For those who have enough to eat, reminders of the hunger problem can be as fleeting as the feeling of hunger itself: a glance at a hungry child on the street; television images of starving Afghan children tearing open food packets emblazoned with the US flag; farmers camping outside the National Assembly to petition King Norodom Sihanouk for food.
But for the people and communities it affects, hunger means more than raw suffering. It saps the energy and health people need to climb out of poverty, declared UN Food and Agriculture Organization Cambodia director Jean-Claude LeVasseur on Tuesday, which was UN World Food Day.
Experts in Cambodia said food production here has been on the increase. But they warned that action on several different fronts is needed for a long-lasting solution to hunger.
It may appear hunger has worsened here in the last two years. The country has been struck by both severe flood and drought, sometimes in the same province or even on the same farm. Only 41 percent of farmland was usable after the 2000 drought, and 84 percent was usable after this year’s drought, said Chan Sarun, minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
A long-term decline in the world price of rice has been compounded by a glut of Indonesian rice, slashing the price as much as 50 percent. In August and September more than 2,800 farmers spent weeks in parks and pagodas waiting for food aid from the King.
But long-term hunger has decreased, UN figures show. About 41 percent of Cambodians were not receiving their minimum dietary requirements between 1990 and 1992. Thirty-three percent were below that level in 1998.
Rice production expanded over that same period. The average hectare of rice paddy yields about two metric tons of rice today, versus only 1.4 metric tons in 1989. The country became a net exporter of rice in 1995.
Harry Nesbitt, project adviser for the Cambodia Agriculture Research Development Institute, attributed the increase to improved farming techniques.
Farmers are using better varieties of rice, better fertilizers in proper amounts and are more likely to rotate crops, he said.
Nesbitt contends that CARDI-developed programs provide farmers $50 million a year in additional income.
Studies show that the rice-heavy diet in Cambodia has led to vitamin deficiencies that can cause health problems even when enough calories are consumed.
Chan Sarun said government officials have tried to get farmers to grow more than just rice by distributing vegetable seedlings and encouraging people to raise animals for income when rice harvests are low.
But Cambodian farmers still face difficult circumstances, Nesbitt said.
“The crops are mostly rain-fed [rather than irrigated], so they are very susceptible to droughts and flooding. And it’s also on very poor soils, so developing a sustainable system is quite difficult.”
Cambodia’s densely populated southeast contains some of the country’s worst soil, said Neil Hawkins, executive director of the NGO CARE.
Families often can feed themselves for only seven or eight months a year, and men often must migrate to Phnom Penh or elsewhere to pick up extra work.
Increased food production alone will not eliminate malnutrition if families do not have enough income to purchase rice, if diets are unbalanced, or if higher-paying markets in neighboring countries siphon off needed food, said Rebecca Hansen, country director for the UN World Food Program.
Many NGOs long associated with famine relief—such as Oxfam and the international Red Cross—are moving away from emergency relief and toward long-term development projects that they say will provide a more permanent solution.
They say hunger is the end product of problems as diverse as dilapidated roads, poor schooling and a lack of human rights for the poor.
“The ‘truck-and-chuck’ approach is OK in emergency circumstances, but in the long term the circumstances and the environment have to change,” Hawkins said.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)