If the country’s agriculture sector is to meet its growth potential, the Agriculture Ministry must receive far more than the current 1 percent of the 2009 budget, experts said this week.
Government spending on agriculture research must increase, and other services must be bolstered in order for local farmers to be in a position to first meet the domestic demand for fruits, vegetables and grains, and eventually to export Cambodian cash crops, experts said.
About 1.06 percent, or $19 million, of the government’s $1.8 billion budget for 2009 will be spent on the agriculture sector, according to budget figures approved by the National Assembly this month.
Yang Saing Koma, president of the Center for Studies and Development of Cambodian Agriculture, also known by its French acronym, Cedac, said the sector’s lack of government support is difficult to comprehend.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Yang Saing Koma said. “Everybody talks about how important agriculture is to developing the economy, improving poverty reduction and in terms of rural development, but then the money spent on agriculture is very small.”
The Agriculture Ministry’s budget has historically been low, which has discouraged the production of cash crops—something that improves farm income—by the country’s predominately subsistence farmers, said Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association.
The budgetary allocation for the Agriculture Ministry should be five times what it is, he said, adding that the government must do more to educate farmers, conduct research on disease prevention and find good locations to grow specific crops.
“It needs government investment, and so far that’s not the case,” Chan Sophal said by telephone Tuesday. “The first problem is know-how: People don’t have enough skills to do it.”
Sok Saravuth, director of budgets for the Finance Ministry, said government spending on agriculture included more than just allocations to the Agriculture Ministry.
The budgets of the Ministry of Water Resources builds irrigation canals, which are used by farmers; the Ministry of Land Management issues land titles, which are prized by farmers; and the Rural Development Ministry builds roads that are used by farmers, he said.
And despite what experts may say, Sok Saravuth maintains that the government is paying plenty of attention, financially, to the country’s millions of poor farmers.
“[Critics] think that the government is not paying enough attention to agriculture. That is not correct,” he said.
A visit to any of Phnom Penh’s markets, however, tells a very different story.
Standing at his orange stand at O’Russei Market, vendor Bun Thorn explains how he is forced to sell oranges imported from neighboring Vietnam because Battambang province’s orange groves don’t produce enough fruit for domestic demand.
But so as not to disappoint his Cambodian customers, who want to buy locally grown fruit, Bun Thorn admits he tells a white lie.
“I tell customers they are all from Battambang,” he said.
The same is true of many other varieties of fruits and vegetables on sale at markets and supermarkets throughout the country.
The government has not done enough to remedy the situation in which farm produce from Vietnam and Thailand is easier to obtain than the equivalent produce grown in Cambodia, Chan Sophal and Yang Saing Koma said.
For example, in Battambang province, silver leaf disease has ravaged the province’s historic orange groves, decimating the crop and impoverishing farmers, and the government has not done enough about it, Yang Saing Koma said.
“I hope the government does something to stop this from repeating,” Yang Saing Koma said, referring to the silver leaf outbreak.
Cash crops, including Battambang’s dwindling oranges, require a lot of investment and time to develop, but the rewards outweigh those of staple crops such as rice and corn, Yang Saing Koma said.
“There is high demand for these kinds of cash crops,” he added.
Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun said his ministry wants to increase cash crops in the country, admitting that the country still does not produce enough fruit and vegetables. But the problems are not just financial, he said, noting that tackling silver leaf disease in Battambang has been challenging.
The ministry, he said, asked farmers in some areas of Battambang to cut down all their orange trees to stop the spread of the fungal disease, which has infected many groves over the past 10 years.
Farmers refused to destroy their trees, he said, even though the ministry offered resistant strains of orange trees to replace them.
“A good standard of living also depends on cash crops,” he said.