October 18, 2011

Kingdom’s riches make it more fortunate than other countries


Abundance of water, diversity of environment bring natural advantages

Dr. Mey Kalyan
COMPARED with Africa, Mongolia, India and many of the places Mey Kalyan visited and studied during his 20-year career as a senior agricultural economist with the United Nations, Cambodia has natural  advantages that need to be kept in mind.

“In Cambodia, if you throw seeds, something happens.  In the real world, so many countries are facing physical conditions that are not conducive to agriculture production, but in Cambodia, we have to realise that we have potential, but that we have to manage it,” Kalyan says.

“Often in Africa, there’s no water, or the soil is bad, the markets are far away, it’s too hot or too cold all sorts of difficult and unfavour-able conditions.”

Kalyan served as senior economist of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), based in Rome for 20 years, travelling to at least 70 countries during his career.

As a Cambodian internationalist helping many countries to develop agricultural schemes that would bring people out of suffering and poverty, he learned something along the way.

“Compared with Cambodia, there are many more miserable and difficult countries. Cambodia has an enormous potential for agriculture,” Kalyan says.

“If you go to difficult parts of India, it’s often so dry that for aquaculture, they have to dig a pond, line it with a plastic sheet, put the fertiliser and the small fry in, all of which costs money and time.

“Here in Cambodia, you flood the paddy with Mekong water, together with natural fingerlings, and you don’t have to do anything.  The potential here is enormous.”

Kalyan is particularly fond of the Tonle Sap, as Southeast Asia’s only great lake, which he says is a giant natural aquaculture pond.

“The fish in the Mekong go and feed in the Tonle Sap and people go there just to catch fish without feeding them. People sometimes lose sight of this.

“ We have to recognise our potential, the natural richness of Cambodia, and try to manage it.”

Since his return to Cambodia in 2008, Kalyan has been able to apply what he has learned to creating the conditions for an abundant future for Cambodia in agriculture.

He remembers riding along on his 50cc Honda in Phnom Penh hearing the unmistakable rumble of B-52 strikes during the US bombing as  the Vietnam war raged.

He left Cambodia on a scholarship to Japan just before the Pol Pot regime. Both his parents died during the Pol Pot regime, along with half of his brothers and sisters, all from Pursat province. He’s the second-oldest of seven children, and only the even-number siblings survived.  The odd-numbers died.

His brother is a medical doctor in Pursat and his sister is a professor at Sisowath High School.

“It’s amazing if you notice in my family, numbers two, four and six survived,  but the odd numbers died.  I don’t know why.

“I know my father was killed after they mobilised him to the military, and they killed him because he was a teacher. My mother died from  starvation and disease. It is sad to recall.

“The world was confusing at that time about what was right or wrong.  We were so scared in the middle of the night, and you could hear the artillery and the windows would rattle from the B-52 bombing raids.

“What happened at that time was that the whole world went crazy about ideology, the Cold War, imper-ialism, communism and dogma.

“We had gained independence from France, but we were underdeveloped, not many people were educated, and there wasn’t much of a middle class.

“Combine those conflicting ideologies with weak control, and we got the Pol Pot regime.”

In 1993, when Kalyan returned to Cambodia for the first time in almost 20 years as a member of the UN mission, “I didn’t know where my family was. I ran into a friend, and he told me my family was alive.

“They were so happy to see me.

I was reborn, they were reborn, to connect with the family.

“I was the only one who could go abroad, but I was raised without my parents,  who were on their own without and very scared in their heart. When I left, my sister was only five years old.”

Now, in the fullness of time, having returned to his homeland after an early career in Japan and a global career with the United Nations, Kalyan is more of an internationalist, but reconnected as a Cambodian at heart.

“Regarding the donors, they are guests from outside.  Before, I didn’t realise that, I used to be from UN, but sitting from this side as a Cambodian, it’s different; now I can see both sides.

“I’ve worked with major donor countries, the World Bank, the African Bank, and we prepared projects for many countries, building irrigation schemes, research capabilities, bringing in new technologies.

“This is the experience I can share and apply to Cambodia.”

Kalyan says Cambodian rice policy needs to be a home-grown effort.

“I feel the best thing for Cambodia is not to give it food, but to strengthen the country’s capacity to produce more food for its people.

“This is not a Christmas present; this is capacity-building and instit-ution-building. The rice policy has to come from inside Cambodia.  Donors are relevant only when you have ownership from the inside.

“From other side of coin, as a Cambodian and not a UN official, I see the reality now.

“Donors are helpful, but the speed will depend on the initiative, ownership and commitment of local people.  It doesn’t matter if you fly in business class and write a report.  What matters are the local people.” 

With regard to NGOs, Kalyan recognizes they have been important in stabilising populations around the world following disasters, but he says they are not sustainable for Cambodia.

“I recognise the importance of NGOs; you need to have a lifeline from somewhere, but if you live on aid, it’s not possible to be sustainable, so they make up things.

“The usefulness of NGOs is diminished. They were useful when people were in difficulties, but after a while you have  to have people get independent on their own abilities, not just on handouts.”

Kalyan says right now the development of Cambodia is too important to be muddled with ideals imposed by some distant NGO donors.

“More and more difficult areas, such governance issues, gender issues, could be useful, but we have other important priorities, for example building a bridge across the Mekong and bringing food and income to poor people.

“The benefits for all outweigh the cost of the risk.  Some NGOs only try to poke into some issues out of proportion and don’t care about the balanced development of the country.

“Sometimes they become a force to work against other donors so they stop doing things peacefully.”

Another ill-effect of NGOs, Kalyan says, is that they can get government people pre-occupied with  them, so governments’ attention, which could otherwise be spent on top development priorities, has to be spent on defending themselves.

“They use 40 to 50 per cent of their resources defending themselves, so the effectiveness for development is not there. They make their own agenda, and they advocate for this or that and get funding from somewhere.

“I don’t totally reject their usefulness, but sometimes they make life too difficult for governments or anyone else.

“Cambodia is not too bad compared with other developing countries that have a difficult past. Governments also have capacity limitations in terms of financial and human resources.

 “They could not entertain  all the small issues, but for NGOs these are not a small issues;  they are big issues.

“The usefulness of NGOs is diminishing.  They have to help Cambodia have small-scale enterprises, to produce all sorts of things, not to depend on handouts, so  income and employment can be created for poor people.

“Cambodia has to think about preparedness for any risks. It has to be able to foresee what’s going to happen and prepare for disaster scen-arios. Cambodia is a lowland area, easy to flood like now.”

With regard to Cambodia’s rice policy, Kalyan says a top priority is to mitigate, then stop, exporting paddy, or unmilled rice, and build more rice mills in Cambodia so more Cambodians have work.

“On this issue of exporting paddy, I think this issue has been happening a long time but on a smaller scale.

“If you look back we’ve never had a long time of peace to develop agriculture. Only since 1993 have we been able to get better education, develop agriculture, and for the first time we have had a surplus.  Only a few years back, we got some surplus.

“Thailand is the world’s number one rice exporter;  Vietnam is the number two, in the past, the paddy has disappeared there, fair enough.

“At least we could sell our paddy, but now we recognise the importance of this, and this is going to increase and expand, and more and more surplus is going to come into the system.

“We have to think ahead, and should not export only raw materials; if we process it, we create more value-added to the country.

“Rice is crucial;  it is vital to millions of people’s lives. If you resolve the rice problem, you solve a lot of social and economic problems as well.”

Kalyan says the by-products from rice, such as the rice bran fed to pigs and fish, and milling the paddy in Cambodia can stimulate industries, such as processing industries, livestock and aquaculture.

“When we export the paddy, we lose everything.  We have to keep the by-products, including the rice husk. When you take nutrients from the mother land, you have to give back nutrients. The rice husk is one of them.”

Kalyan says a new technol-ogy from Japan makes rice- husk carbon that can be used effectively with reduced quantities of fertiliser.

“This new technology is being promoted in Cambodia right now,” he says.

Kalyan was one of the authors of the Cambodia’s Rice Policy, launched in August, 2010 and prepared for  the Prime Minister.

“This is one of the few times that we Cambodians have developed a policy ourselves.

I am very proud of being part of the process,” he says.

Kalyan said there are three primary objectives for 2015: to export at least one million tons of milled rice; to produce a surplus of at least four mill-ion tons of paddy; and to make the world aware of the quality of Cambodian rice.

“These are the objectives  people can remember.  For the Rice Policy to tackle all these things, there has to be a systematic approach to the whole rice value chain.

“The more I think about it, it’s the only way to tackle it.  We have to look at the whole value chain:  production, processing, logistics, various official certificates, and export markets.

“This is not the task only of the government; it has to be a public-private partnership.

“All the major players have to be involved, and a whole range of activities has to be identified and resolved.”

Kalyan describes himself as a kind of intermediary between the government and the private sector, and between the government and its development partners.

“So many foreigners have helped me when I lived outside the country, so it’s my turn to help them, make them feel comfortable in Cambodia, to make them feel at home.

“When I was outside Cambodia over the years, many foreign friends opened their warm hearts to me, so I try to return the same to them now.”

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