The Rebirth of Agricultural Peasants in Cambodia

After 1955 a clear deterioration began in the conditions of production for small farmers in the Cambodian countryside. Increasing monetarization of the rural economy, combined with extortionate interest rates, pushed small peasants off their insufficient land. At the same time, the process of social differentiation accelerated, particularly as some people accumulated small herds of oxen. In this way they could make more profitable use of larger land areas, employ seasonal workers at the busiest times, and lend draft animals to peasants on the following terms: I lend you my oxen for one day, and you transplant rice seedlings or harvest two days for me. Many of the arrangements commonly labeled "mutual aid" were in fact based on such unequal exchanges of human for animal labor.

The deterioration of conditions in the countryside would have been far more brutal had not the country been so sparsely populated and had free land been available.

Agriculture Under the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge mobilized and organized the masses into units and work forces intended to lead to greater labor output. The entire population was sent to the fields, organized in what was considered to be a more rational scheme. Mobile units of young people were herded from one pocket of the country to another to construct huge hydraulic works. Elderly people were given basketwork and handicraft assignments. The remainder of the population, without even the assurance of living to see the following day, assumed the other tasks of agriculture: sloughing, harrowing, transplanting, and harvesting, not to mention preparing "Chinese" organic fertilizer.

The first major constructions were made visible through LANDSAT satellite images around 1973, in the southwestern provinces of Takeo, Kampot, and part of Kompong Speu, all of which had been under Khmer Rough control since the end of 1970. After the evacuation of Phnom Penh (a phenomenon whose origins can be traced back to the ancient practices of Angkor warfare), large constructions appeared all over the country, especially in the western provinces of Pursat, Battambang, Kompong Them, and Siem Reap.

Among the reasons for the failure of this mobilization of the masses was the need for a densely populated area where farming was already very labor intensive. Attempting such mobilization in an underpopulated country was a sure recipe for catastrophe. There has been just criticism of the disastrous ecological effects of many of these works, built on flagrant denial of the elementary laws of hydraulic engineering. But the real problem is that no matter how well conceived they might have been, the system was doomed even before it began, because to succeed it needed a population density of 500 to more than 1,000 people per square kilometer, whereas the Cambodian average was closer to 70 to 100 people per square kilometer.

In order to control the population and allow the export to rice to China, it was necessary to reduce food rations. The country that had exported rice until the end of the 1960s became a terrible pocket of famine in a Southeast Asia just beginning to emerge from its food crisis.

Recent Developments

After 1979, the land, while remaining the property of the new state, was divided into three parts: the domain of the Krom Samaki (solidarity groups), the state sector (with some state farms receiving assistance from socialist countries), and the sector of small family food production - in other words, small family plots given to each family for houses, small market gardening enterprises, and so on. It is clear that the Krom Samaki - the basic organizational structures established since 1979 - have served to alleviate the existing poverty to the best possible advantage of the majority.

The organizational bases of the Krom Samaki have varied considerably, and the plans in the table below show the different forms and their evolution over time.

In first form of Krom Samaki (from 1), called Krom ti moi, plowing, harrowing, transplanting, upkeep, and harvesting are done as a community. Natural products or money are distributed following a system of work points. Animals remain the property of the family. In the second form of Krom Samaki (from 2), called krom ti pi, transplanting, harrowing, and plowing are done as a community. Parcels of land are allocated at the beginning of the cycle to families based on family size. Once transplanting is complete, each family becomes responsible for its own allotment, although not to the exclusion of mutual help or exchanges (particularly exchanges of human labor for animal labor). In the third form of Krom Samaki (from 3), krom ti bey, the land is distributed at the beginning of the season and family exploitation begins again.

Form of % in % in % in % in % in

Krom Samaki 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983

1 3 10 22 38 50(plan)

(krom ti 35(actual)


2 27 55 57 53 45(plan)

(krom ti 55(actual)


3 70 35 21 9 5(plan)

(krom ti 10(actual)


It is important to emphasize that the Krom Samaki have nothing to do with what the Khmer Rouge called "cooperatives" or with the structures established in neighboring Vietnam. Animal remain private property. Later we well look at the role that his played, and continues to play, in the process of social differentiation.

Normalization and the Trend Toward Decollectivization

Little by little, the scarcity of means of production - particularly oxen - has become less severe. At the same time, the current regime's need to extend and consolidate its bases has forced it toward a certain pragmatism. Policies that bring discontent to peasants are, in effect, policies that work in favor of the functions opposing the government in Phnom Penh.

This can be clearly seen in price policies. For a long time state prices were far too weak; state shops, where theoretically peasants could redeem their coupons, only offered a meager quantity of goods of poor quality and minimal range. Consequently, farmers had little incentive to sell to the state. The state had to resort to certain methods of coercion through the network of Krom Samaki in order to stock the rice that it needed to feed its growing army and civil servants. The peasants therefore remained somewhat skeptical of collectivization. Even though they did not exactly follow the Khmer Rouge system, they nevertheless drained an important part of the surplus, and in a bad year if the local cadres were too overbearing, even crucial family rice supplies were drained.

Another important block has for a long time hindered the development of agricultural activities: administrative measures drawn up to control the movement of the population and of goods between provinces and districts. The bad start to the 1986 agriculture year and the late monsoons highlighted the importance of small-scale temporary movements between areas affected by drought and others untouched by it.

To survive, the peasants need to move in whole family units, to buy corn or rice, to seek work elsewhere, or to sell forest products. To hinder these movements was to condemn hundreds of families to severe economic hardship and insufficient food. At the beginning of the 1986 rainy season, the Phnom, Penh authorities considerably reduced administrative restraints on such traffic.

Finally, almost imperceptibly, the emphasis has moved from support of form 1 of the Krom Samaki to recognition of the importance of form 2, Form 2 allows the advantages of a certain degree of community management of means of production still in short supply, it allows a certain amount of government assistance, and, most importantly, it ensures that the final crop harvested actually goes to the person who did the work.

During the early years after Pol Pot, there was a system of redistribution in rotating Krom Samaki property among the different members. This obviously prevented any land investment. The small dikes had minimal upkeep. Very quickly (but at a rate that varies depending on the area) a measure of security has been guaranteed. The person who put fertilizer on his or her plot of land could be sure that he or she would be the one to reap the benefits of such preparation.

At last the importance of family plots for smallscale family food production has been acknowledged. The government has created a Committee for Family Food Production (comité PAT), which has its roots in provincial and district committees. This program is strongly supported by UNICEF, which has made it the main axis of its "applied nutrition" policy, and by the French Group for Research and Technological Exchanges (GRET).

Agrarian Reform and Its Implications

Some days before the second informal Jakarta meeting (JIM 2), in 1989, the National Assembly remodeled and am ended the constitution in Cambodia, introducing the concept of private ownership in land and building: "Land ownership for the person who cultivates it."

The idea had already been brewing for several months. The government, on the one hand, had recognized the dynamic of ipso facto appropriation, which had occurred as annual land redistribution within the Krom Samaki had stopped. Such informal appropriations had actually allowed the development of an embryonic land marketing operation, particularly around the towns and in Phnom Penh.

Redistribution normally takes place on a quota system. But it has not yet been ascertained how to solve the problems linked to the different levels of productivity of different pieces of land: quality, accessibility, past and planned land investment (irrigation, drainage, etc.) - all must be take into account, and this is extremely complex. Also, for the time being the task of redistributing land is left to village leaders. Recent analyses carried out by GRET during the course of research into agrarian systems seem to indicate clearly that the potential conflicts are numerous. All depends on the power relationships existing at the village level between new leaders and the old elite, between strong personalities and minor local leaders, between poor and rich peasants.

Social Differentiation Under Way

One fascinating result of the research undertaken during recent months is evidence that the "egalitarian" jargon thriving in past years did nothing but disguise the development of significant inequalities.

The study of family incomes shows the reappearance of former disparities between the provinces. A rice farmer from Kompong Speu or north Takéo would earn from rice farming up to 5,000 riels (US $30), which he would supplement as far as possible with 10,000-15,000 riels (US $60-90) from other activities such as producing palm sugar, chopping wood, or seasonal work in the city such as driving a pedicab. If one adds that for one year out of two the rice farmers of many villages must buy a large percentage of their rice, one can quickly deduce that the majority of them have an extremely limited capacity for investment.

By contrast, in the riverside provinces where tobacco, corn, sesame, and other riverside crops augment garden riverside produce of fruit and vegetables, annual revenue can easily go above 60,000 riels (US $342), and households reflect a higher standard of living.

Analyses carried out during the past months indicate that the phenomenon of deepening social separation is at least as evident within the village as outside of it. This gap can be seen in the rate at which certain families have been able to acquire means of production, transport, and materials to repair the home, while others in the same village, supposedly subject to the same agro-ecological restraints, continue to live in bamboo huts with no oxen or farming equipment.

This social discrepancy can also be seen in a study of the objectives and strategies of farmers. Some already function with the mindset of entrepreneurs involved in market farming, while others remain bound by the basic requirements of subsistence and by the reproduction of the family work force.

It is important to explain what owning a yoke of oxen represents; it is seen as "progress toward enlightenment." Indeed, working the land redistributed by the Krom Samaki to the owners of oxen according to points earned by "human labor" or by "animal labor" has enabled the latter to accumulate a certain amount of wealth. Those at the other end of the scale are obliged to rely on renting oxen or on an unjust exchange of labor.

One can well imagine the terms and justice of land distribution in this context becoming political and social issues of prime importance.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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