Cambodia: Langrabbing and hybrid rice

by GRAIN | 21 Nov 2008
Cambodia is a major target of the global landgrabbing surge that began in March this year when the world food crisis was at its peak. High-ranking foreign delegations have regularly been visiting Phnom Penh, looking to strike deals for access to land to produce food for export back to their countries. Overall, as much as $3 billion in agricultural investments are currently being negotiated with the Cambodian government in return for millions of hectares in land concessions. The largest deal so far is a bilateral deal with Kuwait involving a $546 million loan in exchange for a 70-90 year lease covering a "large area" of rice lands, where Kuwait will organise production for export back home. Meanwhile, over 100,000 Cambodian families lack food and many more are directly at risk from the escalating government-backed land evictions happening across the country.

As documented by GRAIN in an October 2008 briefing, Seized: The 2008 land grab for food and financial security, such land grab investments in Cambodia and elsewhere may be negotiated by governments, but it is the private sector that is explicitly expected to step in and deliver-- taking control of the production and distribution.  This kind of agricultural investment is really all about agribusiness development-- from the seed to the market, and it is only natural then that the projects involving rice often involve hybrid rice seeds.

As Cambodian rice farmers are dispalced from their lands to make way for export production, so too their traditional rice seeds will be displaced by imported hybrids. This was confirmed this past week when national media in Cambodia reported that a Cambodia-based joint venture hybrid rice company was in negotiations with foreign investors from the Middle East and Singapore to grow its hybrid rice on 50,000 hectares in the central province of Kampong Thom.

The hybrid rice company, Kasekor Khmer Rongroeung Co Ltd, is a partnership between Singapore-based Sunland Agritech, a well-known player on the hybrid rice scene with tie-ups in Malaysia and the Philippines, and Malaynesia Resources, a Singapore-based company providing consultancy services to foreigners investing in Southeast Asia. The company currently only operates a 2-hectare test plot but it plans to increase its seed production area in the province to 200 hectares in the next growing season.

This past season the company distributed seeds and fertiliser to farmers free of charge in return for a share of the crop - a strategy it plans to expand upon. At present, the provincial governor estimates that Kasekor Khmer Rongroeung' s hybrid rice is grown on around 5,000 hectares in the province.

"We are ready for large-scale implementation," said Louis Kek, director of Malaynesia Resources.

Kek told the Cambodia Daily that their hybrid seeds will triple rice yields in the province, from 2.5 tonnes per hectare to 7- 8 tonnes per hectare. But similar promises were also made by this company in Malaysia, where high yields have not materialised. In trials conducted by the Malaysian Agriculture and Research Development Institute (MARDI), the hybrid rice of SunLand's Malaysian joint venture, RB Biotech, was devastated by panicle blast and, even when not exposed to disease, its yield was still considerably below that of the check variety.

The main appeal of hybrid rice for private investors, however, is not its performance but the control it offers over farming. Farmers who plant hybrid rice have to return to the company every year to buy new seed, so it is ideal for locking them into contract production. Hybrid rice is also best suited to the kind of large-scale, high-tech, plantation-style agriculture that the foreign investors moving in on Cambodia's rice lands are likely interested in pursuing. Landgrabbing and hybrid rice are indeed a perfect match.
Author: GRAIN
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