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Back to the Buffalo – If you can.

IRIN has a good, short review of the economic difficulties facing Cambodian farmers who – on the advice and promotion of precisely those economic think tanks that are now urging ‘flexibility’ – switched from traditional plowing methods (Water Buffalo) to petroleum-based mechanical methods (Tractors).

Until 2006, when he upgraded to the mechanical tiller, Vann Than had used an ox-drawn plough. In any other year, Vann Than told IRIN, repaying the loan would be manageable, but the annual jump in the inflation rate – to 18.7 percent in January 2008, according to the National Institute of Statistics Consumer Price Index – has taken a heavy financial toll, particularly when he is struggling to pay for diesel fuel, which has doubled in price, and fertiliser, which has also increased significantly.

“We spend everything on these higher costs. I don’t think we will make any profits from our rice field this year,” he said.

I’ve written about this problem previously. It’s clear that, if ploughing is thought necessary, the water buffalo is a better option on almost all fronts, especially for small holders (it only becomes cost-effective on very large holdings, usually held by commercial interests rather than individual farming families or associations). In addition to all the obvious advantages, we can note that buffalo don’t compact the soil as much as mechanical tractors, thus allowing for better growth of planted seedlings and less difficult ploughing in the future)

In Thma Koul district’s Popeal Khe village, dozens of mechanical ploughs are parked in front of farmhouses. Three years ago, many farmers in this village sold their draught animals to purchase mechanical ploughs. They believed the mechanical tillers would prepare their fields faster and thus increase productivity and profits.

In the rush to mechanise, only three families among dozens in the community continued using oxen, villagers told IRIN.

Now with the cost of diesel increasing, they regret abandoning their draught animals so quickly, Koy Kean, 68, the village chief, told IRIN.

For those who did not buy tillers, but sold their animals anyway, and now rent the services of those with private tillers, each planting season the cost of field preparation is almost as much as owning a tiller outright. According to Koy Kean, the cost of tilling a one-hectare rice paddy has risen from US$39 last year to $51 this year.

But the headline of the IRIN article, “Farmers Turn Back To Oxen As Fuel Prices Rise” is somewhat misleading. While it is true that farmers in the story seem to universally regret having sold their buffalo in favor of the now more-expensive tractors, they rarely have the capital to do so. And with petroleum prices continuing to go up and up and up (and no end in sight, folks), they’re unlikely to make much of a return on the sale of their own tractors – who would buy?

On balance, it is only relatively wealthy farmers who were able to purchase mechanical tractors without selling their buffalo who are making the return. [IRIN article here]

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