prek ampil commune, Kandal Province – Like other farmers here, Ham Neang felt at a loss when her newly harvested sugar cane and radishes languished on her farm.
“Nobody wants to buy my sugar canes and radishes this year. I do not know where I should sell them,” the 51-year-old farmer lamented. “We are waiting for buyers from town, but nobody has showed up yet.”
Many villagers expressed similar concerns, blaming a free-market economy that has introduced better and cheaper crops from neighboring countries.
“I heard that so many kinds of agricultural products are imported from Thailand and Vietnam that local products are stuck in the farm,” said 30-year-old farmer Sum Sath.
Agriculture officials said they have heard the complaints, but say they can’t quantify it, much less tackle it.
“My friends told me over the phone that it is difficult to find a market for their products,” said Srey Vuthy, marketing director for the Agriculture Ministry. “But we are not sure what is happening because we don’t have enough money to travel to provinces to survey the situation.”
The ministry’s marketing department conducted a nationwide marketing survey in 1997 with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, but nothing has been done since, the director said.
The statistics department for the Agriculture Ministry also has no trade information on crops due to lack of funds and human resources, said Chek Nann, director of the statistics department. The office only keeps tracks of production of major items such as rice and corn.
So instead, experts rely on anecdotal information, which tells them the situation might be getting dire.
“Many people I have talked, mostly local officials, claim domestic products are losing markets,” said Sik Boreak, agricultural economist with the Cambodian Development Resource Institute. “We can feel it, but unfortunately we have nothing to prove it because nobody has done any study about the impact of the free-market economy or the Asean Free Trade Agreement on Cambodian agricultural products.”
But anecdotal evidence is strong that imports are preferred over Cambodian products in many cases.
Hong Yang, a vegetable vendor at Phsar Thmei in central Phnom Penh, for example, has been selling Vietnam vegetables since 1993. Her customers prefer the imported items “because Vietnam vegetables have nicer color and are bigger, cheaper and able to last longer than local ones,” she said.
A Khmer restaurant owner said most of the vegetables and fruits she uses are from Vietnam because of their quality and price.
Officials and experts agree Cambodian farmers need to improve the quality of their products and reduce costs in order to better compete in the free-market economy.
“[Neighboring countries] produce cheaper and better products than us and sell them in Cambodia. How good your products are—that’s the matter in the free market,” said Sok Siphana, secretary of state for the Commerce Ministry. “The quality of Cambodian products is not consistent. This is the issue of quality of products and competitiveness.”
Agronomist Pech Romnea of the Cambodian-Australian-Agricultural Extension Project said Cambodian vegetables are more expensive than vegetables produced in Vietnam because labor costs are much higher.
“In Cambodia, farmers hire laborers and pay them day by day. We don’t use machines like Vietnam. That’s why our labor cost is higher,” he explained.
Smuggling to avoid import duties also has been raised as an issue in Cambodia, but no one interviewed mentioned it specifically as a reason why agricultural imports might be cheaper than domestic products.
Now that Cambodia has entered the Asean-AFTA (Asian Free Trade Agreement) bloc, it might be a good time for Cambodian farmers to expand their markets, Sok Siphana maintained.
“As we became a member of the Asean, Thailand is now considering to give us preferential trade status for our agricultural products, and Malaysia is also looking at buying our coconuts,” Sok Siphana said.
However, In Channy, director of the Association of Cambodian Local Economic Development Agencies, is skeptical the agreement will result in large benefits for Cambodian farmers.
“In terms of agricultural products, our quantities are not large enough to export to other countries,” said In Channy. He said farmers need to organize associations to make their shipments more sizable and marketable in order to get some benefit from the free-market economy.
Some work currently is being done to help Cambodian farmers, particularly rice farmers, do that.
Chey Savong, director of the Agriculture Ministry’s fertilizer supply department, urged cooperation among the ministries of Agriculture, Commerce and Industry.
“We usually tell people to grow more products, but the ministries of Commerce and Industry do not tell us where markets for our products are and where processing factories are,” he complained.
To help bridge the gap between villagers and the decision makers in Phnom Penh, visiting Japanese researchers say developing a nationwide extension service is needed to improve farmers’ productivity and living standards. Such extension officials would work directly with local villagers to help them cultivate and market crops.
“In Cambodia, there are no extension services for farmers. How could they possibly know how to improve quality of products and how to find markets?” asked Koji Sato of the International Development Center of Japan, a thinktank funded by the Japanese government. “Cambodia needs to develop extension services…. In that sense, NGOs’ roles are very important because they are the ones who go into villages to work with farmers.”