Government campaigns in Cambodia to support prices of longans in the face of plummeting demand for the tropical fruit in next-door Thailand have failed to win over farmers, with one man jailed for 10 months for a Facebook post about a promised purchase that never happened.
The shutdown of economic activity in Thailand to fight the coronavirus pandemic has killed off demand for exports of longans, hitting growers in western Cambodiaâ€™s Battambang and Pailin provinces hard and prompting high-profile campaigns to buy up the tree fruit, named for the Cantonese words for Dragon Eyes.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has in recent weeks ordered the chief of his elite bodyguard unit to buy longans from Battambang and Pailin provinces and told a representative named Leng Navatra, who runs a music production company, to encourage pop singers to promote the purchase of the fruit to the public.
For nearly three weeks, government teams bought about 2,000 tons of longans from farmers in the two provinces, which together produce as much as 159,833 tons annually, but exported only 174 tons in 2020 in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
The central government has also distributed the fruit, which is similar to lychees and rambutans, to coronavirus patients in quarantine, the military, and to hospitals.
Longan growers, however, have since early August protested to press their demand that the government do more to prop up the market for the fruit.
Nguon Ly, a grower in Battambang province, posted a video on Facebook on Aug. 21, showing crates of longans which he had prepared for local authorities who promised to buy his fruit, but never showed up to make the purchase.
In the video, he said that fellow farmers had hired helpers to pick and pack about two tons of the fruit, only for local authorities to fail to show up to buy it.
Following his Facebook post, local authorities arrested Nguon Ly and a Battambang court sentenced him to 10 months in jail on incitement charges, according to a court official.
â€˜We donâ€™t have other optionsâ€™
Other Cambodian longan growers say the current price authorities are offering does not allow them to earn a profit or service their debts.
Boeurn Chanry, a grower in Rotanak Mondol district in Battambang province, said though he has not harvested his longans yet, other farmers have told him that the government is offering to buy the fruit for 2,000 riels (U.S. $0.50) per kilogram (2.2 lbs.), a price that is one-third less than what it was in previous years.
When longan growers sold the fruit for 3,000 riels per kilogram in past years, they could afford to make payments on loans they took out to pay for their plantations, he said.
â€œThe price has dropped, so we will not make a profit,â€ he said.
Battambangâ€™s provincial governor, Nguon Ratanak, told Cambodiaâ€™s state-owned Fresh News that authorities have not completed the first stage of the longan purchase campaign, and urged farmers to notify local officials if they want to sell their fruit.
Instead of campaigns and stunts, the government should build infrastructure to process longans for export, and increase the number of markets where growers can sell the fruit to exporters, said Ying Mengly, the Battambang provincial coordinator of the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc.
â€œThere should be local markets and means to export the longans outside the country to show that the government has specific plans to help the farmers,â€ he said. â€œThis [campaign] is only a temporary solution, not a long-term one.â€
While growers are not forced to sell the longans to the government, the farmers often have no recourse if they need capital and want to sell the fruit during the harvest season before it spoils, he said.
Puy Ngoeurm, another grower in Rotanak Mondol district, said that before turning to state buyers, he wants to see if he can sell his longans to middlemen for more than 2,000 riels per kilogram.
â€œIn order not to lose money, the price must be 5,000 riels per kilo, but I will continue to grow longans despite the lower price because we are farmers. We donâ€™t have other options,â€ he said.
Reported by RFAâ€™s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.