Sim Toeur journeyed to Phnom Penh on Wednesday to sell her excess rice. But the 20-year-old from Battambang province’s Mong Russei district and other farmers like here are becoming a rare sight at rice wholesalers and millers this year, as Cambodia’s largest staple is being hoarded or diverted to foreign markets, experts said.
Sim Toeur said that farmers hoarding their stocks have led to retail price increases of up to 200 riel a kilogram over the last year.
“The rice yield was not so good last year because of flooding and drought,” she said Wednesday at a rice-vending stall in Tuol Kok district. “So the farmers are not selling their surplus rice to middlemen or rice mills.”
A survey of Phnom Penh vendors found prices per kilogram ranging from 1,000 riel to 1,800 riel depending on quality—about 200 riel over prices last May.
Opposition politician Sam Rainsy, leader of the Sam Rainsy Party, blamed the high prices on hot weather caused by deforestation and warned of a famine. “Large-scale and anarchic deforestation over the last few years has definitely disrupted the eco-system,” he said in a press release Tuesday. He said the lack of rain in April has caused fruit trees to die in large numbers and the dry-season rice crop to fail.
But Peter White, an agronomist with the Cambodia IRRI-Australia project, said Wednesday that the institute hasn’t received reports of widescale problems with dry-season rice, which is not a large crop here.
“I’m sure [the weather] is related to the El Nino, which was predicted,” White said. “It’s far too early to predict that people will go hungry.” Farmers won’t run out of last year’s wet-season rice for three more months, and the nation has produced excess rice for the last three years, he added.
“A low dry-season rice crop is not going to cause famine,” he said. Dry-season rice relies on irrigation rather than rain for water, he said. Traditionally, much of it has been sold for export to Vietnam.
“The rain in April doesn’t affect rice yields much,” he said, adding that it was too early to predict the outcome of the wet-season rice, which isn’t planted until June.
However, rice prices are high, according to Solieng Mok, a social scientist for IRRI. She said there is a high demand by Vietnamese rice brokers for dry-season rice exports.
Vietnamese wholesalers are driving the price up by paying about 600 riel a kilogram, 20 riel more per kilogram than what local wholesalers pay, White said.
While rice crops haven’t been affected by weather, other crops have. Chan Tong Yves, undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Agriculture, said dry weather had damaged mangos and cashew nuts. “They are not destroyed, but production is down,” he said.
He said custard apples, papaya and banana crops also have suffered. But he blamed the high prices for such crops as mung beans, soy beans and corn on market forces. Farmers in some provinces sell their crops to Thai or Vietnamese traders for higher prices. “The government has no right to stop them from selling [to foreign countries],” he said. (Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong and Van Roeun)