For only the second time in more than two decades, Cambodia is expected to grow enough
rice to feed itself this year but the war-shattered country is unlikely to ever regain
its position as the "rice bowl of Southeast Asia", agronomists in Phnom
"This year looks terrific. The nurseries started off reasonably early, we had
timely rains and so if we don't have a drought like last year it should be good,"
Harry Nesbitt, manager of the Cambodian-IRRI Rice Project said.
He said that a ''mini drought'' which hits Cambodia every July or August had been
prolonged last year and caused the loss of more than 200,000 tonns of paddy.
"If all the areas that were planted last year had been harvested Cambodia could
have successfully fed itself," he said.
According to forecasts prepared by the Food and Agricultural Organization, this year's
rice crop is expected to yield 2,820,000 tonns of paddy, up from 2,400,000 tonns
But the return of 360,000 Cambodian refugees from border camps in Thailand over the
last 12 months is likely to maintain pressure on domestic rice stocks.
"It is close to self sufficiency but there is still a distribution problem and
for that reason they are going to have to produce more rice," said Roland Marijnissen,
head of the FAO program in Cambodia.
With the exception of 1990, when a small surplus of 9,000 tonns was recorded, the
last time Cambodian rice farmers were able to meet the country's needs was 1970,
the year Prince Norodom Sihanouk was ousted in a U.S-backed coup and the beginning
of more than 20 years of civil war and social upheaval.
Before to the outbreak of fighting, Cambodia was one of the world's leading exporters
of rice. From the mid-60s to 1970, average annual exports were more than half a million
Despite last year's shortage Cambodian rice merchants still sold an estimated 35,000
tonns across the western border to Thailand. Analysts said however this should be
seen more as a reflection of the poor state of the roads and rail links in Cambodia
which make shipping rice to the central markets in Phnom Penh less viable then selling
to Thailand, the world's leading exporter of rice.
"In the future Cambodia will probably export rice again but it will only be
in small amounts," Nesbitt said.
He said the country had been able to produce large surpluses of rice in the sixties
because of its small population and its then comparatively developed economy.
In the intervening years, the population has increased 50 percent to nine million
and Cambodia's economy and infrastructure have been destroyed by civil war. Banditry
and land mines and have rendered large swathes of arable land unusable to agriculture.
Other traditional areas for rice growing have been damaged by Khmer Rouge leader
Pol Pot's radical scheme to build irrigation canals dug in fixed one kilometer grids
across the country during his four year rule in the late 1970s.
The scheme, which was part of an attempt to turn Cambodia into an agricultural paradise,
was implemented without regard to natural contours or slopes, and the widespread
network of hand-dug canals now serves more as a drainage than irrigation system,
hindering efforts to increase productivity.
"The idea was good and it might have worked if he's had some good hydrologists,"
Other dams and earthworks built during the Pol Pot era continue to block flood waters
to areas were double cropping might be possible, he said.
Ninety percent of Cambodia's rice is rain-fed and the average yield of 1.5 tonns
per hectare is among the lowest in Asia.
Over the short term, significant improvements in rice production are likely to be
gained only through the re-introduction of fertilizers in the better water-controlled
FAO agronomists said they have been able to boost yields by 150 percent at farm-level
trials with low doses of fertilizer. However even at the cost of $35 dollars per
hectare, access to fertilizer remains a problem for farmers in a country where the
per capita income is $175 per annum.
In 1989, the government moved to liberalize the economy but the return to a price-driven
agricultural system has yet to result in a reliable market network and affordable
credit remains a constraint.
In the longer term, reclamation of land will prove crucial. Nearly 800,00 ha of rice
lands are presently unutilized. The most important areas include 200,000 ha around
the rich alkaline plains of northwestern Battambang province and 500,000 ha of floating
rice areas which were abandoned during the Khmer Rouge's reign and have yet to be
reclaimed because of security problems and the mechanically-intensive approach which
is needed to prepare these lands.
The Khmer Rouge leadership believed the low-yielding wet-land rice to be unfeasible
and sent the farmers to the uplands.
Some experts have doubted whether Cambia's future lies with rice which currently
accounts for 73 percent of total crop output value. A 1992 World Bank report on the
prospects of Cambodia's agricultural sector suggested that because of persistent
water shortages "the comparative advantage of Cambodia as a rice exporting nation
will have to be addressed within the next three years "
FAO's Marijnissen said that "despite the annual flooding there is in fact a
stress on water.
"Cambodia has only one crop per plot per year where as parts of Vietnam they
have three. They may have to go to diversification , maybe maize, maybe other crops.
But first you first we have to feed the population", he said.