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Rubber gives economy bounce

Rubber gives economy bounce

The way forward described by the agricultural experts in your article of June 18

("Agriculture: Cambodia's next frontier") hardly represents a new "frontier"

for Cambodia.

The products they name that are destined to drive growth are not new agricultural

export crops for Cambodia. Before the war, maize, for instance, was always the third

major export earner and Cambodia had a very healthy market in live beef and buffalo

exports, particularly to Hong Kong.

The glaring omission from their accounts is rubber.

Apart from rice, rubber has been Cambodia's most important and reliable export item

since independence, worth more in foreign exchange earnings than all the maize, soya,

fish, timber and beef exports put together.

When bombs were raining on the countryside in 1973, Cambodia was still exporting

rubber. Democratic Kampuchea exported rubber.

Among all the world's producers of natural rubber, Cambodia is said to produce the

best quality with the highest yield. And this is done without the assistance of foreign

experts or, as far as we know, foreign direct investment.

In fact, it is not only the agricultural experts who seem to know little about the

current status of rubber production.

The general public outside of Kampong Cham province seem to be unaware of the wealth

generated by plantations on over 50,000 hectares of the country's richest arable

soil.

They know even less about who owns and manages these plantations.

They know a little about working conditions because rubber plantations always rate

a mention when child labour is an issue. But what of land tenure for the hundreds

of families who tap the trees? What are their rights in relation to the privatization

process already underway at Chup, the country's largest and perhaps finest plantation

and which will be extended to all seven state plantations?

What does this privatisation, conditional on a loan from the World Bank in the early

1990s, mean? Is there to be a public bidding process? Who is monitoring this process?

If the foreign aid banks and major donors genuinely want Cambodia to develop a strong

and independent base for agricultural exports, they will guarantee the general public

both transparency and accountability for processes which they initiate.

Margaret Slocomb - Phnom Penh

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