Attempting to call attention to the havoc low rice prices are wreaking on their livelihoods, hundreds of farmers in Battambang’s Sangke district took to the streets yesterday, symbolically pouring rice onto National Road 5.
“We harvested the rice already but there is no market for it,” explained Sok Chanthy, 46, one of the farmers who joined the protest. “Therefore, all we can do is put the rice on the road so the government will intervene and help us find buyers.”
Despite heavy rains and considerable yields, business this year has been bad for Cambodia’s rice farmers, with traders offering low prices or opting not to buy rice at all, Chanthy explained. As a result, farmers have been unable to pay back the loans they took out for fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural machinery.
“The price of rice was appropriate last year, about 11,000 baht [about $315] per tonne. But this year the traders offered only 6,000 baht [$172] per tonne. How can we sell our rice if it does not even cover our capital?” asked Soeung Soda, 51, another farmer who joined the protest.
Some have blamed the dip in prices on an upsurge in the amount of rice imported from Vietnam. “Vietnam produces far cheaper rice than we do, so it is very appealing to the traders to buy Vietnamese rice and distribute domestically,” said Khem Bunlen, executive director of the Cambodian Farmer Rice company.
But industry experts have noted that rice exports have shrunk across the region over the past two years, impacting rice exports from Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. On Friday, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced he would spend about $27 million to help prop up the struggling sector.
When news of yesterday’s protests reached the authorities, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan took to Facebook to urge farmers to remain calm until the effects of the government intervention could be felt. He also threatened a harsh response to demonstrators.
“Bad individuals or groups using the price of rice as a means to organise people to create turmoil must face responsibility in front of the law,” Siphan said.
According to Chanthy, the protests began about 8am when three large bags of rice were dumped on the road. But the farmers quickly picked the rice up so as not to cause traffic congestion. Still, he said the protests would continue if government support was short-lived.