poipet, Banteay Meanchey province – Each night, up to 20 tons of rice are smuggled along a series of cross-border paths into Thailand with the complicity of border authorities, residents and officials here said Monday.
Law enforcement is virtually impossible against the ability of locals to open and re-open clandestine paths, officials, including Battambang Governor Ung Samy, said.
“It is rather hard to stop Cambodians from trading with Thai businessmen,” Ung Samy said Tuesday.
A Ministry of Commerce official, who asked not to be named, said Friday in Battambang that rice exports to Thailand soared in December when farmers in this rice-rich area harvested their wet-season crop.
Ministry of Agriculture officials, concerned over the cross-border rice movements, began this month to emphasize the need to plan for food shortages.
Cambodia, which produces an annual rice crop of about 2 million tons, was forced last year to buy 50,000 tons of rice—the most in recent memory—to feed its population.
A regional rice shortfall in 1998 sparked higher prices and sent an estimated 250,000 tons of rice—mostly unlicensed—to foreign buyers, according to figures from the Association of Rice Merchants of Cambodia.
Poipet’s border police chief, while admitting that some of his staff are involved in the unchecked trade, said the practice was widespread. Local police units and soldiers are largely the ones opening the cross-border paths for their own profit, he said.
“The smugglers here are not civilians,” Sar Chamrong said Monday. “Most of them are the armed forces.”
Essentially, local soldiers and police open paths that run off of National Route 6, a mere 100 meters or more into the bamboo and banana tree forests surrounding Poipet’s border checkpoint.
About 16 of the paths exist, said Sar Chamrong.
The path bosses charge fees to local rice brokers, who buy the rice from area farmers and then hire porters to carry the bags on their shoulders at nighttime on the paths.
“My group alone, with a few porters, can carry at least 600 rice bags overnight. So it is never less than 10 tons,” said 32-year-old rice porter Lors Hay.
On some nights, Lors Hay said, the amount reaches 20 tons.
In Thailand right now, rice brings the equivalent of 450 riel (about $0.12) per kilogram, 30 riel (less than $0.01) more than in Cambodia, the traders say. And that, they say, makes all the difference in making profits.
While the cross-border sale of rice by individual farmers is not illegal, brokers are required to have licenses and pay taxes on the rice exports. Each broker is also assigned a yearly quota.
When Cambodia’s rice supply is at its lowest in June and July, Vietnam’s rice harvest peaks. Usually, prices there drop and Cambodian rice traders buy heavily at the border.
However, Cambodia’s rice shortfall was exacerbated last year when Southeast Asian prices shot up in the wake of a regional drought.
The dilemma forced the Ministry of Commerce to buy 50,000 tons of rice from foreign suppliers after unchecked cross-border trade wiped out Cambodia’s slight rice surplus from the previous wet season.
(Additional reporting by Marc Levy)
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