By Robert Carmichael Dec 4, 2009
(Posted by CAAI News Media)
Kampong Trach, Cambodia - On a small plot of earth 10 kilometres outside a dusty provincial town in southern Cambodia, farmer Nuon Yan tends his crop.
Like most farmers in Cambodia, Nuon Yan grows rice. But today he is tending his other crop: Kampot pepper. The final product - spicy black peppercorns that enliven dishes across the world - will soon become the first Cambodian product to benefit from Geographical Indicator (GI) status.
GI is more familiar as a concept than a phrase, and most famously with champagne: Only sparkling wine grown in a certain region of France which conforms to the quality standard set by its members may be called champagne. The advantage for growers is a better price; consumers benefit knowing that they are getting a quality product.
Cambodia's farmers are a key pillar of the country's economy, and widespread rural poverty means better prices for their crops are essential. UN figures show agriculture employs more than half of the 8-million-strong labour force and generates one-third of the kingdom's gross domestic product.
Kampot pepper, which is named after Nuon Yan's home province near the border with Vietnam, has an excellent name regionally and is highly regarded by some chefs in Europe. But a good name is not enough: in a world of imitations, protecting that name is critical.
Var Roth San is director of the intellectual property department at Cambodia's Ministry of Commerce. He says attaining GI status typically boosts the value of a product by at least 20 per cent.
'We want to create jobs, and we want the poor to get more money from their jobs in the rural areas,' he said. 'GI is one thing that will help the poor.'
Nuon Yan is a member of the newly formed Kampot Pepper Producers' Association, which will market and promote his crop.
It is a cooperative of more than 100 farmers, along with a handful of middlemen. It will ensure the Kampot pepper its members grow comes only from certain areas and meets quality standards. By early 2010, only the pepper produced by its members will be able to use the name.
Jean-Marie Brun, an advisor at the French agricultural non-governmental organisation GRET, said members of the World Trade Organisation are obliged to protect GI-status products. Once a product earns the name and is registered, it can easily be protected.
GRET was involved in the establishment of the cooperative, whose members defined the geographical growing area and quality standards.
'The stakeholders decided on the delimitation of the area, how it should be produced, and the quality criteria for Kampot pepper,' Brun said.
Kampot pepper is not the only Cambodian product in the running. Others vying for GI status include regionally produced palm sugar, honey, silk and possibly even durian fruit.
Brun says the main benefit for the small-scale farmers who comprise the bulk of the cooperative is financial. The current gate price for black pepper is 2.5 dollars per kilogram, but that should double once the GI status is confirmed.
By the time Kampot pepper gets to Europe, where it will be sold in packets of 20 to 50 grams, it can retail at an equivalent of 100 euros (150 dollars) per kilogram.
'Importers of Kampot pepper in Europe know it has a name and they are willing to pay a higher price for that,' Brun explained. The extra profit will allow for increased marketing expenditures.
Protection of the brand rests initially with the association, whose simple office is based in a shady grove outside Kampong Trach town in Kampot province. This is picture-postcard Cambodia: green rice fields, sugar palm trees and karst hills, with wooden carts drawn by white oxen along dirt roads.
The vice-president of the association, En Trou, is a farmer with 150 pepper vines, each providing 1 kilogram of peppercorns per year. En Trou said the total output of the members this year will be 14 tons, but he predicts that will double over the next five years.
En Trou said members have in the past encountered difficulties trying to sell their crops for a decent price, but is optimistic that GI status for Kampot pepper will help.
Four kilometres from the association's office along a series of ever-narrowing dirt tracks, Nuon Yan keeps an eye on his 300 pepper vines. He earned 400 dollars from his crop last year, but aims to double that next year. So what will he do with the extra cash?
'I will put some in the bank, and I will use the rest to buy more pepper vines,' he said.
The vines take three years to mature, so it is no short-term measure. But for Nuon Yan the benefits from ensuring his pepper meets the GI requirements make it worthwhile to invest more time and money on growing Kampot pepper for the kitchens of Europe.