First Agriculture Census Gives Planners New Tool

The government released preliminary results from Cambodia’s first ever agriculture census Wednesday, hoping the flood of new, reliable figures will help planners boost the country’s critical agriculture sector, grow the economy and cut poverty.

Cambodia’s farms are one of the key pillars of the country’s economy. But they are also notoriously underproductive and, as the preliminary report concedes, undeveloped. While agriculture employs 65 percent of the country’s labor force, it contributed only 32 percent of its GDP last year.

“This [census] is very important because we all know that agriculture is a critical element of the economy,” Planning Minister Chhay Than said at the launch of the report in Phnom Penh. “It will not only help strengthen and develop our economy…but it will also contribute to reducing poverty.”

The government hopes the figures will give farmers and planners a better idea of what to grow where and when, and how best to target resources. With new help from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), along with the Australian, Swedish and U.S. governments, it started the census in April 2012 and collected data through March 2013.

Wednesday’s report is only a sample of the results. It covers only agriculture holdings, which the report defines as land under single management with at least two or three livestock or 25 poultry, or at least 300 square meters of land for agriculture, or both. Smaller plots and larger industrial farms run by firms will be included along with more detailed figures to be released in December.

Among the numbers that stood out to Josie Perez, a technical adviser on the census for the FAO, was that 92 percent of plots were being used to grow temporary crops, or crops that take less than a year to mature. Only 4 percent were being used to grow crops that take a year or more.

She said this made the agriculture sector vulnerable.

“Most are temporary crops, and temporary crops are not stable crops, especially when there are floods,” she said.

According to the report, of the 18.1 million hectares of land in Cambodia, about 3.1 million were covered by agricultural holdings. Of the 2.6 million households in the country, 2.2 million were engaged in agriculture. And of those with agricultural holdings, 73 percent seek mainly to meet their personal consumption needs. The average size of a holding was a little more than 1.6 hectares.

Other preliminary results included numbers on the use and supply of irrigation, a breakdown of the most popular crops and how much land was being devoted to each crop around the country.

“Policy- and decision-makers in the country will have additional data that will be useful in the formulation of farm policies and programs,” Ms. Perez said. “The local planners in the provinces can also use the census information in providing agricultural services to households…. Agricultural holders and farmers can use the census data in making decisions [on] the operation of their holdings such as planting duration and crops to be planted.”

One thing the figures don’t show is the number of household or families in land disputes or who have had land stolen. Rights groups say the problem has hit hundreds of thousands of families across the country in the past decade or so, and some of them call it the most pressing human-rights issue in Cambodia.

But Ms. Perez said the surveys used for the census steered clear of land disputes.

“As far as possible, the census should be neutral; we don’t want any political issues,” she said.

The final figures, once they are released at the end of the year, will also not include data from some of the largest landholders in the country. Ms. Perez said that although the government provided the survey team with a list of the 126 “enterprises,” or industrial-scale farms, in the country, only about 100 responded to the surveys. Rights groups blame those large farms on much of the land grabs in Cambodia, and say the country has far more than 126.

Ms. Perez said she had also hoped to survey the provincial governors and their deputies, but fewer than half of them replied. She had also hoped to survey the ministers of agriculture, defense and planning, some of whom she heard had substantial land holdings themselves, but members of the survey team were too scared to interview the ministers.

Yang Saing Koma, president of the independent Center for Study and Development in Agriculture, said the dearth of reliable data has been a major brake on the country’s farms and related businesses.

“For example, the rice sector. The traders don’t know how many tons of fragrant rice Cambodia produces a year…. It’s difficult for them to plan and make long-term contracts,” he said. “We have the problem of [knowing] how much water is available for farmers. So far there is no reliable data.”

Mr. Saing Koma said he hoped the census would answer these and other key questions.

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