Slow seed delivery jeopardizes Cambodian recovery

Cambodia's recovery from the mass starvation of 1979-80 is in jeopardy because of slow seed delivery from relief agencies. One of these, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has been blasted by Western diplomats for inertia and incompetence.

Helped along by extensive international aid and its own fertile rice fields and teeming rivers, Cambodia has made a surprising recovery from its desperate food situation in the past year.

But seed supplies are the key to a proposed $200 million UN relief program which officials believe essential to ensure the country does not backslide.

For farmers to plant before the monsoon, the FAO had planned to deliver most of the seed to Cambodia in early April. The deadline for so-called floating rice seed was the first week in May and around mid-June for other varieties.

To the consternation of relief workers and diplomats, however, shipments of seed have only just started arriving in Cambodia --voluntary relief agency CARE.

Almost all the floating rice seed has been delivered, but in some areas of Cambodia it is already too late for planting. Observers in Bangkok are unsure about just how much will be distributed in time.

"There's a good chance things will go badly wrong and there will be no time to take corrective action," commented one anxious diplomat.

The FAO, however, maintains that 60 percent of the seed for the UN program either had been delivered or was on its way.

This and other statements from the FAO did little to reassure the donor country representatives, who have been staggered by the FAO's apparent nonchalance.

There have been reports of food shortages in areas such as the western province of Battambang, where an overall food surplus had previously been reported.

Deliveries of up to 6,000 tons of seed across the Thai-Cambodian border via the controversial "land bridge" will resume this week. This is a fast and cheap means of supplying seed, but it can benefit only parts of the country. Officials cannot monitor the program, and during monsoon season, the rice-laden oxcarts will find the muddy jungle paths impassable.

There is still time to salvage the seed program. But without it, by the end of the year many Cambodians may be facing starvation once again.

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