phnom samlei village, Kampot province – The French export companies have been gone for 30 years. And the largest plantation in the area has been overtaken by jungle.
But the world-famous black pepper that once graced the tables of some of Paris’ best restaurants can still be found here—as long as 75-year-old Eam Sean is still around.
Like an elderly monk tending a forgotten shrine, the stubborn, gap-toothed man in a dusty krama hikes down a rutted road every day and checks on his beloved black pepper plants. The eccentric behavior has frustrated his children and grandchildren, who for years have urged him to abandon the near worthless crop and move—like the neighbors—into the age of corn or potatoes.
“In the old days, it was very good, very good,” Eam Sean said, spreading his hands, nodding his head and smiling dreamily as he recalled the vast plantations of old. “All the people, they appreciated my good pepper…. Now just a few families grow. It is sad.”
This lush, fertile district in the shadows of the Phnom Voar mountains, was pepper heaven in the 1950s and 1960s. Merchants like Eam Sean carried it by the bagful to markets in Kampot and Sihanoukville, where it was snapped up by sellers and shipped to some of the world’s most fashionable restaurants.
But the Khmer Rouge had no use for such extravagance. During Democratic Kampuchea pepper farmers were forced to abandon their fields for the less glamorous crop of rice.
Eam Sean recalls the day rebel soldiers confiscated 40 sacks of his high-quality pepper and announced he would no longer be allowed to grow it.
The Vietnamese invasion freed some up to grow again. But the industry was heavily regulated, and growers were required to sell at low prices to the government.
When Kampot emerged from the shadows of the Vietnamese occupation, a new age of pepper production seemed possible. Investors from places like Thailand and Japan appeared at local markets, and Eam Sean and all his neighbors began to plant again in earnest, residents say.
Unaccustomed to capitalism, local farmers soon learned their first lesson in supply and demand.
The buyers paid by weight, so farmers around the area began to surreptitiously soak their pepper in water to make it heavier. The excess water diluted the famed quality of Kampot’s crop. The prices plummeted and the buyers disappeared, local farmers say.
Pepper plants grow on vines that wrap around wooden stakes. Some farmers today say the current price of pepper is not high enough to cover the cost of the timber needed to set up a grove.
“I used to grow between 500 and 1,000 pepper plants,” said 40-year-old Ou Eang. “Every family used to grow pepper. But I have replaced them with plants that are easier to sell. People nowadays don’t have enough money to buy wood. People don’t want to grow it anymore.”
Sok Sim, a 55-year-old farmer, had a similar tale. “I used to grow pepper. But I stopped because I have a lot of children, and the pepper price is down.”
Chhim Chuon, first deputy governor of Kampot province, said provincial officials have noted the trend. He wistfully recalled the days of Kampot’s pepper heyday and said local officials have long been searching for investors.
“Pepper is not increasing, and no company cares to invest,” he said. “But we have earned a reputation overseas and that is why we try and find a market.”
There may be hope yet. Linda McKinney, director of the United Cambodian Communities Development in Kampot, said a Japanese NGO visited the area this spring and brought samples of black pepper back to Japan. Representatives from the Japanese NGO recently contacted McKinney’s group and said they are interested in starting a pepper project that would encourage small producers.
“Part of the problem is how pepper plantations market their product,” she said. “They plant it and sit there and hope people will pick it up. We need to help them with post harvest technologies and help them get it to an international market.”
Eam Sean is ready.
“In Cambodia, especially in this community, the quality is the best. It is better than Vietnam,” he said, once again invoking the image of the vast fields of pepper vines carved out of jungle in the 1950s.
“It was very good,” he said. “Very good.”