Chhum Phirom has lived in the fertile Mekong River basin all his life. The 26-year-old Prey Veng resident said most families in Peam Ro district have relied on rice farming to ensure basic livelihood and sustenance.
The fertile plains have made the district, and province, one of Cambodia’s leading rice producers, according to Agriculture Ministry statistics, with kilometers of rice paddy covering the landscape. But, with climate change, drought-like conditions, and low rice prices plaguing the critical export sector, some families are turning their backs on the traditional occupation to invest in aquaculture.
The district, which houses the government-run Freshwater Aquaculture Research and Development Center, has seen a recent crop of freshly-dug ponds, peppered among rice fields.
“We could not make high yields with rice,” Chhum Phirom said, laying in a hammock near his fish ponds. “So, we changed to fish farming and followed others in the village by digging these ponds.”
The shift to fish farming comes amid the novel coronavirus-induced global economic slowdown, which has hit the Cambodian tourism, manufacturing, and construction sectors hard.
The Cambodian government has recently made a pivot to promote the investment-lacking agricultural sector as a revival strategy for the economy. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been traveling across the country to meet farmers, walk through muddy rice fields, and push rural Cambodians to again embrace agriculture.
The government has been using the recently-penned Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement to convince Cambodians to help boost agriculture exports. Cambodian officials are pushing aquaculture as a viable alternative to rice farming, even though there is few indication if fish and fish products will have tariff- and quota-free status in the FTA.
During a press conference in early July, Finance Ministry Secretary of State Vongsey Vissoth said fish had “high potential” as an export product to the Chinese market.
But a few weeks later, Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon told local newspaper Phnom Penh Post that Cambodia had “asked Chinese authorities for permission to export fish to China, but they never responded.”
Eng Cheasan, an official at the Fisheries Ministry, said on August 6 there was an immediate demand for marble goby fish in China - locally called “trey domrey” – but not for the more common varieties bred in Cambodia.
He said the government was still negotiating with China to get species, such as the spotted-ear catfish and striped catfish, on the FTA list of products. The two varieties are called “trey po” and “trey pra” in Khmer, respectively.
The FTA announcement also revealed that critical agriculture exports like rice will be tariffed beyond the quota set by China and that it would take ten years to phase out these tariffs.
Commerce Ministry Secretary of State Sok Sopheak told VOA Khmer that tariff-free export of rice to China would take years because Chinese officials were keen to protect local production and balance it with imports for Cambodia.
The current tariff-free quota for Cambodian rice to China is 400,000 tons per year, Sok Sopheak said, and rice exports would be tariffed at 75 percent beyond the quota.
Back in Prey Veng, local fish farmer Khai Heang said he made the switch to aquaculture more than a decade ago, after losing money on growing rice. The 60-year-old farmer sold his eight-hectare rice farm to build two large fish ponds, where he has been growing around 30,000 striped catfish, or “trey pra”.
The switch has been profitable for Khai Heang, who said he earns around $1,000 a month selling to the local markets. The potential for exports to China has Khai Heang excited.
“The Chinese will like eating my fish,” said Khai Heang, as one of his grandsons fed the fishes.
“If the export happens, I hope we could have more stable prices and I think that would be good.”
Ouk Samnang, director of the Prey Veng Provincial Department of Agriculture, said authorities were not aggressively pushing a switch from rice to fish, but were only providing an option to farmers to diversify their production.
He did admit that there were issues with rice sales because farmers and rice brokers disagreed on prices for the commodity.
“The government encourages all forms of farming – regardless it is the fishes or the rice,” Ouk Samnang said.
He said the Fisheries Department had supplied an increasing amount of fish seed to local farmers, totaling around 30 million seed in July alone. There was a long way before Cambodia could export large quantities of fish overseas, he said, because of capacity and the infrastructure constraints.
“It will take time and needs further investment to improve the [fish] production supply chain for export abroad,” Ouk Samnang said.
The switch to fish farming does have its pitfalls. Seeing a growing trend towards fish farming in her village, Thaong Bopha dug a small pond behind her home to grow fish.
The 30-year-old rice farmer did not have the relevant expertise, technical know-how, or access to financing to successfully implement the transition. Given her lack of technical knowledge, the pond she built was too small for the relatively-large fish species.
So, she had to sell them before they could mature.
“I tried for the first time this year by digging a small pond behind my house to breed small fishes for sale, but I do not have enough expertise,” she said.
The Peam Ro resident has gone back to rice farming and is unhappy about having to rely on imported agricultural inputs, which drives up the cost of her rice production.
At Chhum Phirom’s farm, the smallholder is concerned that without the relevant infrastructure to assist individual farmers, such as storage and transportation facilities, the FTA will only benefit large investors and big fish farms.
“I’m worried about my own farm’s capability to compete because the incoming Chinese investors have strong technical capacity and market strategy,” Chhum Phirom said, laughing.
“We are no match for them with our insufficient capitals. They are big and they can do whatever they want.”