Agriculture and fishing

Agriculture continues to play an important role in Cambodia’s economy, but it provides a livelihood for a smaller proportion of today’s population than it did in the past. A study from the Agriculture Ministry released in June 2017 found that today, around 40 percent of the population work in farming, down from about 80 percent in 1993.1 Rice is by far the most important product, making up 60 percent of agriculture’s contribution to GDP.2 Fishing and fisheries make up another cornerstone of Cambodia’s rural economy, providing an estimated 80% of animal protein in the typical Cambodian diet.3

Agricultural policy

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) is responsible for overseeing agriculture in Cambodia. The Cambodian government has prioritized agriculture as a key sector for development since it first released its Rectangular Strategy. Version III of the strategy aims to push agricultural investment beyond strengthening rural incomes, into improved technology, research and development, crop diversification and promotion of commercial production and agro-industries.4

This signals a transition away from small-scale family farms to industrial farming. The trend is partly enabled by government lease of large land holdings to private companies as economic land concessions (ELC). Contract farming and private land leases are other vehicles through which industrial agriculture is expanding.

While the government expects the agricultural sector to grow by 4 percent per year to 2018,5 this is a significantly lower rate than the industrial or service sectors. Overall agricultural sector growth is considered weak,6 slowing to just 1–2 percent in 2013–2014,7 and suffering from low productivity, vulnerability to flooding and drought, inadequate infrastructure, in particular irrigation8 and, in some places, declining soil fertility.9

These factors affect different types of farmers in different ways. Cambodia’s small-scale family farms tend to be rain-fed, utilize native seed, and can afford few inputs. The majority of farms (58 percent) produce just one crop – rice – with 26 percent producing two crops.10 On 41 percent of farms, all the produce is consumed by the household, with none sold. More than 60 percent of farmers farm on less than 1.6 hectares (4 acres); 41 percent have less than 0.81 hectares (2 acres) of land.11

Like small farmers anywhere they tend to be risk averse and highly vulnerable to flood and drought, pest and disease infestations, and other threats. They are often ill-equipped to cope with new challenges such as changing climate and increasing land pressure. Their adoption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, typically without training, direction in Khmer language, or proper equipment, raise environmental and health concerns. Small farmers also tend to have limited access to markets.

In contrast, large-scale producers are constrained by infrastructure limitations and low levels of skilled labor. Some companies have also met conflicts with local communities, regarding land and natural resources rights.12

World Bank data records a downward trend in the net output of agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, from 34.5% of value-added as a percentage of GDP in 2011 to 23.4% in 2017.13 (The figure was 47.7 in 1995.)

Crops and commodities

Rice is Cambodia’s primary crop. Despite the government’s “White Gold” policy target for lifting production to one million tonnes of milled rice for export by 2015, actual rice exports for that year came to just 538,396 tonnes.14 Export growth has been difficult to achieve, with figures of milled rice exports at 542,144 tonnes in 2016,15 635,600 tonnes in 201716 but then a fall to 626,225 in 2018.17 China was Cambodia’s largest market in 2018, buying 27 percent (170,154 tonnes) while France took 86,050 tonnes and Malaysia 40,861 tonnes.18

Average paddy yield increased from 2.83 tonnes per ha in 2009 to 3.3 tonnes per ha in 2014.19 This was lower than neighbouring producers such as Thailand (3.5 tonnes/ha), Laos (4.1 tonnes) and Vietnam (6.2 tonnes).20

In line with the Rectangular Strategy, diversification into other crops such as corn, sugarcane, cashew nut, rubber and cassava has expanded. The land area of non-paddy crops grew from 210,000 ha in 2008 to 770,000 ha in 2012 and the area under rubber nearly doubled between 2008 and 2013, when it reached 307,854 ha.21 By mid-2017, 433,827 hectares were under cultivation for rubber.22

International investments in the sector are becoming more visible. For example, in April 2016 a $360 million Chinese-owned sugar mill was officially opened in Preah Vihear province. The plant has an annual production capacity of 360,000 tonnes of sugar, 50,000 litres of ethanol and 9 megawatts of electricity.23

Fishing and fisheries

The MAFF 2017 Annual Report quoted total 2016 fisheries production of  802,450 tonnes – 509,350 tonnes from freshwater fisheries, 120,600 from marine capture and 172,500 tonnes from aquaculture.24

There are pressures on fish numbers from environmental changes and population growth. One study cites predictions of a 40–60 percent decline in inland fishery yields for both Vietnam and Cambodia “in the foreseeable future”.25

Cambodia exports fish, prawns, crabs, and other seafood to China, Japan, Russia and some ASEAN countries. The EU has banned fish imports from Cambodia, citing Cambodia’s failure to implement and comply with international legal obligations. Examples are that Cambodia does not act against illegal fishing by non-Cambodian vessels flying the Cambodian flag,26 and also lacks a legal framework, and effective monitoring, inspection and catch certification schemes.27

The government began to reform its fisheries management system in 2001 by reducing the number of commercial lots, culminating in in 2012 with the abolition of all commercial lots on the Tonle Sap.28 The change was intended to conserve fish stocks and support subsistence fishermen. Some NGOs, however, say that illegal fishing has increased in recent years.29 The government confirms this: officials said cases of illegal fishing continued to rise in 2015, when almost 4,000 illegal fishing offenses were stopped and 181 were sent to court.30

Another challenge facing freshwater fisheries is the development of dams such as the Lower Sesan II dam. Numerous studies have cautioned that dams will have a major impact on fish migration, fish breeding and fish stocks, and that there is little prospect of mitigating these effects.31

Last updated: 21 December 2018

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