Since its emergence in the region more than a decade ago, the governments of Southeast Asia have been fighting to contain the human avian influenza virus through surveillance programs, rigorous inspections and widespread culling of infected birds.
In neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, where last year there were zero and one deaths from bird flu, respectively, the governments also pay compensation of up to 75 percent of fair market value to farmers whose birds fall ill and must be culled.
In Cambodia last year, 13 people died of bird flu, the country’s worst ever outbreak. Over the past decade, 49 Cambodians have succumbed to the disease, many of them desperately poor rural residents who depend on smallholdings of livestock such as chickens and ducks. Yet Minister of Agriculture Ouk Rabun, whose ministry would be responsible for implementing any compensation scheme, said categorically last week there is no policy of compensation. “And nor will there be,” he said.
The ministry’s firm anti-compensation stance would seem to fly in the face of both common sense and recommendations from experts in the field. In 2005, international NGO Veterinaires San Frontieres, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. coordinator for avian and human influenza all urgently pressed the government to establish a compensation system for poultry culling according to “Aid Dependence in Cambodia,” a 2013 book by U.S.-based scholar Sophal Ear. The government refused, citing a lack of resources, Mr. Ear wrote.
A 2011 report published by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Administration also concluded that paying farmers for their culled birds makes it more likely that they will report future signs of bird flu among their flocks, rather than ignoring the issue and eating the dead birds.
Pieter van Maaren, the WHO’s country director, declined to comment on whether the WHO had asked the government to establish a compensation scheme, but noted that while compensation may seem a no-brainer, it is not the right solution for every country.
“In some countries compensation has worked, in some it hasn’t, but any country must weigh up the pros and cons and the Cambodian government has decided that this is not the way forward,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Sok Touch, director of the Ministry of Health’s communicable disease control department, said one clear downside to compensation was that it encouraged villagers to report sick and dead birds for financial reasons, rather than because it was the right thing to do.
“It is important that people report H5N1 to the authorities first and foremost, and not think only about money,” he said, though he added that he believed farmers should receive some portion of the value of culled livestock.
A paper published last year, “Backyard Biosecurity and the Optimal Government Intervention in Avian Influenza Prevention,” argues that paying compensation for culled birds risks worsening the situation, by removing incentives for farmers to spend money on preventative “biosecurity” measures.
Authors Jennifer Steele, Ruojin Zhang and Thomas Marsh of Washington State University suggest that the optimal solution is for governments to pay compensation only if the poultry producers are practicing a minimum level of disease prevention at the time their birds are culled. However, such a program would be nearly impossible to implement in Cambodia, where more than 90 percent of poultry is raised on small backyard farms in rural areas.
Mr. Ear said there was a simpler reason why the government felt it could not compensate poultry farmers: because it would set a precedent that would be hard to maintain.
“I think the authorities do not want to compensate because doing so sets a precedent of actually righting a wrong, and that starts giving people bad ideas— like maybe the road or railway or lake they used to live next to before they got shipped off to some no-man’s land with a few hundred dollars is wholly inadequate,” he said in an email.
He said the WHO and other donors were willing to compromise on the compensation issue as long as the government went along with other measures to fight bird flu, such as costly education drives that lead to little or no change in behavior.
Though compensation may be a hard pill to swallow, the sharp increase of human victims in 2013—more than in all previous years combined—might be reason to reconsider all the options.
In several of the provinces where outbreaks and deaths from bird flu have occurred, provincial agriculture chiefs said last week they still hoped the government might change its policy.
“I don’t know if the government has enough money or not, but if they did have a policy to compensate people it would be a really good idea. People could get a small amount of money back to stop them eating sick chickens and it would prevent them dying,” said Kim Savoeun, director of Kompong Cham’s agriculture department.
In Kratie province’s Snoul district, 40-year-old Leng Lal said that compensation would have persuaded him to report his birds when they became sick and died, instead of cooking and eating them with his family.
Like many of Cambodia’s backyard farmers, Mr. Lal said he had heard the warnings against handling dead poultry, but he could not afford to waste food. Last week, his 8-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter died within a week of falling ill with the symptoms of human avian influenza.
“If the government offered compensation for my chickens I would have reported it when they got sick, but how can I report it when I won’t get anything in return?” the father asked. “My family would die from hunger.”