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Although Cambodia is on the right track to improving its food security, many problems remain, including the fact only 20 percent of people have titles to their land, a senior UN official said Monday.

Ad Spijkers, the representative of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, said Cambodia imports most of its vegetables from Thailand and Vietnam, even though farmers here could supply the country more cheaply.

Only 15 to 17 percent of Cam­bodia’s land is irrigable, and the lack of infrastructure in rural areas makes it difficult for farmers to travel to sell their products, Spijkers said in a lecture sponsored by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

“Farmers here face an enormous challenge,” said Spijkers, who is leaving Thursday to be the FAO representative in Congo after more than four years here.

When droughts and floods are added to the picture, improving food security remains a daunting task. “Cambodians know all too well the ramifications due to natural disasters as well as by the hands of man,” said Prince Noro­dom Sirivudh, the former foreign minister who is chairman of the board of directors for CICP. “That continues to make the food supply precarious.”

Starting in 1995, food production began to improve slowly, but steadily, Spijkers said. In 1999, a rice surplus of almost 30,000 tons is expected, with a predicted consumption of 1.78 million tons.

Still, 100 of the nation’s more than 1,400 communes face food shortages and four out of 10 people live below the poverty level, Spijkers said.

In June, more than 1,000 villagers gathered in front of the National Assembly to protest food shortages in the provinces. Similar protests occurred in January and October of last year.

Indonesian Ambassador Hamid Alhadad, who was among more than 75 people who attended Spijkers’ speech, questioned why Cambodia has food security problems.

The Indonesian island of Java is about the same size as Cambod­ia, but has 110 million mouths to feed instead of the roughly 10 million in Cambodia, Alhadad said. But Java doesn’t have the food shortages that Cambodia has and the island manages to harvest rice three times a year.

“From this point of view, there should not be a lack of food,” Alhadad said.

Spijkers pointed out the total farming area is still smaller than what it was before the Khmer Rouge era, and the Cambodian soil is not as good as some people think it is. “Cambodia has a very tragic past,” he said. “It’s a daunting task to redevelop agriculture from scratch.”

And farmers traditionally harvest only in the rainy season, and do not have the capabilities to produce in the dry season. Many also have not been able to obtain the four factors needed to succeed—land, access to water, seeds and enough workers to work the farm. Also, fertilizer is too expensive for most of the 2 million farmers in Cambodia, who usually farmer at subsistence levels.

To improve food security, the FAO and government officials have set up integrated farming fields in certain villages and set up educational sessions for groups of farming families.

Spijkers said the government needs to put more money into the agricultural sector and recruit more educated employees. In 1998, the Ministry of Agriculture had a budget of $6.2 million, making it the 11th highest government expenditure.

Chan Tong Yves, secretary of state for the Ministry of Agri­culture, said the government has recognized the need to spend more on agriculture.

Spijkers also said farmers need to be educated about proper pesticide use and food hygiene.

And although rice is a crucial part of Cambodia’s agriculture, farmers also need to diversify their crops so they are not as susceptible to failures in rice production, Spijkers said.

A Mekong River Commission official complained the FAO focuses too much on rice and not enough on fisheries. Spijkers acknowledged the FAO should put more emphasis on fisheries.

Although Spijkers said he is optimistic about the prospect of improving food security, the problems remain urgent, as Cam­bodia’s population is expected to double in 20 years. “Every year, more mouths have to be fed.”

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