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".