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New Association Seeks To Improve Rice Market

A Cambodian vendor cleans rice at her shop in a roadside market in Phnom Penh, file photo.
A Cambodian vendor cleans rice at her shop in a roadside market in Phnom Penh, file photo.

Cambodian farmers are looking toward a new organization to help them get the best prices for their rice, but many are skeptical disparities between farmers and traders can be overcome.

The Cambodian Rice Federation was started in May, bringing together disparate companies, associations and farmers in a bid to stabilize market forces that have traditionally left farmers vulnerable.

Sitting in the shade of a palm tree one recent afternoon, farmer Phan Chantol said he has received little help from previous associations.

“I know none of them,” he said. Instead, he has had to sell his rice at low prices to traders, who then sell it at a high mark-up. “So they all can earn more profits,” the 33-year-old farmer said.

Cambodia exported about 380,000 tons of rice in 2014. But economists say it could do a lot better. Poor yields and poor market structures have traditionally hurt the industry, while neighbors Thailand and Vietnam have become international powerhouses in rice export.

Before the Cambodian Rice Federation was created, 84 companies and three associations were in operation for the collection, production and export of rice.

But farmers remained highly vulnerable to the market and traders, forced to sell once their fields have yielded rice, when there is a glut.

“The trader is king, when you talk about the price of rice,” Phan Chantol said. “We earn no profits from planting rice; it’s just for eating. Now, most farmers in my village have decided to migrate to Thailand, rather than grow rice.”

The new federation aims to change that.

The Cambodian Rice Federation will be led by Sok Puthyvuth, the son of Cabinet Minister Sok An, who as voted in at the inception of the organization by rice millers, exporters and other industry leaders.

Sok Puthyvuth told VOA Khmer the goals of the federation are to unite shareholders in an effort to operate faster; to work with government authorities to solve problems in the sector; and then to expand the rice exports to more countries.

“Our plan is also to go out and help farmers through education about techniques to grow rice with high productivity and ensure proper rice prices for our farmers,” he said.

The federation will have to convince farmers like Khouen Tith, 45, from Prey Veng province, who says the price is just too low to make farming worthwhile. He and his wife now work in Kandal province, earning money each day plowing land for other farmers.

On a break at the corner of a rice field, he said there was no profit, compared to what he spent on fertilizer alone. The rice was sometimes just enough for him to eat, and sometimes he’d be caught in some disaster or drought. “I heard that there’s a newly formed rice federation to help farmers, but I am not optimistic it will help farmers,” he said. All that’s needed is fair payment for rice, he said.

Sok Puthyvuth said he hopes to address the price problem.

Meanwhile, millers like Hean Vanhorn say the new federation could help exports, especially if the Ministry of Commerce helps with organization and structure.

Kim Savuth, former president of the Federation of Cambodian Rice Exporters, which was absorbed into the new federation, said he supports the unification.

“United, we will have more people and more ideas to work together,” he said. “Otherwise, our work may have been repeated.”