TRAMKOK, Cambodia (Reuters) - Sok Sarin flashes a toothless grin as he looks at his newly built house and remembers how the other farmers laughed when he pioneered new rice-growing techniques in his district in southern Cambodia.
Better irrigation, training in how to select seeds and cheap fertilizer made from wild plants and animal or bat droppings have more than doubled the yield from his rice fields to 3.4 tons per hectare from 1.5 tons.
“No one believed that this idea would work. Now they follow me and they have good harvests,” said Sarin, 60.
Cambodia’s economy was devastated by civil war from the 1970s to the late 1990s, including four years under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, whose dream of transforming the country into a great rice power ended in the nightmare of the “Killing Fields.”
Now another agrarian revolution is under way as the government seeks to boost rice exports and cut poverty among its 14 million people, 85 percent of whom are farmers or members of farming families.
Thanks in large part to vastly improved irrigation, Sarin can get two crops a year from his fields, earning him an income of $1,500. Per capita income in Cambodia is around $500.
Sarin’s neighbor, Long Yos, 50, said Cambodian farmers were also following methods honed in China, India and the Philippines to breed fish that eat the insects that destroy rice plants.
“The fish eat the insects; we eat the fish when they get bigger,” said Yos.
Better irrigation and the expansion of land use are crucial to government ambitions to produce 15 million tons of rice by 2015, more than double the 7 million forecast for 2008/09 and 6.76 million in 2007/08. The main harvest is in November.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Cambodia was the world’s ninth-biggest rice exporter in 2007 with 450,000 tons. Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun says Cambodia could export 8 million tons by 2015.
Neighbors Thailand and Vietnam were in first and third places in the export table in 2007 with 9.5 million tons and 4.5 million tons respectively, according to the USDA.
One rice dealer with a trading house in Singapore estimated Cambodia exported 600,000 to 800,000 tons a year, directly or indirectly via Thailand, and could push that up to 1.5 million tons in one or two seasons if the government was focused.
“But 8 million tons is an entirely different ball game. Obviously, this has to come from increases in area and not just yield,” he said.
Another Singapore trader said it would take a lot of money for Cambodia to push yields significantly higher.
“China is the only country in the developing world that has reached 6 to 8 tons per hectare. Thailand is at 3.5 tons per hectare while India is around 2.5 tons,” he said.
Analysts in Thailand, while acknowledging how far Cambodia has come already, think its plans are just too ambitious.
“It’s possible, but it would not be that easy,” Paka-on Tipayatanadaja at Kasikorn Research said of the 2015 target.
“It would take more than a decade to develop not only an irrigation system, but also a logistics system and storage systems,” she added.
Many Cambodian farmers harvest just once a year because of a lack of water. Vietnam and Thailand, with their superior irrigation, manage two or three crops.
Phnom Penh is investing about $49 million a year on irrigation, said Hang Chuon Naron, an official at the Finance Ministry, but much more is needed.
“Japan and South Korea are helping us but that’s not enough,” said Chea Chhun Keat of the Water Resources Ministry, adding 1.6 million hectares of 2.6 million under cultivation was irrigated.
Foreign investment is flowing into Cambodia thanks to its cheap labor and the political stability achieved under Hun Sen, prime minister since 1985.
In August, Kuwait agreed loans totaling $546 million, of which $486 million will be invested in irrigation systems and hydro-power on the Stueng Sen river in the northeast of the country.
A Kuwaiti newspaper said Kuwait had leased rice fields to secure food supplies. Qatar also plans to invest $200 million in Cambodian farmland.
“They have the money, we have the land. They wouldn’t come if we didn’t have agricultural potential,” said farm minister Sarun.
Land under cultivation could be pushed up to 3.5 million hectares quite quickly, according to Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture.
He pointed to the area round Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s biggest freshwater lake with up to 800,000 hectares of potential farm land, much of it unused as a lack of irrigation means farmers can’t control water levels: In the rainy season, there’s too much, which damages rice plants, in the dry season too little.
There is more land to be worked in the northeast and in the still-mined former battlefields of the northwest.
In all, Saing Koma said, Cambodia had 6 million hectares that might be cultivated for rice and other crops.
The average rice yield per hectare is currently 2.6 tons and he said that could be pushed up to 3.5 tons — a yield that Sarin has in his sights thanks to the training, irrigation and bat droppings that have given him two crops a year.
Writing by Alan Raybould; editing by Megan Goldin