Rice Farmers Neglected Amid Exports Push

Cambodia’s rice farmers are being neglected amid the government’s push to ramp up exports of milled rice to one million tons by the end of next year, a goal that will only be reached with improved cultivation, agriculture experts and farmers said Wednesday at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Speaking to farmers at a workshop called Improving Rice Value Chain for Enhancing Farmers’ Livelihood, Heang Vanhan, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Agriculture’s general directorate of agriculture, said the government will fall short of its export and surplus targets if rice cultivation and quality are not improved.

“The government has policies to export at least one million tons of rice by 2015 and have rice surpluses of four million tons per year. Rice producers are the most important stakeholders to the implementation of these policies—the top body is just the facilitator,” he said.

“We need to increase the productivity…through a system of rice intensification to produce good rice seeds and more varieties.”

In 2013, Cambodia exported a total of 378,856 tons of milled rice, according to Ministry of Agriculture figures. Exports dropped in the first quarter this year compared to the same period last year, due in large part to decreased demand from Thailand.

Mr. Vanhan said farmers are losing out on being able to command a fair price for their rice due to a lack or organization and bargaining power.

“Farmers need to work together with collective interests as a community and under proper management so they can have more negotiation power with buyers,” he said.

Kan Veasna, a farmer who owns about three hectares of land in Battambang province, said he lacks the ability to bargain with his buyer, whom he relies on for a loan of $500 per year to purchase fertilizer at an interest rate of three percent per month. Mr. Veasna said he is able to produce about 7.5 tons of rice per year, and sells it to a rice miller for about $200 per ton.

“Sometimes we are unable to sell our harvest because millers will refuse to buy due to the quality of rice not meeting their standard. And some millers only want to buy the rice at a price that’s too low for us,” he said.

Mr. Veasna added that he feels the farming community is ignored amid efforts to boost total exports.

“Our voice is not heard,” he said.

About nine million people, or 60 percent of the country’s population, are involved in farming rice over 2.5 million hectares, according to data disseminated at the workshop.

However, only about 40 percent of growers are able to produce rice at a quality and quantity that is fit for export.

Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, said that “most farmers are stuck in [the] mindset of subsistence farming.”

“We need to educate them on quality and standards of the international market and how to produce higher yields through using purer and more marketable seeds, and promote the use of organic fertilizers.”

Sok Puthyvuth, president of the newly formed Cambodian Rice Federation, which aims to streamline the country’s rice industry, said his organization is looking to bring on representatives of farmers from every province.

“Farmers currently feel neglected…and their voice has been diluted,” he said.

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