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Country profile - Cambodia


Cambodia is a country deeply influenced by its history, which has affected its human and physical capital in many ways.

Loss of life, skills, economic activity and market structures during the Pol Pot regime (see box) have taken their toll and now 36 per cent of Cambodia's 13 million people live below the poverty line, with many people in rural areas living with inadequate access to safe drinking water. Income inequality between urban and rural areas is high and families who rely on agriculture as a main or sole source of income are most likely to be poor.

The challenges to increasing agricultural production are too great for most farmers, many of whom are poor and illiterate with a high number of dependants. This vulnerability therefore underpins the cycle of subsistence production and prevents the majority of producers from growing a surplus to sell.

The Legacy of the Khmer Rouge Cambodia's history has been peppered with political unrest and civil war, which have inevitably impinged on the country's human and physical capital.

The most notorious of these episodes was the Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. The regime saw not only mass genocide between 1975 and 1979, but also the ruin of the education system and industry. The aim of the regime led by Pol Pot and carried out by his army - the Khmer Rouge - was to "refashion Cambodia". To this end, two to three million Cambodians were removed from the capital and other provincial towns and relocated to rural areas. Agriculture was collectivised and imports stopped with the intent of the country becoming self-sufficient. Money, private property and markets were all abolished to create a communist society.

Before Pol Pot's dictatorship, educated youth made up around 20 per cent of the population. But people with an education were the main target of the Khmer Rouge - death tolls among university graduates, teachers and speakers of foreign languages were particularly high and up to 75 per cent of teachers were killed. In total, over one million Cambodian people died and a further half a million fled to Thailand and elsewhere.

The Vietnamese invaded and overturned the party in January 1979. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took to the forests leaving one landmine per head of population, which continue to cause death and injury as well as to hinder expansion of agricultural activities.

Rice is the staple food in Cambodia and accounts for 90 per cent of agricultural production. Despite producing a surplus of rice on a national level since 1995 (some of which is exported), improved production, distribution and access to rice is essential if the current food security situation within the country is to be improved.

Cambodia currently has one of the lowest levels of human development in South East Asia, ranking 130 out of 173 countries in the latest Human Development Report (2002). Its neighbour Laos is the only country in the region to be ranked lower than Cambodia.

The natural resource base

With farming and fishing the main source of livelihoods, the majority of the population is concentrated in the most productive areas for both activities, namely the Mekong Delta in the centre of the country and the Tonlé Sap lake. The Tonlé Sap is said to be one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish while the Mekong River - which flows nearly 500km through the country before heading out to the South China Sea via southern Vietnam - is second only to the Amazon in terms of fish biodiversity. The lake is an important source of livelihood for Cambodian people and provides the country with around 60 per cent of its fish protein intake. Annual flooding of the Mekong deposits rich sediment on its flood plains, leaving fertile agricultural land behind when river levels fall. The United Nation's Development Programme (UNDP) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have controversially offered to fund the building of a dam in the Mekong, to allow the country to earn income from generating hydroelectric power. However, a dam would result in the flooding of nearly 2000 sq km and could therefore displace 60,000 people. Environmentalists fear it could be disastrous in terms of loss of fertile land as well as potential problems with fish numbers.

Parts of the country, particularly the south, are heavily forested, but while in the mid-1960s, 75 per cent of the country was covered in rainforest, a survey in 1993 revealed that this had been reduced to 49 per cent. Logging is a problem in Cambodia and the strong demand for timber and stricter regulations in neighbouring countries mean that its forests continue to be a exploited by foreign timber companies. Other natural resources include minerals (including basalt, quartz and gems) and there are thought to be natural gas deposits and oil off the coast of Cambodia.

The climate is dominated by two monsoons. The first in the north-east (November to February) and the second in the south-west (May to October) which brings strong winds, high humidity and around 70 to 80 per cent of annual rainfall.

Features of agriculture in Cambodia

Cambodia has a predominantly rural population, with some 85 per cent of people living in rural areas. Half of its work force is employed in agriculture. However, poverty is highest among those relying on farming for their living so the rural population is vulnerable, especially to natural disasters. The extensive floods of 2001 destroyed 15 per cent of the country's rice crop and made transportation of the surviving rice difficult if not impossible.

Despite most farming activity being at a subsistence level, Cambodian rice production has seen large increases over the past decade - a result of the introduction of new varieties. Output of other crops, meanwhile, has been fairly static. Not surprisingly, use of mechanisation is limited, but draft animals are commonly used both for cultivation and transporting produce.

A survey carried out by the Ministry of Commerce in 2000, revealed that only 40 per cent of farmers have sold rice (of any quantity) over past two years. Average sales volumes are 1.6 tonnes per year and reach a maximum of three tonnes per year. Nearly 70 per cent of farmers sell to collectors or middlemen who collect paddy rice from areas far from rice mills, markets or towns and sell on to millers. Bargaining power of the farmers is therefore limited, but there is as yet no group marketing in Cambodia.

Constraints and opportunities

Even though its political stability (since the election of the first democratic government in 1993) has given Cambodia a more optimistic outlook, particularly with the move away from a centrally planned economy to a free market, economic performance continues to fall short of its poverty reduction targets. Many factors are to blame and reflect the country's struggle after the events of the 1970s (see box below). In particular, low literacy rates (only 35 per cent of people over 15 years old can read and write), the threat of HIV/AIDS (approximately four per cent of the population is infected) and the above average incidence of disability (primarily a result of land mine injuries) affect the country's work force. Access to land is also impinging on the country's potential for agricultural development, particularly among the poorest, often a due to the threat of landmines left by the Khmer Rouge. A lack of credit systems in rural areas makes breaking out of the cycle of subsistence production more difficult while limited access to market information and inadequate infrastructure and transport hinder the activities of those farmers who are in a position to produce commercially.

Clemmie Perowne

Meanwhile, the country's political stability and the draw of the stunning temples of Angkor Wat led to increases in tourist numbers of 34 per cent in 2000 and a further 40 per cent the following year (before the events of September 11th in the USA). The country is slowly adapting to exploit this income source, but much of the demand is being met by foreign investment. Other opportunities for Cambodia's future development include the reduction and, in some cases, removal of tariffs on exports from Cambodia to other countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) of which Cambodia is geographically centrally placed. This will therefore make Cambodian produced goods more competitive and hopefully lead to an expansion in exports and ultimately to increased income.

Due to its troubled past, Cambodia has unique challenges to its development. But with continued effort to break out of the current cycle of poverty and reliance on external assistance, the country can have a positive future. This will involve wise investment and careful creation and implementation of sustainable policies (particularly in education) in order to equip its workforce with the skills required to carry forward recent improvements into the 21st century.

Statistical information
  • Country: Cambodia
  • Capital: Phnom Penh
  • Area:181,040 sq km
  • Population: 13,099,485 (2001 est)
  • Ethnic groups: Khmer (90%), Vietnamese (5%), Chinese (1%), other (4%)
  • Languages: Khmer (official language), French and English
  • Population growth: 2.24% (2002 est)
  • GNI: $3.1billion (2000 est)
  • GNI per capita: $260 (2000 est)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 50%; industry 15%; services 35% (2000 est)
  • Natural resources: timber, gemstones, some iron ore, manganese, phosphates, hydropower potential
  • Export commodities: timber, garments, rubber, rice, fish
  • Major Export Partners: US 46.4%, Vietnam 26.1%, Germany 5.6%, Singapore 5%, UK 3.9%
  • Population below poverty line 36% (1997 est)
  • Literacy (people aged 15 and over who can read and write: total 35%; male 48%; female 22% (1990 est)
  • Major industries: tourism, garments, rice milling, fishing, wood and wood products, rubber, cement, gem mining, textiles
  • Land use: arable land 20.96%; permanent crops 0.61%; other 78.43% (1998 est)
  • Irrigated land: 2,700 sq km
  • Agricultural products: rice, rubber, corn, vegetables

Written by: Clemmie Perowne

Date published: March 2003


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is that true Cambodia is 181,040 km2? (posted by: yen yat)


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