The Portuguese capuchin monk António da Madalena pulled with a firm yank the cord of his brown robe that had got caught behind a thick branch. Sweat poured from his forehead, but he kept going.
He wanted to know if the stories of the locals were true. Through the thick vegetation of the Cambodian jungle, he could barely see a few meters ahead. But when one of his guides chopped off the leaves of a banana tree, the miracle projected onto his retina.
It was the Year of the Lord 1586 and António was the first Westerner to admire the largest temple complex in the world, Angkor Wat, with his own eyes.
Today, millions of people a year visit Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, the city-state that belongs to the temple complex and was built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. But no one is interested in Cambodia except for Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The country with the rich cultural Khmer tradition continues to lose ground.
No longer literally, to neighboring countries, as in all centuries after the fall of the huge Khmer empire in 1431, but economically and culturally. There are also practically no more products that put Cambodia on the international map.
Kampot pepper is the exception that proves this rule. The pepper from the Kampot province, considered to be one of the best peppers in the world, has especially caused a furore in countries such as France and Vietnam.
But since 2014, an agricultural product has emerged that previously never grew in Cambodia, but which may now be able to give the country back some of its international brilliance: cocoa.
But Cambodia does not give up so easily. For the farmers of the Kingdom of Wonder, cocoa is not an easy race. They are very curious about this wondrous fruit, but they are also wary and sometimes downright fearful.
Cocoa cannot grow everywhere in Cambodia either. The lowlands, including the areas around Angkor Wat, are either too hot or too wet due to frequent flooding during the rainy season.
But the hilly northeast, roughly the provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, has a perfect climate and with its red volcanic soil forms a literally magnificent breeding ground for cocoa. It is less warm than in the rest of the country and there is generally more rainfall without causing prolonged flooding.
Another advantage of this most sparsely populated area is the abundance of available farmland. Illegal logging has destroyed significant parts of the original jungle. The highly lucrative Chinese trade in tropical hardwoods has had a disastrous effect on this jungle.
Dangerous predators are no longer to be found. There are only groups of wild elephants that skim through the remaining forests. But the downside is now the presence of large tracts of unused and very fertile land in this area.
The farmers who have started with cocoa in these provinces, led by the first cocoa company in Cambodia, Kamkav Farm, are doing this in the form of agroforestry: planting shade trees such as banana, cashew, mango, avocado, coconut and neem tree so that a shady area is created under which the cocoa can grow; in a ratio of 30 percent shade trees and 70 percent cocoa. This multi-cropping creates an organic balance with a kind of natural pest control as a result.
But for the average Cambodian farmer, it is an incomprehensible way of farming. Frequently, a farmer ignores Kamkav Farm’s advice, promises to plant shade trees and then completely abandons it. The sun takes its toll and after two months the planted cocoa seedlings are at the end of their rope. It is partly laziness of these farmers, partly a lack of education, of familiarity with the phenomenon of agroforestry and partly the result of centuries of isolation from the population.
It is estimated that half of the population of Mondulkiri province is still illiterate. In Ratanakiri the situation is slightly better. The only language spoken is Khmer, or Bunong, the local tribal language. Even Vietnamese is hardly spoken, although the neighboring country is less than 50 kilometres from the provincial capital Sen Monorom. The introduction of cocoa, therefore, goes through trial and error.
Cambodian farmers are also wary: is there really a market for cocoa? In the past, they have often been fooled with beautiful stories about major buyers of other agricultural products. And they hardly know the product chocolate. What should a buyer do with those cocoa beans? That Kamkav Farm already sells its own cocoa to Japan and Singapore seems convincing, but the question keeps coming: if we finally have cocoa, will those buyers still be there?
Yet there are still advantages to be found from cocoa growth in Cambodia: the relatively young population. The average age is 25.6 years. And still, 40% of the population works in agriculture. This is a lot less compared to 1993 when an estimated 80% were still active in agriculture. The average farmer in the northeast also has a much larger plot of farmland than his colleagues in Vietnam and Thailand. On average, a farmer owns at least five hectares. Even the farmers under the local Bunong tribe own at least two hectares. By way of comparison: in Vietnam, a farmer owns an average of 1.5 hectares.
However, a Vietnamese farmer is often much more successful than his Cambodian counterpart. He gets a lot more yield from a smaller area. But this also has to do with another phenomenon that has been spared northeast of Cambodia due to the isolated situation: excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The relative unfamiliarity with these factors offers great opportunities for an organic approach to cocoa growth. This is also one of the important drivers of Kamkav Farm: turning the provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri into a mecca for organic agroforestry cocoa. But it is again met with opposition from the already reasonably successful farmers. The fact that in the long term this can also be a stimulus for eco-tourism is also falling on deaf ears.
The government seems to have picked up on this signal again. Because the plans for a small airport in the Oraing district, with which eco-tourists can be flown in directly, are in full swing. The Chinese firm PowerChina International Group is moving forward and plans to have the 600-hectare regional airport operational by 2023.
The introduction of cocoa in the northeast of Cambodia goes through trial and error. It offers plenty of opportunities. Especially in this time of climate change, the mountain area in the northeast offers a good fertile environment for cocoa.
But it is the farmers themselves who are either suspicious of the situation, or because of a lack of education make the wrong decisions and even ignore professional advice. But the first group of farmers will be able to harvest and sell the first cocoa harvest at the end of this year. Then it will also become clear to others that cocoa can indeed be a profitable activity.
Written by Stefan Struik, founder of Kamkav Farm in Cambodia.