At least 400 farmers piled 100 tons of rice paddy across National Road 5 in Battambang province on Sunday morning, seeking a guaranteed minimum return for their harvest amid frantic government efforts to confront falling prices.
Since the middle of last month, there has been a steep drop in the average per-ton payment that millers are offering for rice paddy, from about $250 to $193 last week, according to a statement released by the Ministry of Finance on Friday.
Intervening in an attempt to protect farmers, Prime Minister Hun Sen had approved a $27 million grant—$20 million from the state and the rest from the Rural Development Bank—to subsidize millers and keep payments stable, the statement said. About 90,000 tons of rice could be bought with this allotment, it said, allowing farmers to expect about $235 per ton.
“At the same time, rice exporters will have rice to export as they will receive a sufficient supply from the rice mills who have sufficient amounts of rice paddy in their storage,” said Hun Lak, vice president of the Cambodia Rice Federation.
In Battambang, however, farmers say the situation has become dire, with rice mills offering even lower payments than the ministry’s lowest estimate, or refusing to buy their harvest outright.
“We have worked so hard and then we took our rice paddy to sell to the rice mills in the village, but some of them did not buy it for this or that reason, while some offered very low prices that we could not accept,” said Im Sarin, a 32-year-old farmer.
Feeling stiffed and without any other options, Mr. Sarin and dozens of fellow farmers decided to take their problem to the Kompong Prieng commune office in Battambang’s Sangke district at 8:30 a.m.
“We stopped along the road with our tractors and rice paddy and we pulled about 10 bags of the rice paddy out onto the road in order to claim a higher price,” he said, adding that the crowd grew as they made their way to the office.
Eventually, a representative from the province’s largest rice bank, Thaneakea Srov (Kampuchea) Plc., began negotiations, he said.
By 1 p.m., the farmers agreed to sell their paddy for between $192.50 and $210 per ton, depending on the quality, according to commune chief Som Neth. Despite causing four hours of traffic jams, he said the protest had not been particularly problematic.
“They just requested a solution to make the price of rice paddy higher, and the problem was solved already early this afternoon as the rice bank in the province agreed to buy their rice paddy,” he said.
“Now some trucks from the rice bank are working to collect the farmers’ rice paddy.”
Kang Voeun, 60, another farmer, said that the conclusion was disappointing, but had brought some relief.
“We were so sad that our rice paddy had lost all value, and if we cannot sell our products, our standard of living would be more diminished, as we would have no money to pay debts that we have incurred,” he said.
“Even though the price is not as high as we want, it is acceptable as it can let us gain some benefit.”
The government’s intervention, meant to ensure that farmers don’t lose money on the harvest, is misguided, according to environmental consultant Ian Thomas.
“It sounds like this is a hand
out to the [wealthy] Cambodian… millers that are partly responsible for the problem,” he said. “The thing that rice farmers in Cambodia need is storage so they can say no to the middlemen. Then they can just wait until they get a good price.”
Still, he said, Cambodia can’t expect to compete in a market already saturated regionally—with an abundance of rice coming from Vietnam, Burma and Thailand.
“You’ve got to get out of being too dependent on rice,” he said. “The best thing to do is help the farmers and get them another means of making money besides rice.”
(Additional reporting by Janelle Retka)