters and victimized hundreds and thousands of farmers.
Despite many serious warnings from experts and land rights activists, the Ministry of Agriculture has shown no clear leadership in addressing the alarming situation. Tycoons and officials in the armed forces are known to be involved in the timber trade as reported in the Global Witness report.
Finally, the blame game and pointing finger at the business sector for falling to meet the farmers’ market needs is utterly discouraging. This is particularly unhelpful at a time when coordination and trust building between all stakeholders is most needed for Cambodia to expand its niche for its much valued fragrant rice and to compete in the regional market.
Mu Sochua, MP
Cambodia National Rescue Party