It’s been three years since the forest was shorn from the hillside to make way for plantation. And yet Prum Ya only received permission this year to begin planting mango trees on 20 hectares of these foothills at the edge of Kirirom National Park, in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia.
Ya, 69, has spent the past 15 years tending mango trees in the southwest corner of Kampong Speu. A farmers’ collective – the Kirirom Keo Romiet Mango Agricultural Community – hires him to take care of 250 hectares of mango plantation in the region, which contain some 40,000 trees, he says. Planting new trees on areas of mountainside such as this latest 20-hectare plot is a strategic choice, as ponds and groundwater remain ample at the base of the mountains inside the protected area.
“Because this area is in the mountains, it attracts [more] rain than other places,” Ya says, though he has still observed changes in the pattern of rainfall here.
On 26 April, mango became the second fruit after banana to be approved by China for direct import from Cambodia, having met its phytosanitary standards. As a result, Cambodia’s fresh mango exports had risen 251% by the end of August, to nearly 164,000 tonnes. But that is still only a fraction of the 1.5 million tonnes of mango that the agriculture ministry estimates Cambodia can produce annually.
As Cambodia cultivates trade deals with China and South Korea, its mango farmers are struggling to process big orders. And as the industry grows, so do environmental issues surrounding it.
Leaders have pitched agriculture exports as an economic opportunity, but Cambodian farmers need both more advanced and more sustainable farming practices, as well as more stable prices and buyers, to ensure they can profit from their products, according to a 2020 assessment by Grow Asia and the Cambodia Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture (CPSA).
Though supply chain logistics create the most immediate problems, groundwater extraction and climate change also present long-term issues for fruit farming. The study noted that mango production in some parts of the country is already strained by water shortages. Longan – another fruit under consideration for import by China – is seriously hindered by water shortages. Moreover, using groundwater can potentially lead to inferior quality longan.
Nationwide data on groundwater is limited. But rural people have been left vulnerable as rivers, from the Mekong to its smaller tributaries, dip below their usual water levels more frequently than in the past. This has partly been attributed to hydropeaking and storage operations at upstream dams in Laos and China. At the end of the dry season last year, areas of the Stung Sen River completely dried up, leaving residents of Kampong Thom province desperate to save their rice fields. In the monsoon season this year, farmers in central Kampong Speu province also lost rice crops to drought.
Chan Ratha, director of CPSA, said location is key for growing mangoes. Groundwater is not evenly distributed, especially outside the Mekong and Tonle Sap river systems that cut across the centre of the country. Businesses also need to be aware of soil quality. Overused soil can erode, become compacted and salinised, all of which makes it less productive.
Research highlights problems for both Cambodia and Vietnam that could arise from more intensive use of groundwater, with the two countries sharing an aquifer system in the Mekong Delta. A 2016 study, published in the Journal of Hydrology, noted that Cambodians used far less pumped groundwater than their downstream neighbours in Vietnam, but were rapidly catching up. The study found that as increased pumping was lowering the water table, within 15 years water could be beyond the reach of suction pump wells used for domestic supply by 1.5 million Cambodians.
“The owners of the agro-industrial companies need to be mindful of the communities around them,” Ratha said.
An author of the CPSA assessment on fruit exports, Ratha noted that expanding Cambodia’s agriculture to an industrial, export-grade scale would need serious coordination between companies, local communities and the government. It would also need foreign investment into sustainable farming practices in Cambodia – from solar-powered irrigation pumps, to plantations that use soil-regeneration techniques, such as sustainable tilling and planting cover crops to revitalise the land.
While some investors work with experts to understand conservation agriculture practices, some foreign investors in Cambodia rush through environmental consultations, or fail to conduct them at all, in order to make short-term profit, Ratha notes. Japanese firms, in particular, are noted for their good practices, cooperating with development organisations and NGOs.
Deforestation and land degradation
Land has often been deforested in Cambodia to make space for farming. In 2018, agricultural land reached 31.5% of Cambodia’s total area, according to World Bank data. This is partly due to the government’s ill-fated economic land concession programme. That saw private companies given long-term leases on state land for cultivation purposes. The companies were often granted more than the 10,000-hectare legal limit or they expanded outside the boundaries of their concession, which were instead used as “de facto logging concessions” in many cases. The rate of land use change driven by smallholder farmers, like that described by mango farmer Prum Ya, has risen at the same time.
As of 2010, some 55% of Cambodia’s rural residents lived on degraded agricultural land, putting them at risk of food insecurity, while jeopardising groundwater recharge and soil fertility, according to a country profile published by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). In 2018, degraded land cost Cambodia US$677 million annually, according to the UNCCD’s report.
Globally, deforestation and converting land for cultivation are the biggest causes of land degradation. The Cambodian government acknowledged this when it agreed to the UN’s international goals for 2030 land degradation neutrality. The government could take more steps to plan agricultural land, and the private sector could adopt conservation agriculture practices.
For example, Ratha suggest farmers could practice crop rotation or grow long beans in between fruit and cashew trees. He said farmers also need to be mindful about fertiliser and pesticides, as the chemicals can spread from farm to farm and, when the rain comes, into streams and rivers. He said the runoff problem can be reduced with the help of agricultural experts.
“Even if it costs more in the beginning, it will be a good return on investment,” Ratha said.
Splintered mango market
Cambodia’s mango industry has stumbled in the face of Covid-19, largely because farmers overproduced and couldn’t find buyers domestically or internationally, says Hun Lak, the CEO of fruit company Richfarm Asia. This year, in-season mangoes – generally harvested in April and May – sold for 200 to 300 riel (US$0.05–0.07) per kilogram, down from about $0.25 per kilogram.
After weathering two years of poor prices, Lak says many farmers have stopped trying to produce for the Chinese market.
“They leave the mangoes to grow according to their season and rely on rainfall and put a little fertiliser and [pesticide] spray,” he says. “They will just wait to harvest as they are not caring too much about the market, as they don’t know if there is any specific market out there.”
Off-season mango is seen as a way to make up for the oversaturated harvest season. But growing it – starting around June and progressing through Cambodia’s rainy season – is more challenging for farmers and requires stable rain.
Cheung Sokha, a farmer with a plantation northwest of Kampong Speu’s provincial capital, specialises in off-season mango. He said his trees flower and fruit before others in the commune, and he’s usually able to secure a buyer who will take the harvest to Thailand or Vietnam. However, he too is suffering from the pandemic shocks and irregular rainfall in 2020.
“Last year there was more rain, a lot of rain, sometimes a week in a row… If I have to spray the [herbicide], it’s not good because I spray and then the rain comes… so it costs me a lot.”
At the start of the pandemic, Sokha decided he could no longer rely on mango alone and started a charcoal business. He took trips a few times a week to chop trees and collect wood from the mountain, to be cooked into charcoal in the stove he built in front of his plantation.
“Because of the loss of income, I [spent less] time taking care of the mango trees than before when I had thought I would get good market access,” he said. “I let them grow naturally.”
Traders who buy for export to China and South Korea demand nothing short of a perfect mango, ideally weighing a whole kilogram, says Chhim Chamroeun, general secretaryfor the Kirirom Keo Romiet Mango Agricultural Community.
Aside from accepting only large mangoes without bruises or freckles, she says Chinese buyers require the farmers to arrange processing, including sanitising, in Cambodia, the capacity for which is still limited.
Chamroeun is eager to sell more mangoes, not only to buyers in China but also in the European Union – where she currently sells about five tonnes annually – and the United States, a market she hasn’t tapped into yet.
But she says it is more productive now to focus on traders who export to Thailand and Vietnam, and handle the sanitising processes on their own. She says buyers in the Thai and Vietnamese markets pre-emptively buy the mangoes from a certain number of her trees, offering an upfront payment. Those buying directly for the Chinese market don’t do that, she says, adding they lack a background in farming.
“I [advise] our group, don’t wait for the Chinese buyers, because the Vietnamese buyers and Thai buyers pay before the mangoes become the final product,” she said.
William Lor, Chamroeun’s husband and partner in their own mango firm Ploy Green Land, says the Kirirom Keo Romiet Mango Agricultural Community is considering building its own processing facility to sell directly to fruit buyers in China, rather than going through a middleman. The collective “should have set that up a long time ago,” he says.
Exporting mangoes to China and beyond could be lucrative in the long term, but after difficult business during the pandemic and failing logistics, Lor says the farmers develop what they can.
“The mango conditions that they [the international buyers] want are the big ones, and the sellers say it’s no problem, but when the buyers collect, they throw away 80% of the mangoes. Farmers are mad, but the buyers say a deal’s a deal.”