Monday, July 7, 2008

CAMBODIA: Farmers turn back to oxen as fuel price rises


Photo: Van Reoun/IRIN
Cambodian farmers shifted to mechanical tillers in recent years instead of using oxen and other droughted animals but they are now finding the high cost of fuel is eliminating any profit margin
BATTANBANG, 7 July 2008 (IRIN) - The soaring price of fuel, fertiliser and food is a common complaint of Cambodian farmers, but spiraling inflation is creating newer and tougher challenges, especially for rural communities.

Vann Than, a 55-year-old farmer and father of six in Popeal Khe village, is feeling the burden of fuel costs and loan repayments on a mechanical tiller he bought to plough his five-hectare rice field.

Until 2006, when he upgraded to the mechanical tiller, Vann Than had used an ox-drawn plough. In any other year, Vann Than told IRIN, repaying the loan would be manageable, but the annual jump in the inflation rate - to 18.7 percent in January 2008, according to the National Institute of Statistics Consumer Price Index - has taken a heavy financial toll, particularly when he is struggling to pay for diesel fuel, which has doubled in price, and fertiliser, which has also increased significantly.

"We spend everything on these higher costs. I don't think we will make any profits from our rice field this year," he said.

Similar stories of rural hardship are common in the northwestern part of the country, 300km from the capital Phnom Penh.

In Thma Koul district's Popeal Khe village, dozens of mechanical ploughs are parked in front of farmhouses. Three years ago, many farmers in this village sold their draught animals to purchase mechanical ploughs. They believed the mechanical tillers would prepare their fields faster and thus increase productivity and profits.

In the rush to mechanise, only three families among dozens in the community continued using oxen, villagers told IRIN.

Now with the cost of diesel increasing, they regret abandoning their draught animals so quickly, Koy Kean, 68, the village chief, told IRIN.

For those who did not buy tillers, but sold their animals anyway, and now rent the services of those with private tillers, each planting season the cost of field preparation is almost as much as owning a tiller outright. According to Koy Kean, the cost of tilling a one-hectare rice paddy has risen from US$39 last year to $51 this year.

Production mix

Photo: Van Reoun/IRIN
Small scale farmers are increasingly using drought animals for their tilling and the manure as a cheap, natural alternative to high-priced chemical fertilizer

Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association, said that in general using mechanical tillers was more productive than tilling with draught animals, but the steeply rising fuel costs had upset that equation.

He suggested farmers needed to be flexible and probably should retain their draught animals - including buffaloes, oxen and cattle - for times such as these.

And it is just that mix of animal and machine that Vann Than said he was using to minimise his production costs this year. On his five hectares, he first used his mechanical tiller to break the soil and then, on a second pass-over, he used his oxen to plough deeper furrows.

"As fuel prices, as well as the cost of fertiliser, soar, we will make less profits," Vann Than said, adding that the price of 50 kg of fertiliser had doubled to $40.

Chan Sarun, the Agriculture Minister, told IRIN of his concern that some farmers who used mechanical tillers were now feeling the effects of fuel hikes.

He recommended that those who owned small plots of farmland stick to using oxen. He also suggested that farmers cut back on high-priced chemical fertiliser and rely more on manure and compost as an alternative. In addition, he advocated the use of improved seed varieties and better planting techniques to increase yields.

"If the farmers use better seeds with well-levelled fields they will produce higher yields," Chan Sarun said, adding that the increased use of manure made sense as too much chemical fertiliser made soil less fertile over time.

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