A workshop at the LRA forum (clockwise from center rear): Dr Keppel Coughlan, team leader, CARDI project; Jeff Milne, Cambodia-Aust agricultural extension adviser, Dr David Dent, director, World Soil Information, Netherlands; Prof. Lek Moncharoen, assoc. prof, Mahidol University,Thailand; Grahame Hunter, director of Aus-AID agriculture projects; Dr Seng Vang, head of CARDI soil and water science program; unidentified interpreter; Prof. Richard Bell, assoc. prof. Murdoch University.
A s efforts to unlock Cambodia's vast agricultural potential gather momentum, the government and development agencies are working on land use assessment and planning practices to lay the groundwork for sustainable land use.
Although accurate numbers are difficult to determine, perhaps one million hectares suitable for upland crops exists in the northeast and northwest, but only 20 percent is utilized. Apart from rubber growing, Cambodia's uplands have been left to ad hoc development and research is just starting to take up the challenge to define technologies for sustainable land use in non-rice growing areas.
A first set of principles and guidelines for land resource assessment in Cambodia was recently thrashed out at a four-day Land Resource Assessment Forum (LRAF) at the Cambodian Agriculture Research and Development Institute (CARDI) in Phnom Penh.
Experts from numerous countries participated. Organizations represented at the forum included the German Government development agency GTZ, AusAid (these two were the principal funders), World Soil Information (Netherlands), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Murdoch University (Aust), the Japan International Co-operation Agency, the Asian Development Bank, and SEILA, the Cambodian Government decentralization agency.
This event had particular significance because for the first time two Cambodian Government ministries with a vested interest in the sensible use of land for agricultural production worked together.
The Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, Im Chhun Lim, delivered the opening address. Minister of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Chang Sarun attended, and his Secretary of State Chang Tong Yves delivered the closing speech. Senior officials from both ministries participated in workshops.
Grahame Hunter, a spokesman for the organizing committee, described the co-operation between the two ministries as "landmark," without which the forum could not have proceeded.
Hunter said it was desirable, if not essential, to the successful implementation of land use plans that other government institutions "harmonize" their roles and responsibilities and get involved. Specifically mentioned were the ministries of Commerce, Environment and Interior.
The objective of land resource assessments is to provide geographically referenced data and maps of the physical attributes (principally soil and water) of the land and to determine its suitability for commercial small-holder agriculture and livestock production that can be used to direct an industry-driven land use plan. This will help underpin a transition from farming for subsistence to farming as a business, resulting in economic growth driven by small and medium enterprises in the sector.
Forum organizers are lobbying for a formalized land use planning project supported by donors and endorsed by the Government.
Im Chhun Lim, significant political will required.
The two major requirements to advance sustainable commercial land use are: a strategy for a reconnaissance survey of the whole of Cambodia that will enable a land capability classification to be made of all land; and a methodology that can be tested in a selected region to define land suitability for an agro-industry development.
GTZ has indicated a willingness to carry out the reconnaissance survey.
"Land capability" includes estimating how intensely land can be farmed; for example, a classification may prescribe Class 4 land with very severe limitations for cropping, requiring irrigation, drainage, or fertilization, whereas Class 2 land has moderate limitations and may be continuously cropped.
"We are laying the foundations for the benefit of rational decision-making in land use," Hunter said. "We're looking at economic growth, investment, income generation and market links for small holders. Too much land is being used for the wrong purposes, simply because nobody has the knowledge of what it should be used for."
The need for comprehensive land use assessment tools was spurred on by Dr Willi Zimmerman's remark that they were "urgently required." Zimmerman was until recently team leader of the multi-donor funded Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP). The project has a five-year mandate and at the halfway point has surveyed, created and issued 273,000 land titles, mostly in rural areas. Titles are currently being issued at the rate of 22,000 per month. LMAP has 1,200 (mostly government) employees and a budget of some $40 million.
The granting of legal titles to farming familes offers a chance to escape subsistence rice farming by creating better opportunities to borrow working capital and explore commercial options.
However, LMAP is making such rapid progress in a country still lacking marketing infrastructure that there are concerns about negative outcomes.
"The country urgently needs to build agri-business and create jobs and there is not much happening," Zimmerman said. "There should be 100,000 jobs, not 10,000."
He was "totally confident" about the other key ministries supporting the land use project. "They will all support it. If MAFF agrees, the other ministries will also."
A limited amount of land resource assessment has already been done. CARDI has defined and mapped soil types suitable for rice production. Murdoch University and the West Australian Dept of Agriculture are assessing non-rice crop soil suitability in parts of Kampong Cham, Takeo and Battambang. And the Cambodia Australia Agricultural Extension Project uses agro-ecosystem analysis to determine extension needs (disseminating advice, ideas and solutions to farmers).
The principles and guidelines for land resource assessment will benefit from the CARDI research. This can be applied to predict and map yield and yield response of other crops in double-cropped rice-based systems, and also in field and fruit tree crops in uplands.
Land capability will be assessed using data inputs on soil constraints for a range of selected crops (soybean, mung bean, maize, sesame and peanut) and on growth requirements of each crop considered a realistic prospect for specific agro-ecosystems.
The products of the CARDI research will be maps showing land suitability for particular crops in the study areas and a report describing each of the main soil groups, their major constraints for crop production, capability ranking and overall suitability for different crop options. The CARDI group work will describe a methodology for continued land suitability assessment in other provinces.
Willi Zimmerman, confident other key ministries will agree.
In a paper promoting the concept of the LRAF, Hunter explained that as the uplands become targets for agriculture, "it is imperative that some assessment is made of their capability to direct proper land use lest an ad hoc use arise that is technically undesirable or cannot be sustained."
Land degradation (erosion, decline of soil fertility) through misuse, and uneconomic farming systems, was occurring in some locations already and would materialize as a national liability. He said soil salinity in Thailand and acid sulphate problems in Vietnam were linked to inappropriate land use.
Unused land - economic land concessions, state land, and unmanaged forest and protected areas - are inevitably exposed to settlement by squatters who tend to apply land uses driven by low risk/low input farming.
However, assessing land suitability for cropping would not ensure its application in land use, according to Hunter.
"Legislation could protect land from misuse, but requires political will to police and prosecute breaches," he said. "Land use is best driven by commercial incentive through agro-industry development. If industry can offer production incentives land use will likely follow market imperatives and reduce the need to rely on legal regulation.
"Therefore, land resource assessment must be coupled with an agro-industry analysis to determine value adding opportunities, infrastructure requirements and markets. Special attention should be given to new models of agro-industry/small holder co-operation or contract farming," he said.
Hunter urged that a detailed study be made on the evolution of market-driven contract maize farming in the upland border areas with Thailand, mainly to Thai companies. More than 100,000 hectares are reportedly under contract and the growers have to accept the terms they are offered.
He said the major constraint currently to land use assessment and planning was a shortage of human resources, but the inclusion of land resource assessment within all land development projects should help to build the skills base.
MLMUPC Minister Im Chhun Lim said improved land management and tenure security was a cornerstone of the government's strategy for economic growth.
"A recent poverty and social impact assessment indicated that at village or commune level, virtually no non-forest land is considered unclaimed and readily available for distribution. Reorienting land allocation will therefore require significant political will ... to overcome both internal and vested interests," he said.
"Experiences from elsewhere suggest the role of government should not be too prescriptive, but rather to guide and facilitate investment by allocating state land for sustainable use, developing the market, attracting investment, regulating the industry, securing land tenure, resolving land disputes and providing public infrastructure," he said.
MAFF's Chan Tong Yves said land resource assessment was critical for Cambodia. "It is the first step on the path to economic independence. If we fail at that step we can never reach the vision of an agricultural sector driving exports and allowing Cambodia to take full advantage of its accession to the WTO."
IMF pushing for agricultural reform
The International Monetary Fund is pushing for speedier removal of impediments to agricultural sector growth in Cambodia.
In its 2004 country assessment report, the IMF says there is an urgent need for the government to focus on the land situation. The report specifically cites the need to audit the process by which economic concessions on state land are awarded; to review transfers of ownership of de-mined and de-forested land; and to identify impediments to cultivation by farmers.
"Limited access to markets due to poor and insufficient roads and lack of information on prices subjects small-scale farmers to unfair competition," the report says. "In addition, lack of warehouses contributes to huge price swings between post and pre-harvest seasons - close to 100 percent sometimes - exposing poor farmers to very volatile income.
"Perhaps establishing agricultural associations and co-operatives could strengthen the bargaining position of small farmers and improve their access to financial resources," the report says.
The IMF said the government should review, together with donors, the current allocation of foreign aid flows. Although weak administrative capacity may have required 40 to 50 percent of aid to pay for technical co-operation (a large part of it spent on salaries for expats), such allocation may not be appropriate in the period ahead as Cambodia enters a new phase of reconstruction.
"Moreover, the enormous investment needs of the agricultural sector argue for sharper focus on building simple infrastructure rather than more studies and reviews, except where there is a clear need," the IMF said.