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Rice Glory Days are History

Rice Glory Days are History

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

Penh said.

"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

last year.

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

tonns.

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,"

Nesbitt said.

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

areas.

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.

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