Drought-Stricken Farmers Face Debt Burden

takeo town – As in other parts of the country, the rains came too little and too late for many rice cultivators here.

A failed harvest will not only mean less food for the family, but increased financial worries too. Many farmers rely on a good crop to pay back money and rice they borrowed last year.

“Debt is the principal factor in poverty here,” Sour Phirin, the governor of Takeo province, said at his office here Wednesday. “It is never-ending, from generation to generation. It is making the poor very poor.”

A few kilometers away, in Khan Kao village, 30-year-old Hem Sophal is working out how she can pay back the $25 loan she took out three weeks ago from a goldseller in Takeo market. She has to pay a $5 charge every month, or what is equivalent to a monthly interest rate of 20 percent.

“I have to ask my relatives for money to pay the charge,” she said. Sometimes she sends her three children to live with other family members to save money. Her husband joined the army a few years ago, married another woman and never came back.

“My rice field is not big enough, we have too many people for such a small plot of land,” she said. “I had to give rice away to pay the interest so next year it’ll still be the same.”

She says she has had little to eat for four months.

“Two months after my harvest I will be starving again,” she added.

Governor Sour Phirin acknowledged exorbitant interest rates are a problem.

“We have a very big problem with private lenders,” he said. “I am very worried. The debt is getting bigger and bigger.”

Some businesses have even seized land if the borrower could not afford to pay back a loan, he said. The governor said he was looking at ways to combat land seizures, such as guaranteeing the land.

In Thnung Roleuong village in Tram Kak district, 60-year-old Pot Min has a field bursting with green rice. His crop was devastated by pests last year and he had been hoping for a good crop to feed his eight-member household living in a flimsy hut on the edge of the field. But luck is not on his side.

“I’ve found rice bugs,” he said. “They are sucking away the rice grain. Last year it was army worms.”

He had to borrow $10 in Au­gust from a lending organization to buy fertilizer. He has until January to pay the money back, with a $2 interest charge. He was unsure of the name of the lender.

“I will pay it back even if I have no money, I will sell rice if necessary because I have to pay it back,” he said. The farmer also had to borrow 24 kg of rice from a neighbor, pleading with him not to charge any interest.

“I worry that having borrowed such a large amount of rice I won’t get enough rice from this harvest to pay back the amount and interest charge,” he said. “Year to year I’m always lacking enough rice. Every year I am in debt.”

Pot Min said he remained in debt because his patch of land is not big enough to support his five children, wife and father who live with him.

The farmer estimated that his family needs 1,900 kg of rice a year, but even with two good harvests he can only produce 1,400 kg, he said,

The government reported Wednesday that the 1998-99 rice crop should be sufficient. But such isn’t the case in many parts of Takeo prov­ince.

Farmers in 30 com­munes will be hit hard again this year, estimated Ith Sarun, director of the Takeo provincial agriculture department.

“They have had problems for the last two years, with flooding last year and now a drought this season,” he said. “It means the villagers have no food for two or three months.”

Takeo governor Sour Phirin claimed 50,000 people in the province are facing food shortages. The governor has appealed to the Cambo­dian Red Cross and the UN World Food Program for aid.

And in some areas, even the lenders are feeling the pinch. Hem Sophal said a neighbor in Khan Kao village used to regularly lend money to poor villagers.

“They have stopped because they have no more money to lend,” she said.


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