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Poverty 'quagmire' probed by CDRI

Poverty 'quagmire' probed by CDRI

A recent report about Cambodia's rural economy stated current development policies

might not alleviate the plight of the country's poor.

Though the economy has maintained a growth rate at around 5 percent over the past

decade, the proportion of the population below the poverty line has remained static

at over a third of the population.

Since poverty reduction has been much slower than growth of national income, the

Cambodia Development Research Institute (CDRI) study Land and Rural Livelihoods examined

the status of workers in the agrarian economy. Nine villages were surveyed to provide

a glimpse into the lives of the approximately 85 percent of the population who live

in rural areas.

"It is not clear whether the new 'community-based' management of resources,

which has been proposed by the government and donors alike, would find a solution

to this quagmire," said the report.

One problem, said CDRI's Chan Sophal, one of the report's authors, was access to

fisheries and forests which are still restricted despite efforts such as the subdecree

to grant 50 percent of fishing lots to communes.

Local management would have a greater impact on poverty reduction, said Sophal, and

gave the example of one village in the study that was better off after it actually

received access to 50 percent of the fish. However too often commercial interests

do not allow communes to access the resources.

"Enforcement of the law is more important," he said. "Most of the

benefits are channeled to the Phnom Penh people."

Food security was exacerbated by the steadily mounting population in which few family

members earned money yet had many children to support. Agriculture was not expanding

fast enough to feed the population, said the report.

Farm yields were low due to credit constraints, inadequately controlled irrigation,

as well as poor infrastructure and links to markets. That combined with fluctuations

in rice prices left small farmers facing perpetual indebtedness.

Farming provided only about a third of rural income which meant villagers also relied

heavily on natural resources. However forests, water, fish and mangroves were all

under increased strain because they were not properly managed.

"It is not that the village communities are responsible for all the degradation

- in fact much of the demand emerges from outside the agrarian society - but they

nevertheless face the consequences," the report stated.

Sophal said there needed to be a change in attitude towards resource management.

"I think we need to reconsider the approach we've used so far," he said.

"Commercialization hasn't benefited the poor; it has benefited the rich."

CDRI's Kim Sedara, who also co-authored the study, said: "In every country,

when you have a population increase you have very limited natural resources. There's

no way you can manage them."

As natural resources were the main source of people's livelihoods, landlessness stood

out as a significant problem. Around 20 percent of rural households did not own land

and absolute landlessness was increasing by about 2 percent each year. Strangely,

those with land were often worse off.

"I think one of the striking issues is the near landlessness," said Sophal.

"Landlessness, per se, doesn't matter very much."

One quarter of the survey population was found to hold land plots of less than 0.5

hectares, an insufficient size to make them economically viable. And since they are

tied to the land during the cultivation period, most will not leave in search of

opportunities like those who do not have property.

"It's important that other job opportunities open for them," said Sophal.

The study said despite past census reports indicating otherwise, most rural workers

performed wage labor. But as farm jobs declined for low skilled workers, other employment

was not expanding fast enough. Also the wages were usually insufficient to ensure

households got enough to eat.

"To compensate for low incomes, increasing numbers, particularly from border

areas, travel to either Thailand where the wages could be higher, or migrate to urban

areas in a hope to earn a better living," said the study.

CDRI's Sophal added that if the situation in rural areas did not change "we'll

see more poverty and more cross border and rural migration".

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