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Daily grind for pepper paupers

Daily grind for pepper paupers

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The southern province of Kampot is renowned for more than just its proximity to the

reviving seaside resort of Kep. It is also the nearest town to the former mountain-top

casino and hotel at Bokor, now a tourist site reached only by a bad road. Then there

is the area's long association with the Khmer Rouge, whose forces held out in the

nearby hills until the mid-1990s.

Villager Ek Net has 180 pepper poles on her farm; General Ke Kim Yan is heading for 10,000.

But it is arguably more famous for something else: Kampot pepper. There is now talk

of exporting the crop, something that last happened in 1979, says Kampot's governor,

Put Chandarith. Today all the pepper grown in the province feeds only the domestic

market.

You might think that those growing pepper are small-holders, scratching a living

from a commodity whose price has been in decline for years. Most fit that picture,

but there are some surprisingly big names attached to pepper farming.

The biggest name is General Ke Kim Yan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian

Armed Forces. He owns several dozen well-maintained hectares of land around Phnom

Voar, the former KR stronghold. Sixteen hectares is used to grow durian, with three

hectares devoted to pepper.

The word on the village street is that when KR commander Chhouk Rin defected to the

government in 1996, he signed over his pepper farm at Chamkar Bei to the general

in a secret deal.

Spurious nonsense, says Ke Kim Yan's farm manager, Heng Keak: the general bought

the land from ten local families. Whatever the truth, the deal made Ke Kim Yan the

owner of the largest pepper farm in the area. It comes with all the trimmings of

a modern farm: a tractor, water pumps and upwards of 200 workers at harvest time.

Local villagers are less fortunate. Thirty-nine-year-old Ek Net says the shade-loving

pepper plants on her plot miss the forest cover, which was largely destroyed when

the KR defected. She now resorts to cutting coconut leaves to build a protective

roof for them.

However, says the mother of seven, peace meant she was able to claim a patch of land,

30 meters by 30 meters, in Trapang Chrey village in Kampong Trach district.

"Between 1979 and 1996 I continually had to move from place to place to grow

pepper," she says. "My farm could be taken at any time when there was fighting,

but now I own it, which makes it easier to concentrate on my crop."

Kampot's best years, as with so many other parts of Cambodia, were prior to 1975.

Ek Net says years of fighting ruined the forests, which reduced rainfall and shade,

both vital to growing pepper.

A researcher at Ke Kim Yan's farm, Ou Khe, says there is not much information available

on the quantities of pepper exported after 1980. He says the general has invested

$250,000 since 1996 in his farm on his 7,700 pepper trees. He wants to add 500 extra

trees a year until he has 10,000.

Ou Khe's research has also revealed that the villagers living around Phnom Voar have

between them some 30,000 poles. Each pole supports one gangly pepper tree, which

grows in a spiral around it.

Ek Net's farm has 180 poles. Those with large tracts of land, she says, have nothing

to worry about. Her main concern is the declining price of pepper.

"I can only hold a small piece of land because I don't have enough money and

energy to work more than that," she says. Each pole cost her 13,000 riel (around

$3.25), and the return is slow in coming as pepper cannot be harvested for the first

four years.

Two years ago Ek Net's crop earned 20,000 riel a kilogram; now she gets only 7,000

riel. She says the reason for the decline is unclear, but she suspects it may be

that more villagers have turned to the crop, just as she did, when the fighting ceased.

The knowledge required to grow pepper in her village, she says, was handed down from

the old people who recalled the skills used decades ago.

"But my generation has now been faced with drought, which completely destroyed

the trees here," she says. "Pepper plantations depend heavily on wet soil

and shade, but since the forests were destroyed we have been forced to pump water

from a well. That costs a lot of money."

As Ek Net points out, that is of little concern to the likes of the general. Anyone

who can afford hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop their land is unlikely

to struggle with the costs of pumping water.

The general's farm manager, Heng Keak, feels the future of pepper farming in the

area lies with large landholders like his boss. He quotes figures showing that, prior

to the KR takeover in 1975, half of the people in the area grew pepper. Now less

than 1 percent do.

Only the wealthy, says Keak, are able to establish pepper farms, especially these

days when the land is often degraded. The future of the villagers could depend in

part on the general's willingness to buy their crop.

Researcher Ou Khe says Ke Kim Yan plans to start exporting dried, black pepper to

France next year. A French businessman visited in February to assess the quality

of the crop and whether the farm could produce a sufficient quantity. He was looking

for 1,500 tons of pepper a year.

"We don't yet have enough pepper to supply him because our production is still

small," Khe says, "but Excellency Ke Kim Yan plans to encourage the villagers

to grow more peppers which he will then buy from them."

It remains to be seen whether the villagers will benefit, lose or even hear about

that purported deal. What it won't alter are the afflictions that currently blight

their lives: the lack of forest cover, sporadic droughts that require the expense

of renting a water pump, and generally poor prices for agricultural commodities.

Ek Net says her trees can produce around 100 kilograms of pepper annually. At the

current price that will earn her just $175. The money comes in sporadically; the

pepper ripens at different times on different trees, which means she only sells a

few kilograms at a time.

For now though it generates enough to feed her family. She is hopeful that the rains

due after Khmer New Year will assure her of a decent harvest for this year at least.

But growing pepper on a small scale, she says, remains a hand-to-mouth existence.

"I cannot save money for the future, and if I cannot take care of the pepper

trees there will be fewer peppers on each stem, which means I will earn less,"

she says. "But I have no choice - there is simply no other work available in

our village."

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