Economic growth in Cambodia is not reducing poverty at an equal rate, leading rural people to face food scarcity, landlessness and unemployment, a new study finds.
“Agriculture is not expanding fast enough,” states the report from the Cambodian Development Research Institute think tank. “A [slowly] growing rural economy…is unable to effectively support increasing numbers joining the labor force each year.”
The study, based on a field survey of nine villages last year, offers a snapshot of the economic lives of the approximately 85 percent of Cambodians who live in rural areas.
It is an attempt to explain why, as the Cambodian economy has in recent years grown at annual rates of over 5 percent, 38 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line—a statistic that has barely changed in the last several years.
As the Cambodian population steadily increases, natural resources become more scarce—farms grow smaller and forests and fisheries are spread thinner—while the job market and improvement of agricultural methods grow only gradually.
“About 20 percent of rural households do not own any land,” the report notes. “Additionally, another 25 percent own land plots of sizes less than 0.5 hectare, which are quite insufficient to sustain livelihood.” These two groups form the vulnerable category of “landless and near-landless.”
The study estimates that landlessness is increasing by about 2 percent yearly. Meanwhile, those who cling to small holdings may be even worse off, said Chan Sophal, head researcher of the study.
“This may be because they have to hold on to their land during the cultivation period, while the landless are free to travel to find opportunities,” he said.
Surprisingly, even “subsistence” farmers do not subsist on agriculture. “Income from agriculture, on average, does not exceed 30 percent of [farmers’] total income; the rest comes from non-farming sources” like foraging, fishing, gathering food and non-food items, running small businesses and doing wage work, the report states.
The more farmers lose agricultural land, the more dependent on these activities they become.
But the communal forests and fisheries so vital to villagers are being depleted, privatized or both, the report notes. Based on a similar survey five years ago, this situation is clearly worsening, Chan Sophal said.
“Access to these resources became more restricted, and people’s livelihoods deteriorated,” he said.
The report notes that most of the depletion of forests and fisheries is caused by outside interests, not rural people, “but they nevertheless face the consequences.”
In these conditions, “increasing numbers now rely upon wage work,” mostly agricultural, the report states. Large surveys and censuses tend to underestimate the wage labor supply because most workers seek wage work for only part of the year. But wage labor remains scarce as industrial development is slow and not very labor-intensive, the report states. Further, there is little investment in “human capital,” meaning most rural Cambodians have low skills.
The bottom line, then, is that “farm jobs are reducing while non-farm jobs are not expanding fast enough.
“The emerging gap between the demand for work…and its supply—mainly owing to farm mechanization, vanishing of [communal resources], opening of borders for cheap import and rapid growth in the labor force—contributes to anxiety in regard to cash availability and food security among the poor.”