Farmers in Battambang province are pining for the old days when jute was used to weave sacks, ropes, mats and baskets. Thanks to the popularity of plastic, they can now hardly eke out a living selling jute.
In addition to cultivating rice, villagers in Battambang province’s Ek Phnom district supplement their incomes by planting jute, just as their forefathers did.
However, in recent years, the jute market is no longer as lucrative as before, causing the younger generation to give up on farming in favour of migrating to cities or other countries for better jobs.
Farmer Ouch Savoeut, 64, from Prek Norin commune’s Ansom Sak village, says her family has been planting jute since she was a little girl, during which time there was a large factory in the province which bought jute from villagers to weave rice sacks.
But in the 1990s, the factory shuttered operations, causing financial hardship for the farmers.
“When the factory was operational, they bought jute to make rice sacks but there is no market now,” Ms Savoeut laments. “There are only small traders who buy jute to weave baskets, ropes, hammocks, mats and souvenirs.”
She adds that because of this, fewer families are planting the crop now, noting that this caused the younger generation to opt for work in Phnom Penh or neighbouring countries.
“Younger people are not interested in planting or processing jute any more; there are hardly any buyers,” she says. “People now earn extra income by fishing or running small businesses.”
In the past, villagers appealed to authorities to help them market their jute, but they could not find bulk buyers, only small traders in Phnom Penh.
Jute is a plant that grows up to three metres high and can be weaved into ropes, sacks, baskets, hammocks and mats.
Standing next to his harvested jute in Ansom Sak village, In Hort, 62, says that planting jute is easier than planting rice.
Mr Hort says that he spends less by planting jute, which grows easily without the need for fertilisers or pesticides and is also unaffected by floods.
“Nowadays, I only plant a small amount of jute because there is not a big market for the crop,” he says. “There is only a small local market with traders buying jute to weave hammocks, ropes, mats or baskets and they mostly come from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or other provinces where jute is weaved.”
Mr Hort says that because of the shrinking demand for jute, many farmers have switched to planting vegetables, while some have migrated to find other jobs.
Ouch Phon, 55, who also lives in the commune, says that her family has been planting jute since 1985.
She says after the Daun Teav factory closed, people could not find an alternative market for jute, causing many young people to leave their families to find jobs abroad.
“We want the government to help us find a market for jute or investors to come set up a factory to process the crop, just like the previous one,” Ms Phon says. “If there is a market for jute again, our children will have a livelihood and can return to be with their families.”
According to villagers, traders buy their jute for $1 to $2 per kilo. They say they can earn around 1.5 million to two million riel a year by growing jute on a piece of land measuring just 40 by 40 metres.
Sitting next to a stack of harvested jute in front of her house, Muth Chanthy, 35, says that after the factory in the province closed, people realised that it was because there is no longer a market for jute, caused by the availability of plastic.
“People stopped buying mats made from jute and instead use plastic ones imported from abroad,” says Ms Chanthy, who has a son working in Thailand to aid her family’s income.“They also use plastic baskets and plastic sacks instead and we are concerned that the next generation will no longer know what jute is,” she adds.
Proeun Prounh, 48, a trader who buys jute from villagers, says he normally buys 30 to 50 tonnes per year to resell to other traders in Prey Veng, Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Chhnang and Kandal provinces, and also in Phnom Penh.
“Most of them buy the jute from me to make mats, strings to bind sticky rice cakes or sausages, ropes to tie cattle, and also to make souvenirs,” he says.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, about 90 percent of villagers planted jute because there were factories to process the product at that time,” he adds. “But, now if they plant a lot of jute, there are very few buyers and their efforts will be wasted.”
Pich Kanhchana, district deputy governor, also says that fewer residents are planting jute now because the demand for it has fallen.
“We do not have the exact figure on how much jute farmers are planting now because this crop is not widely marketed anymore,” he says. “We rarely see products made from jute in the market now.”
Long Phorn, provincial agriculture, forestry and fisheries department deputy chief, says that in the past people planted jute to sell to the factory in the province which weaved rice sacks for the domestic market and also for export to Thailand.
“There is currently no demand for jute and we do not encourage people to plant it in large amounts anymore,” he says. “Four or five years ago, traders from Thailand imported jute products, but they no longer do so and prefer selling plastic sacks instead.”
Mr Phorn adds that this is why the department is finding it difficult to help villagers find a market for jute.
He says that the department had previously informed the villagers about the difficulty in finding a market and advised them to grow vegetables, in addition to planting rice.
“We encouraged them to grow rice instead of jute and also advised them that they can grow rice twice or thrice a year if their land is well irrigated,” he adds. “We also encouraged them to grow vegetables on the plots they used to grow jute on.”