Garment production brings in 80% of its foreign earnings, and most of the rest comes from tourism.
With the future of the garment sector uncertain, Cambodia is looking for other sources of income – and one of the areas under consideration is organic farming.
The government says it hopes the country could become the “green farm of Asia”, and export its produce to Europe and the United States.
The biggest and longest-established organic project is in Kompong Thom, along the road from Phnom Penh to Cambodia’s tourist centre, Siem Reap.
These are the paddies that have produced Cambodia’s first crop of certified organic produce.
Both the advisers and the certification are provided by the German government’s aid agency GTZ, but the fields belong to the local people who have always worked the land.
Under the auspices of GTZ, the farmers have formed an organic association.
Now they tend the rice together, wading into the murky water of the flooded paddies and transplanting the rice so it can complete the second stage of its growth.
The leader of the association, Srey Naren, was happy to extol the virtues of this new method of farming.
“It was a bit tricky for the first year,” she said, “but as time goes by you see the benefits.”
“If I were using chemicals I’d have to apply more and more every year, and the land would deteriorate,” she said.
Just around the corner from the rice fields, Hei Sitha, another farmer, was up to his ankles in compost.
He said he was saving a fortune in chemical fertilisers by collecting cow dung and other waste such as termite mounds and corn cobs from around his house.
The organic advisers have clearly done a thorough job in persuading the local farmers of the benefits of going organic.
For the concept to work, everyone in a particular area has to switch at the same time – so the arguments have to be compelling.
The three main points are all extremely appealing to people living in Cambodia’s impoverished rural provinces: lower expenditure on fertilisers, an increased selling price for the rice, and improved health through reduced exposure to chemicals.
Even so, there are some dissenting voices. There are even overseas advisers to the project who are not sure it is the right move for Cambodia at the moment.
One of them said that arranging organic certification was a complex and costly process. He also doubted whether exports would bring in the profits the government was hoping for.
Instead, his suggestion was to concentrate on the domestic market.
Cambodian consumers are largely unfamiliar with organic produce, but they are concerned about the uncontrolled use of agricultural chemicals.
Reducing or eliminating their use would have a real appeal to local customers, and farmers would not have to go to the trouble or expense of getting certification.
But the government believes organic Cambodian produce will find a market too.
Former Commerce Secretary Sok Siphana was the driving force behind the project before his move to the International Trade Centre in Geneva, and he is looking forward to the liberalisation of the European rice market in 2009.
“Cambodia is by default an organic country,” he said.
“If we can succeed in promoting this rice to the European market, we can fetch a higher price, we can really build a niche market – and then we can really scale up production.”
The wealthy and the expatriates have been snapping up Cambodian organic rice from supermarket shelves since it first appeared a couple of months ago.
The brown variant has enjoyed a particularly favourable reception from Western customers.
Cambodia was once renowned for producing the finest rice in South East Asia, before 30 years of civil war intervened.
The ensuing poverty and failure to adopt modern agricultural methods could actually give the country an edge, as it and other South East Asian countries gear up for an organic future. BBC