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Cambodia scrambles to shield fruit farmers from COVID blow

Strict border controls and sanitary issues crimp longan exports to Thailand

People sell fruit at a market in Phnom Penh on June 15. The country's farmers are bracing for export disruption due in part to the coronavirus pandemic.   © EPA/Jiji

PHNOM PENH -- Harvest season is always a tense time for Cambodian longan farmer Oeum Raksa, but this year the 31-year-old is particularly nervous.

Even in normal circumstances, Raksa has less than three days after picking the tropical tree-growing fruit to sell to wholesalers. These buyers then must quickly move it to processing factories in Thailand to prolong its shelf life.

This year, however, COVID-19 border restrictions and recent contamination issues have brought longan exports to Thailand to a virtual halt, resulting in tons of fruit spoiling, according to local media reports.

"I'm worried," Raksa told Nikkei Asia. "I heard that the Prime Minister [Hun Sen] helps to buy longan from small farmers. That's a short-term solution, but we need local buyers to be able to export to China."

Cambodia sells longan through Thailand to access the Chinese market because of sanitary controls that prohibit direct exports of the fruit to Asia's biggest economy. The recent disruption underscores the challenges facing Cambodia's government in its efforts to boost agricultural exports.

The Agriculture Ministry last week released a statement calling on the private sector to invest in processing facilities for longan. Often referred to as Pailin longan, it is a fruit similar to lychee grown mostly near Cambodia's border with Thailand in Pailin, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces.

According to Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture, Cambodia exported more than 100,000 tons of longan in 2020, but only a tiny amount of that -- less than 40 tons -- was certified as meeting sanitary standards.

Ratha Chan, country director of the Cambodia Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture, said a lack of processing capacity was a major barrier for the country's agricultural sector and leaves Cambodia in a vulnerable position at the bottom of the supply chain.

The lack of capacity, he said, is due to insufficient human resources, as well as difficulty meeting standards because of the high cost of compliance and a lack of accredited laboratories. Cambodia's farmers and growers also had a hard time accessing affordable financing while the sector's fragmentation made it hard to achieve economies of scale.

"Cambodian agriculture has been relying substantially on raw [agriculture] exports to neighboring countries, which presents a high risk of shock or [impacts from] short-term decisions by those governments' policy shifts," he said.

For longan farmers, that shock came earlier this month when Thai authorities blocked imports of the fruit from Cambodia.

The restrictions, purportedly because of COVID-19 concerns, came in the wake of China's decision to temporarily ban Thai longan imports, citing contamination issues with mealybugs.

The Chinese ban was partially lifted the following week but Cambodian longan farmers remain unsure of when their products can reenter Thailand.

The crisis prompted Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen to order officials to buy longan fruit from farmers.

Speaking on state-run National Television of Cambodia, Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon said the buy-up would cost some $49 million. He said the expected yield of longan was about 110,000 tons for this year.

The prime minister tasked four-star general Hing Bun Heang, head of his bodyguard unit -- an autonomous military force that answers directly to the Cambodian leader -- to lead the program.

Speaking to local media, Hing Bun Heang said the longans will be given to "military, police and border forces that are fighting COVID-19" in border areas.

The government also told growers to send their longans to Vietnam and said it was working to secure access to additional markets.

Cambodia has identified longans as the next fruit for which it will push for direct access to China. In recent years, it has received approval for direct exports of fresh bananas and mangos after establishing the necessary phytosanitary protocols.

Ratha said the recent crisis should prompt officials to expedite the process of opening up new markets.

The government should also streamline the "overlapping" responsibilities of several government agencies, help to better connect actors in the supply chain, and help organize collectives or association groups for all major crops.

"We need long-term solutions," he said.

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