Hunger pangs finally ease in Cambodia

Cambodia's rice shortage and malnutrition appear to have decreased to the point where relief agencies are considering a cutback in emergency feeding. But oxcarts laden with hungry peasants still flock to the Thai border. And relief workers are "holding their breath" to see if the rice crop harvested over the next two months will meet optimistic expectations.

A recent US government study predicts the harvest will be twice as big as last year's. Even so, it will yield only 10 to 30 percent of the amount needed to reach selfsufficiency at minimum consumption levels, the study concludes.

US observers report a decline in the last few months in the number of hungry Cambodians trekking to the Thai border for food. This is party because occupying Vietnamese forces are making the trip more diffcult. And some Cambodian farmers prefer to stay home to plant and till their crops -- rather than journey to Thailand.

The confused border situation following Vietnam's June 23 incursion into Thailand also has slowed the flow, resulting in a sharp drop in the number of regugees at the border, previously estimated at a half million.

But in recent weeks the numbers have picked up again. Two weeks ago more than 5,000 oxcarts showed up at the Nong Chan border distribution point, said Aymon Frank of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a telephone interview from Bangkok. Some 12,500 showed up for food allotments Oct. 1.

The reason for the increase, Mr. Frank suggested, is that most of the fieldwork for the current harvest has been finished, freeing farmers to trek to the border.Many, too, need to stock up because their foodstuffs run low just before the harvest.

Thus, relief workers are hesitant to make any long-term predictions. If they sound too optimistic a note, it may undermine efforts to attract international aid later should the situation deteriorate.

According to some reports, "diplomatic sources" in Bangkok have said the Red Cross and UNICEF will officially announce their withdrawal from cross-border feeding programs at a meeting of Cambodian aid donors in New York Nov. 19. But Mr. Frank denies that any decision has been made.

"It is much too early to say," he told this newspaper. "We will monitor the coming harvest and see what the situation is before making any decision. We could even increase our aid depending upon the results."

UNICEF, which is a major cross-border donor like the ICRC, has adopted a similar policy, according to Mr. Frank. Critics of the food program have long contended it would damage Cambodia's harvest by luring farmers to receive handouts instead of working in the fields.

But, counters one source, "The American study has proven this incorrect. Many farmers apparently have preferred to stay at home and work, rather than make the long, arduous trip to the Thai border."

A general, if restrained mood of optimism is reported among relief workers at the border. Some small private relief organizations have left the region to work in more critical areas such as Africa. Diplomats, too, are quoted as seeing a brighter outlook. Red Cross medical staffs in border camps have been reduced.

The private relief organization Oxfam is taking a cautiously optimistic view. IT plans to send no rice to Cambodia in 1981 on the grounds that need is dramtically reduced.

"If all goes well, the gap between need and the autumn harvest will be relatively small," says Geoffrey Busby of Oxfam's Singapore office. He adds that Oxfam workers in cambodia say the current crop seems to be faring well. One reason: The Vietnam-backed Phnom Penh government apparently has been more efficient in distributing seed to villagers.

Mr. Busby points out that people look reasonably well fed in urban centers. But the situation is unclear in isolated rural areas, where Khmer Rougne guerrillas are battling the Heng Samrin regime.

US officials seem to be taking a more pessimistic view, arguing that the food flow will have to continue into 1981. Flooding in central Cambodia could add to food problems, American analysts have noted.

Just whose view is closet to the mark will remain unclear until after the October-November harvest.

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