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Silk Industry Hanging by a Thread

Marina Shafik / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Silkworm cocoons are seen at a silk farm near Siem Reap.Photo: Gino Mempin

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Four decades ago, the Khmer Rouge all but wiped out Cambodia’s silk industry, whose traditions of production and weaving date back as far as the 13th century. Today, the country’s silkworms are once again under threat, but this time from a different kind of enemy. 

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A pernicious silkworm disease known as pebrine has spread across the country and has infected most of the country’s dwindling stock. The disease, caused by a parasite and passed from adult moths to their eggs, attacks the tissues of the silkworm’s larva, making them unable to spin cocoons and die before maturing.

Mey Kalyan, senior adviser to the Supreme Economic Council and former director of the UN Food and Agriculture’s (FAO) Cambodian silk program, compared the silkworm disease to AIDS due to its high mortality rate, which can reach as high as 70 percent. He said neglect and budget shortfalls have allowed the disease to spread. Unless serious steps are taken, the epidemic will soon wipe Cambodia’s silk industry off the map.

“About 10 years ago, I conducted a survey with some UN colleagues and we estimated that 60 to 70 percent of silkworms were affected by the disease,” he told Khmer Times. “Today, almost 100 percent are infected.”

Spinning into Obscurity

Cambodia’s silk production continues to decline. The total area for cultivation of mulberry –the silkworm’s sole food source – has plunged from 6,000 hectares in the 1940s to just 10 hectares today.

The Kingdom’s silk farmers produce about four tons of silk yarn a year, about one percent of total domestic demand. The remainder is imported from China and Vietnam at a cost of $10 million a year.

“The silk industry is no longer profitable for farmers, as they invest a lot then have to deal with diseased silkworms, which either die or have low productivity,” Mr. Kalyan said. “The most urgent thing now is to secure a supply of healthy silkworms, but for this we need a centralized research station to produce disease-free silkworm larva for distribution to farmers.”

Saving the Industry

A $470-thousand FAO silk industry rehabilitation project launched in late 2009 saw the establishment of two research centers, a laboratory for breeding silkworms, and seven demonstration farms across the country. The project aimed to promote new silkworm rearing techniques and to experiment with hardier hybrids.

“Part of the FAO project aimed at improving the capacity of [the Cambodian government] to breed hybrid varieties of silkworms in a manner that would prevent the introduction of diseases,” said FAO Representative Nina Brandstrup.

But after three years, FAO funds to operate the sericulture project ran dry, and the government’s bridge funding soon evaporated. 

No further efforts have been made to save the dying industry.

“About $1,000 a month would be enough to keep the project alive, but the Ministry of Agriculture did not financially support the project,” said Mr. Kalyan. Without it, he regretted, “there is no hope” for Cambodia’s silk production. 

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