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Government favours fewer farmers

Farmers prepare to plant rice seedlings in Kampot province in 2015. A recent government report proposes policies to absorb workers from the Kingdom’s dwindling agricultural sector.
Farmers prepare to plant rice seedlings in Kampot province in 2015. A recent government report proposes policies to absorb workers from the Kingdom’s dwindling agricultural sector. Pha Lina

Government favours fewer farmers

Pointing to the gradual decline of Cambodians employed in agriculture – from 80 percent in 1990, to 60 percent in 2005, to 40 percent today – a report published on Tuesday on the Ministry of Agriculture’s website declares this process to be both inevitable and healthy if managed correctly.

The report goes on to state that Cambodia should embrace migration of agricultural workers away from farm work, while modernising what remains of the sector, though observers yesterday questioned some of the means recommended.

Among other things, the ministry’s report suggests lobbying foreign countries to accept – or continue accepting – Cambodian migrant workers, while shifting focus to manufacturing and infrastructural improvements.

More controversially, it also suggests encouraging the establishment of economic land concessions (ELCs) for companies that can hire large numbers of people to work on industrial-scale plantations, despite long-standing problems with land disputes and adverse impacts on local economies associated with such ventures.

Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank – which in May touched on the diminishing agriculture sector in an analysis of Cambodian socio-economic changes – said he agreed with the ministry’s embrace of migration.

“Every stakeholder should embrace it and work to make sure that the process is not painful and that the migrants themselves will . . . learn to protect themselves and have access to protection and other supports,” Virak said via email.

Others, however, emphasised the need to export products rather than people.

Moeun Tola, of the labour rights group Central, argued that Cambodia could protect its agricultural sector while industrialising by encouraging entrepreneurs – via tax breaks, for instance – to open factories capable of processing the raw materials harvested by Cambodian farmers. This, said Tola, would diminish production costs, providing an opportunity to raise workers’ wages.

Yang Phirom, a business adviser for the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture and the CEO of Cambodia Organic Farm Enterprise, argued for similar efforts to cut production costs, for instance by opening laboratories that would allow Cambodia to more easily comply with EU-required rice testing for GMOs before exporting the rice.

But Virak, of Future Forum, dismissed arguments that Cambodia should concentrate on exporting agricultural goods, saying they ignored the realities of a global marketplace. “The same countries making this advice are protecting their own agriculture market through different protectionist mechanisms,” he said.

Despite their differences, all three analysts disapproved of the ministry’s enthusiasm for ELCs, which Virak fears will precipitate deforestation. Phirom and Tola opposed ELCs on the grounds that they required farmers to work on company land.

Ministry of Agriculture spokesman Lor Reaksmey declined to comment.

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