Sok Khon was already suffering after almost his entire 16-hectare rice field in Battambang province was ruined by last year’s flooding.
Now his situation has become even worse because of a drop in rice prices, which has left him without money to provide for his family and fix his home.
The reason rice prices are low, experts say, is because of a government ban on exporting unmilled rice, which is in demand from neighboring countries like Thailand and Vietnam.
The government instituted the ban at the end of last year for fear of a possible rice shortage caused by the devastating floods.
One government official said another reason why exporting unmilled rice was banned was because it would be wasteful if rice is not milled here, since the husks and bran from the milled rice are useful for cooking and feeding chickens and pigs.
“It is not yet time for Cambodia to carry out this policy,” said Tes Ethda, general director of the Green Trade Company, which is responsible for buying products, such as rice, for the government. “It should allow people to freely sell. We have to follow the desire of the markets of the neighboring countries.”
He said banning the exportation of unmilled rice was feasible only if the government had a strong demand to buy rice from farmers as a stock for the country and if Cambodia had modern rice mills.
Rice produced during the rainy season is 340 riel per kilogram, while rice produced during the dry season is 250 riel per kilogram, representing a drop of 43 percent compared to prices in 1998.
Sok Khon used to be able to get $88 to $155 per ton of rice, but now he can get only $73.
Only one and a half hectares of his rice field could be salvaged, leaving with him 4 tons of rice.
“I don’t want to sell the rice at this time, but I am forced to do this,” he said. “If not, I will be in debt.”
Roy Proeun, a farmer from Banteay Meanchey province, was unable to buy food or clothes for the Khmer New Year because of low rice prices. He said if the price continues to remain low, he will rent out his farm.
“I wasted my labor for a year to make rice, and now I have no benefit from it,” he said.
Thach Khorn, governor of Banteay Meanchey province, said if authorities find people selling unmilled rice, they will be fined.
But he said he thought the government should allow unmilled rice to be exported.
“Farmers expect only rice to support their whole family,” he said. “If it is good price, they are happy.”
Yin Thol, a farmer from Pursat province, said the government cannot ban the exportation of unmilled rice without finding an alternative market for the farmers.
He also said the government could help by buying rice from the farmers to stockpile.
“The government always says it is trying to look for a market for farmers, but on the contrary, it is killing people by not allowing the export of unmilled rice,” the farmer said. “The government should open the market freely.”
Che Cheng, a rice mill owner in Battambang province, said he has noticed that businessmen are now scared to buy unmilled rice as they had done before, causing problems for farmers who need to pay back loans.
“If the farmer sells the rice today, it is cheap,” he said. “But if they keep the rice for longer, they do no know whether the price will be higher or lower.”
Tes Ethda said that if rice prices continue their downward slide, farmers will be in a dire situation for several years to come.
“I don’t know what work farmers will be able to do in that period,” he said.