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Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture in Phnom
Penh, Cambodia: Challenges and Opportunities
Simon Underhill
School of Agricultural & Wine Sciences, Charles Sturt University, Australia
Email: simunderhill@gmail.com
ABSTRACT
The majority of the global population lives in cities. In the developing world, a three-fold challenge
of population growth, urbanization, and urban food insecurity is posing challenges for cities. Urban
agriculture has received increasing attention as one strategy to help cope with this. Using the annual
statistical data of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, this paper reported on trends in
urban agriculture (rice, vegetables, cattle, swine, and poultry) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia since 1993.
At least 125 square kilometers (~20%) of the municipal area of Phnom Penh is used in agriculture,
with nearly 300,000 swine, cattle, and poultry. It is the sixth largest industry in the city and the
most important secondary economic activity. Yield data for rice and vegetables are not significantly
different between Phnom Penh and the Cambodian average. Cattle, swine, and poultry populations
have been declining in Phnom Penh since 1993 but all increased in 2011. Between 1993 and 2011,
vegetable production and area cultivated have decreased, whereas rice production has increased. To
maximize the multifunctional benefits of urban agriculture in Phnom Penh, further research is needed
to understand its importance at the household level and to ensure that it is being practiced effectively
and sustainably.
Keywords: urban agriculture, Phnom Penh, urbanization, population growth, food security
JEL classification: O18
2 Simon Underhill
INTRODUCTION
Urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA)
includes growing crops, raising animals,
and their associated activities either within
or along the fringes of cities (de Zeeuw, van
Veenhuizen, and Dubbeling 2011). Notable for
its multifunctionality, UPA provides a range
of benefits such as economic opportunities,
employment, social inclusion and cohesion,
land preservation, enhanced recreational
uses, and important environmental services,
for example, flood protection and climate
mitigation (Aubry et al. 2012; De Bon, Parrot,
and Moustier 2010; de Zeeuw, van Veenhuizen,
and Dubbeling 2011; Dubbeling, de Zeeuw, and
van Veenhuizen 2010; Zasada 2011).
UPA has been found to play an important
role in many cities around the world (De Bon,
Parrot, and Moustier 2010), though it is often
under-reported. Interest in urban agriculture
as a policy tool has greatly increased in
recent years due to two global demographic
milestones. In 2008, the world’s urban
population exceeded that of the rural for the
first time in history (UNDESA [United Nations
Department of Economic and Social Affairs]
2010) and in the late 2011, global population
surpassed seven billion (UNFPA [United
Nations Population Fund] 2011). This trend is
expected to continue and eventually peak in
the 2050s at approximately nine billion, with
5.3 billion living in cities (UN-HABITAT
[United Nations Human Settlements Program]
2008). Urban population growth between
2005 and 2010 in developing countries was
2.5 percent, five times greater than the rate
of growth recorded in developed countries;
in the least developed countries, it was 4
percent (UNFPA 2007). Further, 95 percent of
the predicted urban growth over the next 40
years will occur in developing countries (UNHABITAT 2008). This growth occurs against a
backdrop of volatile food prices and increasing
food insecurity, with over 900 million people
globally classified as malnourished; critically, a
growing proportion of this number now occurs
in urbanized areas (FAO [Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations] 2008).
These developments raise serious global,
regional, and local challenges for employment,
education, social cohesion, urban development,
the environment, and food security.
The three-fold combination of growing
population, increasing urbanization, and more
widespread urban food insecurity is exemplified
in the Southeast Asian country Cambodia and
its capital city Phnom Penh (Cohen and Garrett
2010; UN-HABITAT 2008). Cambodia has
seen a population increase of 2 percent per
year between 2005 and 2010 and its current
population of 14.6 million is expected to grow
to 26 million by 2050 (UNFPA 2007, 2011).
The urban growth rate is higher than population
growth nationally, at 4.9 percent (UNFPA
2007). The population of the capital, Phnom
Penh in 2012 is approximately 1.5 million,
which is 54 percent of the urban population of
Cambodia and 11 percent of the total (UNDESA
2011). Phnom Penh is expected to add another
nearly one million inhabitants by 2025 (UNHABITAT 2008).
While poverty reduction in Cambodia
since 1992 has been impressive, the absolute
numbers of people living in poverty in Phnom
Penh are high and hunger has been exacerbated
by high food prices in the last five years (Sophal
2011). The proportion of urban slum dwellers in
Cambodia stands at 79 percent (UN-HABITAT
2008), and as Phnom Penh includes the dominant
urban population of Cambodia, it is likely that
the majority of the country’s slum population
is in this city. Rates of acute malnutrition are
on the average lower in Phnom Penh (5.4%)
than in the rest of the country (8%) (Harris and
Jack 2011; Kruy, Kim, and Kakinaka 2010),
however, acute malnutrition in the Mean Chay
district of Phnom Penh is as high as 9.4 percent
Asian Journal of Agriculture and Development, Vol. 10, No. 2 3
(Harris and Jack 2011). Taken as a whole, the
number of people living in poverty in Phnom
Penh would be equivalent to the fourth largest
city in the country. Phnom Penh thus embodies
the three-fold challenges of urbanization, food
security, and population growth and is a useful
case study with which to examine the role of
UPA.
Few systematic studies have been conducted
on urban and peri-urban agriculture in Phnom
Penh. The most readily available data for UPA
in Phnom Penh are based around the cultivation
of aquatic plants in wastewater lakes around
the city (Muong 2004). However, the rapid and
continued growth of Phnom Penh indicates that
a broader and more systematic understanding
of UPA is needed to determine its current
importance and to help determine how to best
develop UPA to contribute to the sustainability
and food security of the city in the future. This
study represents the first known analysis of the
Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry,
and Fisheries’ (MAFF) annual statistics to
determine the extent of agricultural activity
in Phnom Penh. Findings could inform future
research and policy on how to best incorporate
urban agricultural sustainability into the city’s
future planning.
METHODS AND MATERIALS
Study Site
Phnom Penh is in south-central Cambodia,
at the junction of the Tonle Sap, Bassac and
Mekong rivers (N 11°33′, W 104°55′) (Figure
1). It has a tropical‒monsoon climate, with
the rainy season from May to October and the
dry season from November to April, the latter
being the hottest periods of the year (Sao 2009).
Figure 1. Map of Cambodia showing the location of Phnom Penh
Source: Municipality of Phnom Penh (2010)
4 Simon Underhill
Phnom Penh municipality consists of eight
districts, or khans, including 96 sub-district
communes (sangkats) and 897 villages, for a
total land area of 680 square kilometers (km2)
(Municipality of Phnom Penh 2010).
The data on the prevalence and economic
importance of urban agriculture in Phnom Penh
were sourced from the Phnom Penh provincial
data of the 2008 census (National Institute of
Statistics 2010). Information on agricultural
production and yield estimates was obtained
from annual statistical reports (Department of
Planning and Statistics [DPS] 2008a, 2009,
2010, 2011, 2006, 2007, 2008b). The crops
and livestock investigated were rice (both dry
and wet season), vegetables, cattle, swine, and
poultry. These choices were partly dictated by
the available statistics, but were also based on
what is usually grown in urban and peri-urban
areas indicated in previous studies (De Bon,
Parrot, and Moustier 2010; de Zeeuw, van
Veenhuizen, and Dubbeling 2011) that were
locally relevant.
Statistical Analysis
Data used in analysis included the total area
under cultivation hectares (ha) and the yield
(tons per hectare[t/ha]) for rice and vegetables
and the annual total numbers of heads of cattle,
swine, and poultry. Student’s t-tests were
applied to examine the variability between rice
and vegetable yields between Phnom Penh and
the national average. Correlation coefficients
were calculated for long-term trends in area
under cultivation and yields for rice and
vegetables, and total cattle, swine, and poultry
population. All calculations were performed on
Microsoft Excel 2010.
RESULTS
Economic Role of Urban Agriculture
in Phnom Penh
The number of people involved in
agriculture as an identified economic activity
is presented in Table 1. This indicates that
agriculture is an important income source for
almost 10 percent of Phnom Penh’s population,
either as primary or as secondary economic
activity. As a primary income source, agriculture
ranks as the sixth-largest sector in the city, out
of 21 recognized industries in total (National
Institute of Statistics 2010).
Table 2 shows the breakdown of agricultural
activities. The cultivation of crops, which in this
case included rice, vegetables, fruits, and other
cereals, dominated agricultural activity at over
85 percent, with animal production undertaken
by slightly over 13 percent of those involved.
Rice Production
Trends in rice production and harvest
area in Phnom Penh between 1993 and 2011
are shown in Figure 2. Harvest area declined
from 8,652 ha in 1993 to 4,650 ha in 2010.
However, the year 2011 experienced the largest
area harvested in 19 years, with 12,177 ha.
Rice production fluctuated over the time period
studied, with a minimum value of 10,225 tons
(t) in 1993 and a maximum of 35,094 t in 2011.
The change in mean rice yield from 1993 to
2011 for both Phnom Penh and Cambodia are
closely matched (Figure 3). Both exhibited an
increase over time, with Phnom Penh increasing
from 1.19 t/ha to 2.89 t/ha and Cambodia as a
whole increasing from 1.31 t/ha to 3.77 t/ha.
Using a two-sample t-test, mean rice
yields for the time period 1993‒2011 were not
significantly different between Phnom Penh
(2.40 t/ha) and the national average (2.17 t/ha)
(Figure 4).
Table 1. Proportion of economically active population in Phnom Penh involved
in agriculture
Number
(Male and Females)
Percentage (%)
Economically active population 645,990 100.0
Agriculture – primary economic activity 31,391 4.9
Agriculture – secondary economic activity 28,694 4.4
TOTAL (agriculture as an economic activity) 60,085 9.3
Source: National Institute of Statistics (2010)
Table 2. Proportion of population economically involved in agriculture by agricultural
activity
Activity Number
(Males and
Females)
Percentage
Growing of crops (non-perennial and perennial) 51,437 85.6
Animal production 7,909 13.2
Other (agriculture support activities, plant propagation, mixed farming) 739 1.2
TOTAL (employed in agriculture) 60,085 100.0
Source: National Institute of Statistics (2010)
Figure 2. Total production and harvest area of rice in Phnom Penh, 1993 – 2011
Source: Department of Planning and Statistics
Figure 3. Trend in rice yield, Phnom Penh and Cambodia, 1993 – 2011
Source: Department of Planning and Statistics
Figure 4. Mean rice yield in Phnom Penh and Cambodia, 1993 – 2011
Asian Journal of Agriculture and Development, Vol. 10, No. 2 7
Vegetable Production
The definition for vegetables was not
specified in the statistical bulletins, but based
on other crops surveyed, it appears to exclude
cereal crops such as rice and maize and tubers
such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cassava.
The change in production and area harvested for
vegetables in Phnom Penh since 1993 is shown
in Figure 5. Total production of vegetables
declined from 7,250 t in 1993 to 2,627 t in 2011,
with a peak of 7,460 t in 2001. Harvest area was
625 ha in 1993, peaking at 2,941 ha in 2000 and
then declining to a minimum of 410 ha in 2011.
The change in yield of vegetables per
hectare in Phnom Penh closely matches that of
the national yield (Figure 6), although it appears
to have plateaued in Phnom Penh in the last three
years. Phnom Penh shows greater variation in
yield, ranging from 11.60 t/ha in 1993 to a low
of 1.89 t/ha in 2000 and increasing again to 6.41
t/ha in 2011. In comparison, the national yield
ranged from a minimum of 3.87 t/ha in 2003 to
a maximum of 8.29 t/ha in 2011.
Using a two-sample t-test, mean yields for
the time period were found to be not significantly
different between Phnom Penh (6.18 t/ha) and
the national average (5.76 t/ha) (Figure 7).
Cattle, Swine, and Poultry Production
The total population of cattle, swine, and
poultry in Phnom Penh in 2011 was 290,339
heads. Cattle and swine populations both
showed decreasing trends between 1993 and
2011 (cattle R2=0.35; swine R2=0.56) (Figure
8); however, increases were recorded from
2010 to 2011 such that cattle population grew
by 115 percent, from 12,803 to 27,591, while
swine population grew by 45 percent, from
12,902 to 18,732.
Poultry population showed a weak
negative correlation between 1993 and 2011,
but the numbers did fluctuate considerably in
this period (Figure 9). The poultry population
peaked at 360,040 in 1996 and reached a low of
86,669 in 2004; however, from 2010 – 2011, an
82-percent increase was recorded from 133,891
to 244,016.
DISCUSSION
Increasing urbanization and population
growth in the developing world have accelerated
the need to reconcile these developments
with current agricultural practices. It has been
suggested (De Bon, Parrot, and Moustier 2010;
de Zeeuw, van Veenhuizen, and Dubbeling 2011;
Lee-Smith 2010) that cities will considerably
benefit from preserving agricultural lands.
However, research must underlie decisions on
the allocation of agricultural lands in urban
and peri-urban areas as well as policies for the
promotion and sustainability of agricultural
activities relevant to site-specific locations. In
this regard, accurate data and their statistical
analyses are needed, but have often been
lacking in many parts of the world (Zezza and
Tasciotti 2010).
As a step towards improved data analysis,
the study is the first attempt to synthesize
the MAFF statistics in the context of UPA in
Phnom Penh and Cambodia. It thus provides a
starting point for more in-depth investigations.
Despite the rapid urbanization and population
growth that have taken place in Phnom Penh
over the last two decades, agriculture remains
an important industry within the boundaries
of the Phnom Penh municipal area, both as
an economic activity and as a source of food.
Nearly 20 percent of the city’s area is dedicated
to growing rice and vegetables. Livestock
population is approaching 300,000. Almost
10 percent of the city’s actively employed
population relies on agriculture as either a
primary or secondary economic activity.
Annual yield for rice and vegetables
from 1993 to 2011 closely matched those
seen nationally and yield comparisons for
Figure 5. Change in production and harvest area of vegetables
in Phnom Penh, 1993 – 2011
Source: Department of Planning and Statistics
Figure 6. Vegetable yield, Phnom Penh and Cambodia, 1993-2011
Source: Department of Planning and Statistics
Figure 7. Mean yield of vegetables for Phnom Penh and Cambodia, 1993 – 2011
Figure 8. Trend in livestock (cattle and pigs) in Phnom Penh, 1993-2011
Source: Department of Planning and Statistics
10 Simon Underhill
rice and vegetables between Phnom Penh and
the national average revealed no significant
differences. Phnom Penh had an average rice
yield of 2.40 t/ha and Cambodia’s national
average was 2.17 t/ha. Similarly, the average
yield of vegetables in Phnom Penh (6.18 t/ha)
compared favorably to the national average
(5.76 t/ha). These data indicate that the urban
and peri-urban environments in Phnom Penh
are suitable for growing these crops at least as
successfully as elsewhere in Cambodia. As such,
continued promotion and development of these
agricultural sectors can bring multiple benefits
to a city. However, the urban environment also
poses risks and challenges to UPA.
The area cultivated for rice declined in
2010 but increased to over 12,000 ha in 2011.
It is probable that rice cultivation is done in
the more peri-urban districts so as to avoid the
pressures of urban development. Cereal crops
can be challenging to grow close to cities, but
in Antananarivo, Madagascar, for example, 14
percent of the rice supply comes from urban
and peri-urban areas (Aubry et al. 2012). It is
unknown what percentage of Phnom Penh’s
rice requirements are met through UPA.
The land area used for growing vegetables
declined from a high of nearly 3,000 ha in 2000
to 410 ha in 2011. Fresh vegetables are among
the most common and important crops grown
in urban areas (De Bon, Parrot, and Moustier
2010). Being highly perishable, farmers
can take advantage of higher prices, shorter
marketing chains, and proximity to markets and
consumers (de Zeeuw, van Veenhuizen, and
Dubbeling 2011). Vegetables can also contribute
to household food security by providing a cheap
source of micronutrient-rich food, particularly
for low-income families (Midmore and Jansen
2003; Lee-Smith 2010).
Factors that might be impacting vegetable
production in the city include increased flooding
and continued urban development (Sao 2009).
In 2011, Cambodia experienced its most severe
flooding in decades, with 247 deaths across
the country and 1.5 million people affected
Figure 9. Poultry numbers in Phnom Penh, 1993-2011
Source: Department of Planning and Statistics
Asian Journal of Agriculture and Development, Vol. 10, No. 2 11
(Un 2011). Climate change predictions for
Cambodia suggest that flooding will become
more severe, frequent and of greater duration
over the coming century (Mekong River
Commission [MRC] 2009), creating continuing
challenges for agriculture, health, and city
planning. Rapid urban development in Phnom
Penh has occurred in an unplanned and often
unregulated manner, with arbitrary land seizures
and evictions common as short-term economic
opportunities are exploited (Cybriwsky 2009;
Simone 2008; Un 2011). In the absence of
strong planning and support, these factors will
impact not only vegetable production but also
all forms of urban agriculture.
The decreasing populations of cattle,
swine, and poultry are also likely due to
expansion of the built-up urban and peri-urban
areas of the city. Poultry farmers also face
increased competition from large egg producers
in Thailand, whose economies of scale give
them an advantage over Cambodian farmers
(Moustier 2007). However, livestock population
increased sharply in 2011. This may reflect
growing affluence and consumption of these
products in the city as urbanization continues.
Nearly all swine farming in Cambodia remains
small-scale and at the household level, but
increasing industrialization has paved the
way for larger commercial operations on the
outskirts of Phnom Penh (Huynh et al. 2007).
Pork consumption has been increasing at an
annual rate of 5.7 percent, which will drive the
industry’s growth (Huynh et al. 2007).
In relation to this, the expansion of
livestock operations near the city poses
environmental challenges, thus the need for
regulation to limit air, soil, and water pollution
as well as the spread of diseases (De Bon,
Parrot, and Moustier 2010). Despite these risks,
UPA remains necessary and important as past
studies indicate that it provides 95 percent of
the poultry, pork, eggs, and milk consumed in
a city (Moustier, Vagneron, and Bui Thi 2004;
Moustier and Danso 2006; Van Veenhuizen and
Danso 2007). In turn, UPA provides important
nutritional diversity to the urban population.
The high perishability of these items lend
themselves to UPA and both small-scale and
commercial farmers can use this to their
advantage by farming near cities (de Zeeuw,
van Veenhuizen, and Dubbeling 2011).
In addition to improving food security
and providing economic opportunities, UPA
has additional environmental benefits: (1)
reduces the urban heat island effect, thereby
lowering temperatures; (2) increases carbon
sequestration; (3) improves water quality; (4)
prevents erosion; and (5) reduces the severity
and recurrence of floods by providing buffer
zones and storing excess water (Aubry et al.
2012; Dubbeling, de Zeeuw, and van Veenhuizen
2010)—all important considerations in Phnom
Penh. The enhanced flood-buffering potential
of low-lying areas can be achieved by limiting
urban expansion and maintaining agricultural
production (Aubry et al. 2012). In addition,
UPA can indirectly lead to decreased food
transportation, packaging, and storage, thus
reducing carbon emissions associated with these
aspects of food production (Van Veenhuizen
and Danso 2007).
It is important to recognize that the MAFF
data analyzed in this study were collected at
the macro-level, excluding non-commercial
and small-scale household food production. It
is thus likely that the study has underestimated
the prevalence of UPA in Phnom Penh and its
importance at the household level, especially
for those who engage in the activity mainly for
household consumption. This is particularly
likely considering that UPA involvement of the
urban population in Phnom Penh was pegged
at 37 percent, based on household survey data
(Moustier 2007).
Previous studies elsewhere in the world
demonstrate that household-level UPA is an
important contributor to food production and
12 Simon Underhill
consumption, serving as the primary reason
for engaging in UPA (Maxwell, Levin, and
Csete 1998; Van Veenhuizen and Danso 2007).
Comprehensive household surveys should thus
be a cornerstone of future UPA research in
Phnom Penh. Further, more detailed data from
local markets as to the source of produce and
the amounts traded would also be useful in
assessing the importance of UPA in the local
food economy. Specific data, such as varieties
of vegetables and their individual production
levels may provide a more detailed view of
trends in vegetable production but these data
were not available. The nature of the data
collected precluded more detailed statistical
analysis and this should be a priority for future
work. There is, thus, much scope for future
studies on UPA in Phnom Penh.
The necessity of UPA begs the question
whether limited funds and resources available
in Cambodia should be used, if only in part, to
further develop UPA in Phnom Penh when it has
less poverty and food insecurity compared to
the rural population that comprises 80 percent
of Cambodia. As indicated earlier, although
overall levels of poverty are relatively lower
in Phnom Penh, absolute levels make poverty
a critical challenge in the city. Further, poverty
and food insecurity levels show variation
throughout the city, with levels in some areas
equal or even slightly higher than the national
average. The data examined in this study suggest
that UPA is an important economic activity in
Phnom Penh, contributing to food production
in the city and being practiced by many, and
thus warranting further research. Given the
lack of attention to UPA in Phnom Penh and
the important issues that remain regarding land
rights, environmental challenges, and secure
land tenure, it would appear that UPA continues
to be an important process in the city in spite of,
rather than because of, any formal government
or NGO assistance. This is evidence of the
robust nature of UPA that has been observed in
other cities in the developing world (Lee-Smith
2010) and suggests that with further support,
there are real opportunities to benefit from the
multifunctionality of UPA in Phnom Penh. The
predicted high growth for Phnom Penh means
that urbanization, population growth, and food
security will continue to be important issues in
the future. As such, UPA has enormous potential
in addressing these issues, given its ability to
provide important amounts of vegetables, rice,
poultry, pork, eggs, and milk and to supplement
economic activity.
One of the first steps required would be
to formally recognize UPA and provide it with
legal protection (Dubbeling and Merzthal 2006).
The legal status of UPA in Phnom Penh is not
known but given the regularity of land seizures,
the tenuous nature of land titling, and the rate of
evictions (Cybriwsky 2009; Loehr 2012), it is
unlikely to have institutional support. A problem
confronting UPA worldwide (Dubbeling and
Merzthal 2006), the lack of legitimacy, together
with intense land competition and its resulting
high prices, has led to many practitioners of
UPA farming on marginal and sometimes
hazardous land and in unsustainable ways that
may threaten their health and that of others
(Van Veenhuizen and Danso 2007). As a result,
policy also needs to be created that provides
farmers with secure access to land (De Bon,
Parrot, and Moustier 2010) and that integrates
UPA into broader policies of urban development
and planning (Midmore and Jansen 2003). In
particular, studies that focus on the land use
patterns of UPA in Phnom Penh and on the
relative effectiveness and sustainability of
these patterns would be beneficial. Financially,
governments can help facilitate credit and
create investment opportunities to provide the
economic support that many urban farmers
desperately need (Van Veenhuizen and Danso
2007). They can also contribute to research;
Asian Journal of Agriculture and Development, Vol. 10, No. 2 13
support; marketing assistance; and access to
education, training, and expertise (Midmore
and Jansen 2003; Van Veenhuizen and Danso
2007). Public-private partnerships have been
advocated by the UN and other agencies,
particularly in developing countries where
public funds may be scarce (De Bon, Parrot,
and Moustier 2010). Supporting data specific
to Phnom Penh would be needed to ensure that
these steps are practical, relevant, and effective
to fully realize UPAs multifunctional benefits.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
Special thanks to Dr. Anantanarayanan
Raman for his expertise, advice, and critical
review of earlier drafts of this article.
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