Kandal’s S’ang district: Stiff competition from neighboring countries, insufficient government subsidies, and local authorities who are more focused on silencing criticism than developing robust markets: These are just a few of the issues Cambodia’s farmers say are stunting agricultural development and costing them dearly.
Located about 30 km southeast of Phnom Penh, Kandal’s S’ang district has long been a key vegetable farming area. In recent years, farmers say, they have been suffering as they produce high yields but have inadequate market access.
Tai Song, 33, supports his child, wife, and parents by growing a large range of vegetables through rotational farming. In early 2021, he lost about 30 million riel ($7,390) after failing to find enough buyers for his lettuce.
In September, Song was preparing to plant 20 tons worth of garlic.
“I have to prepare it but I still worry I will face the same problem of losing money as I lost in my lettuce production. If I lose this time again, I do not know where I can find money to pay my debt”, he said.
Another farmer, Tich Bunly, 41, who grows all kinds of vegetables on his two hectares of land said last year he lost about 5 million riel ($1,230) after he was unable to sell all of his cabbage.
“I feel as worried about the vegetable market as other farmers. Sometimes I could sell to make some profits but sometimes I lost,” he said.
A report by Kandal’s agricultural department shows there are 8,169 hectares of plantation land in S’ang district and there are 12 communities that produce in total a daily average of about 115 tons of vegetables. The issues there mirror those of agricultural communities across the country.
Veng Sakhon, Minister of Agriculture, said insufficient markets are not uncommon but that individual vegetable growers who organize into groups or cooperatives would have more success.
“The problem of vegetables left over or no market occurs every year, but most farmers still can sell vegetables to support their families,” he added.
However, few farmers who were interviewed said they were part of a cooperative and all said they have little recourse when prices drop and there’s inadequate market demand. That, in turn, leads to high levels of debt.
In 2021, some 79 microfinance institutes lent $7 billion, according to the National Bank of Cambodia. Of that, 19.2 percent or $1.34 billion was injected into agricultural sectors.
Another S’ ang district resident, Song Moeun, 52, said he lost $1500 after having to sell his cabbage in June at about half the usual price. He expects to incur about $3000 in debt next year to make up for his losses.
“Due to the fact that I lost money in this plantation I could not repay my debt to the microfinance institution. I think I need to seek another loan from another microfinance for my next plantation, in order to repay my debt and support my family’s livelihood.”
Song, meanwhile, said he had incurred high levels of debt after being unable to find adequate markets earlier this year.
“We have some money and borrowed $3000 from the microfinance institution for investing in our vegetable farm, but we could not find a market to sell in. I lost all the money and was not able to pay the debt. Now, I am borrowing some money from my relatives for buying garlic seed for planting again in case I could grow it well and get money for paying back the MFI debt, but if I lose again, my debt will be increased,” he added.
As debt mounts in his community, many of his neighbors have had to migrate for work, said Song.
“Some villagers lost money on their vegetable plantation three to four years consecutively. They have no more money to grow vegetables and must repay debt, so some of them migrated to work as construction workers and some went to other provinces to work as street vendors and some went to Thailand and have not returned yet,” he continued.
A research paper by the Parliamentary Institute of Cambodia submitted to the National Assembly in 2017 showed that debt is a key reason for migration, with crop issues being a key reason for debt.
Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), said that smallholder farmers face a huge range of issues.
“Besides having problems with a lack of market, Cambodian farmers also face technical issues and a lack irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide — all of which are expensive. In our country our farmers grow vegetables and sell them — sometimes to get profit and sometimes they get losses. If they have a small loss they would borrow some money for the next planting, but if they completely lose, they will migrate,” Savoeun said.
Authorities silent farmers in response to farmers’ demands
In recent years, worsening repression has seen the government move from going after activists and politicians to ordinary citizens. Civil society has noted that since the 2017 dissolution of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, the government has put more pressure on freedom of expression. Authorities now often take strict action against anyone who criticizes the government or ruling party, in any sector.
Song has seen this firsthand. In May, after posting a comment to Facebook regarding market access, local authorities made him sign an agreement not to post any more complaints.
“At that time, I had a lot of lettuce left to sell and then I posted on Facebook. A day after, reporters interviewed me. Then about 30 to 40 police and military police came to my house asking me to make an agreement. The authorities warned me that if I still complained on Facebook they would take legal action against me. My wife and my mother were very afraid that I would be arrested and imprisoned,” he added.
“I was wondering: if I just told reporters about my vegetables having no market — which law did I violate? I was very hopeless,” he continued.
Moeun, Song’s neighbor, said that other villagers are now afraid of speaking with reporters about their challenges.
“I saw many police come to Tai Song’s house. I was very afraid, and other villagers also dare not to post a complaint about their vegetables having no market. We are afraid of being charged or arrested,” he added.
Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn told reporters that authorities do not threaten or silence the farmers, but that they just want farmers to make a formal proposal to the provincial administration for seeking the solution rather than criticize via social media.
“[Farmers] should tell us, and should not report to journalists first or post on Facebook, it was just useless,” he added.
The reaction to Song’s Facebook post mirrors what is happening across the country. A monitoring report issued by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) showed that this year there have been 108 cases involving restrictions on freedom, with 57 cases involving internet activity.
Hun Seang Hak, CCHR’s Basic Freedom Monitoring project coordinator, said that online criticism is increasingly targeted by authorities. He said that authorities commonly ask small critics like Song to sign agreements and delete their post, while more outspoken critics are arrested and sent to court.
“The most restriction on online freedom of expression was targeted for those who criticized government policies or powerful people. We are really concerned about this and we often urge authorities to give space for freedom of expression and take more attention to responding to the needs of the people rather than punishing them,” he added.
In December 2020, Ny Nak, a poultry farmer living in Kandal province was arrested after he wrote a satirical post on Facebook, tweaking the wording of a speech by Hun Sen to apply to his chicken coop. He was charged with public insult and incitement to discrimination and later sentenced to 18 months in prison. And in July, Nguon Ly, a farmer living in Battambang, was arrested after writing his own post accusing the authorities of failing to adequately create a market for longan after Thailand stopped imports.
A lack of initiative on vegetable markets
Nearly every season, Cambodian farmers contend with insufficient markets or lower prices. Many farmers interviewed said that that is due in a large part because of imports from neighboring countries, a claim the Ministry of Agriculture denies noting that imports make up about 25 percent of demand.
Vegetable importer Heng Lay said he moves an average of 10 tons each day from Vietnam to Cambodia, and that his home country can’t compete.
“All vegetables we buy from Vietnam are fresher and look better than Khmer vegetables and the price is also 20 to 30 percent lower than local vegetables,” he said.
And while the government insists just one-quarter of the market comes from imports, small importers like Lay say there is plenty of unregulated and under-the-table trade, with brokers paying bribes to local officials.
Sem Phea, a middleman and vegetable buyer, said that prices are higher in Cambodia because the farmers rarely work strategically.
“In our country farmers grow vegetables, following one to another. If someone grows cabbage others also grow cabbage, so the supply becomes too high and the price drops,” she said.
Phea, who imports from Vietnam, noted that “their farmers grow a diversity of vegetables so they could cultivate rotationally every day from 10 to 20 kg per day. For this reason they rarely have any vegetables left [unsold].”
Much of this has to do with insufficient infrastructure. A 2018 report by the Ministry of Agriculture noted that only some 30 percent of farmland had access to irrigation, with the rest primarily depending on rain. The price of electricity, chemical fertilizer, and seeds are all higher in Cambodia than in Vietnam and Thailand. While some countries work with their farmers to develop markets, there’s little of that in Cambodia, according to farmers.
Song said that he has no support from authorities, not in growing vegetables or in finding markets.
“The authorities blamed us for growing vegetables without paying attention to market information, but how can we have market information if we have never seen the shadow of officials coming to help us. I think officials themselves did not fulfill their role,” he added.
Yang Saing Koma, the founder and former president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), said that the Ministry of Agriculture is most responsible for agricultural markets.
“The Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for addressing the needs of farmers, and should not have any excuse about it. The Ministry has to have a proper way for connecting vegetable growers, farmer communities, resellers, and consumers,” said Koma, who left CEDAC to found the Grassroots Democratic Party.
“Farmers in Thailand and Vietnam are also facing the same problems as our farmers but their authorities are more active than us, they always intervene on time,” he said.
Seang Thai, spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce, denied that authorities don’t do enough. Like the Minister of Agriculture, Thai said farmers have difficulty because they have failed to form cooperatives and pay attention to market needs.
“The Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Agriculture have introduced farmers to form a community for responding to market demand but not all farmers have participated,” he added.
According to Thai, the Ministry of Commerce has previously addressed some of the issues such as by arranging for supermarkets to buy unsold vegetables.
Meas Nee, social development researcher, said that the lack of market can’t be pegged to a single ministry.
“In general, the problem comes from all relevant ministries, if only the Ministry of Agriculture is blamed, it is too unfair. The Ministry of Agriculture has the role of encouraging farmers to produce, so who is in charge of water? And who is in charge of the market? Who is in charge of quality control of vegetables? And what about the Ministry of Environment,” he asked. “If we want to have a market for farmers’ vegetables, we have to reform from the national level, not just reform any specific part,” he said.