pailin – The stench of cassava is enough to make you wince.
Used to make ethanol and various processed foods, the root vegetable gives off an earthy, noxious odor with a sharp metallic tinge. One whiff and it’s easy to believe that uncooked cassava is toxic—it contains traces of cyanide that must be soaked away. But across Pailin province, the tuber has become a poison of a different sort, financially crippling farmers and the businesses that depend on them.
“We have a problem with cassava,” Pailin’s agriculture department Director Phann Pich said.
Speaking at his office last week, the director said Thai buyers have almost entirely stopped scooping up the cassava that is grown in the border province, and the few that are buying are offering very little.
The price has bottomed out at just 2 baht per kilogram of dried cassava, or about $0.05, down from about triple that last year. He added that buyers are only accepting dried cassava these days, which sells for far less than the fresh roots they were readily snatching up last year.
“Cassava is used to produce ethanol, but because oil prices are down, nobody produces ethanol,” Mr Phann Pich explained, adding that the reluctance among Thai buyers is purely economic and not motivated by ongoing border tensions.
Last year, global oil prices skyrocketed to record highs of around $150 per barrel, sparking increased interest in alternative fuel sources like ethanol. Those prices have plummeted since, with oil now going for around $50 a barrel.
But as the fuel prices climbed in recent years, cassava production bloomed in Pailin, with more and more farmers switching over to the crop.
According to figures from the provincial agriculture department, just 25 hectares of Pailin farmland was devoted to cultivating cassava in 2005. By the next year that number had leapt to 4,495 hectares. It has nearly doubled since then, reaching a whopping 8,935 hectares as of January of this year.
But with no buyers, farmers are now left wondering what to do with all those tubers.
“Last year I saw people make money growing cassava, so I decided to grow 7 hectares,” farmer Vrang Vuth said at her home on the outskirts of Pailin town. The 50-year-old sank everything into her cassava crop, even taking out a 70,000 baht bank loan in March of last year (about $2,250 at the time) to finance the venture.
“But now there are no buyers, and I don’t have the money anyway to hire people to dig up [the cassava] and cut it up [for drying],” Ms Vrang Vuth said, adding that she would gladly sell her crops at a greatly reduced price, but buyers are so scarce that even that is impossible. So, for now, her hillside crop remains unharvested while interest piles up on her loan.
“I don’t know what to do. We’ll have to wait and see,” she said.
Sin Seang, 51, has harvested his cassava crop but knows he’ll be taking a substantial loss this year.
“I spent $10,000 to grow ten hectares of cassava and I expect that I will lose $5,000 this year,” he said while trying to cover his drying cassava crop as a rainstorm approached.
Last year he could easily sell fresh cassava for 7 baht per kilogram (about $0.20), but this year he needs to go through the effort of slicing up his crop and drying it out on large tarpaulins, only to pull in 2 baht per kilogram-a meager price made even worse because it takes considerably more dried cassava to make up a kilogram than fresh cassava.
Mr Sin Seang, however, said he intends to grow more cassava this year in case the price rebounds, but he will also be sowing part of his fields with red corn, which is by far the most commonly grown crop in Pailin.
Mr Phann Pich, the agriculture director, said that in general more people are turning back to corn, in large part because the price has remained reasonably stable. He said that the price of corn had fallen to 3 baht per kilogram (about $0.08) in October, which is typical in the rainy season, but had rebounded to a healthy dry season price of 6 baht per kilogram (about $0.17).
However, returning to corn has left many farmers in the red.
“They’ve used capital to grow corn, so we see a shortage of farmers with cash to spend,” Mr Phann Pich said.
Pailin has in recent years transformed its economic situation from a region that relied on stripping the area of resources like gems and timber to become a solidly agricultural zone. Rolling hills in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold that were once covered by dense woods are now flush with corn and sesame.
“Two or three hundred years ago Pailin was famous for gemstones, but after the integration [of the local Khmer Rouge in 1996] the gems were gone, so we converted the land to agriculture,” said Mr Phann Pich. “Population increases led to a need for more farmland…. You cannot live under trees,” he added.
Pailin’s population has increased by about one third since the area’s Khmer Rouge joined the government nearly 13 years ago, Mr Phann Pich said, and these days about 88 percent of the province’s working-age people are involved with agriculture.
The amount of cultivated land in the province has also exploded at a fantastic rate, growing from a miniscule 502 hectares of farmland in 1999 to over 49,000 in 2007, according to agriculture department figures.
But you don’t need official statistics or visits to remote farms to grasp the importance of agriculture to Pailin`s economy, a trip to the market should suffice.
Pailin town’s market has to be one of the quietest in Cambodia at present. On a visit last week it was empty, bested in emptiness only by the small market at the Pailin border crossing, where all of two people who appeared to be customers could be seen.
Vendors at the town market all know why their sales are hurting: the farmers have no money.
“Before they grew cassava but there were no buyers, so they had to destroy their crops. So now they grow corn, which is growing well, but farmers are still worried there won’t be a market for it,” said eyeglasses vendor Meas Vuth, 47.
“If the farmers make money, then we make money,” he said, adding that many market vendors appear to have closed up shop of late and he fears for the future of his business.
Rice vendor Phan Sreyphoung, 28, has even seen a slump in the sales of the staple she provides.
“The farmers could not sell their product and so it’s been very difficult,” she said.
In previous years, farmers typically bought rice by the 50 kg sack, but now they only purchase a kilo at a time and usually on credit. With her customers going through such hard times, she has been forced to slash prices by a third just to sell anything.
“It’s very quiet and I want to run away from Pailin,” she said.