Life of Pom: Journey to the Hidden Mekong Island
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Imagine sediments coming from the Mekong River and depositing on a region in periodic waves for thousands of years – that is now the Koh Trong island we know today. Situated offshore of Kratie Province along this major river, it has become a sandbar spanning 6km in length. With 426 families living on this tiny island, 90% of them are farmers relying on agriculture as their primary form of sustenance and income. While some may own paddy fields, banana trees and herb gardens, majority plant pomelo trees, making this a prominent trait of Koh Trong. It is estimated that there are nearly 4,500 trees on the island that produce 10,000 - 20,000 pomelos during a single wet season (September - December). Currently, with the newly formed Pomelo Producer Association (PPA), pomelos have become the island’s consistent stream of revenue through significant support from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and the Ministry of Commerce (MoC). Hence, our investigation delves into the current and future states of Koh Trong’s pomelo industry, following its journey from production to consumption across geographical boundaries.
EFFECTS OF POMELO FARMING
A single pomelo tree can yield 80-100 fruits per harvest cycle (5 years), with each directly fetching 1.75 - 2.50 USD (7,000 - 10,000 Riel) on average. Accounting for the whole island, it is estimated that farmers bring in 1,575,000 USD, translating to an average revenue of 3,700 USD (1,480,000 Riel) per family. Given the relatively low cost for maintenance, pomelo harvest serves as the main source of income for most farmers. Besides direct economic benefits from pomelo sales, pomelos have also raised the island’s reputation as a holiday hotspot in Kratie. Not only can tourists get their hands dirty and plant pomelo seedlings with customisable signages, they can also enjoy a comfortable staycation at one of the six homestays on this island. During their homestays, hosts tend to serve pomelos as desserts and in their local delicacies, receiving rave reviews and thus further propelling them towards international recognition.
A group of students planting a pomelo seedling with a creative signage to mark it
Other than economic benefits, there are several socio-environmental impacts of pomelo farming too. Most farmers tap on groundwater resources for irrigation, with underground pumps as deep as 22m. Prior to installations of those modern pumps, farmers relied on natural water sources from either the Mekong River or rainwater. However, external environmental factors (like climate change and dams upstream) are having an increasingly adverse effect on agriculture, with several studies linking increased turbidity of water to lower quality of harvest. Moreover, islanders also potentially face a larger issue with groundwater extraction – A Sinking Island.
Increasingly frequent and intensive flooding during the wet season
With 426 families drawing from the same source, excessive extraction can lead to a lower land elevation and even land subsidence. Early signs of this are already observed at the central region of Koh Trong during wet seasons, so this may not seem like a far-fetched future. Furthermore, given the generally slow groundwater recharge rate in Cambodia, a lower water table level also significantly increases the possibility of arsenic and iron contaminations. These are commonly associated with severe illnesses like lung or bladder cancer, thus posing as a serious health hazard for the islanders.
THE POMELO STORY
Speciality of Koh Trong Pomelo
Word has spread across the whole of Cambodia, and even out of South East Asia, about Koh Trong’s infamous Pomelo Story, making many tourists wonder what makes them so special! They have proven to be the most resilient crop, being well-adapted to the erratic flooding conditions. In addition, the annual flood pulse cycle transports copious amounts of fresh sediments from the Mekong River into the island, creating exceptionally fertile soil conditions and thus allowing juicier and sweeter pomelos to be produced. The agricultural practices on this island also promote minimal usage of chemicals, keeping the pomelos organic and fresh. Therefore, they outshine their competition in terms of taste and quality, standing out as the best in the nation.
The Middleman Effect
On this island, the sale of pomelos largely goes through the middlemen, who link the Koh Trong farmers to the pomelo market at mainland Kratie. Despite this essential connection significantly widening the distribution of pomelos, there are still crucial issues tied to this “Middleman Effect”. Enticed by profit, middlemen tend to buy pomelos from farmers at a low price of between 1.75 to 2.50 USD (7,000 to 10,000 Riel) and sell them at a much higher price of between 3 to 5 USD (12,000 to 20,000 Riel), hence presenting a critically lower profit margin for farmers. To further increase their earnings, many middlemen have bought pomelos from mainland Kratie at a much cheaper price of 0.60 USD (2,500 Riel) and deceitfully sold them together with those authentic Koh Trong pomelos. This unethical business practice can severely tarnish the island’s hard-earned reputation, possibly damaging the economic gains for farmers in the long run.
The Sticker Initiative
In 2018, Koh Trong Pomelo was awarded with the prestigious “Geographic Indication” label by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), becoming the third Cambodian product to achieve this status. With a clear association between the product and its place of origin, it accentuates the cultural influence and identity unique to Koh Trong, thereby raising the price of certified pomelos to 3.50 USD (14,000 Riel) from the standard 2.25 USD (9,000 Riel). Furthermore, it seeks to remove the need for middlemen in pomelo transactions, allowing farmers to reap the maximum profits.
However, the stickers have yet to provide substantial improvements for the farmers, mainly due to insufficient publicity and high barriers of entry for local farmers into such a competitive industry. Especially for the latter, middlemen possess greater capacity and resources in establishing various distribution channels of pomelo sales, which may be difficult to do without. Nevertheless, PPA has been working closely with MAFF and MoC to work out an ideal solution in expanding pomelo sales domestically and internationally while maximizing social welfare equitably.
Pomelos have been very one-dimensional in terms of product marketing and mainly utilized for domestic consumption. To tackle this issue, plans of product diversification have been established, creating products ranging from jams to toothpaste to expand the scope of pomelo’s sales. Although government support is crucial to the success of this initiative through resource contribution, the community should be passionate and is integral in innovating novel products through critical thinking and implementation. Under the guidance of PPA, instances of product experimentation such as utilizing pomelo skin for jam-making had culminated in growing public receptiveness to hop onto this potentially lucrative platform collectively.
Alternative Water Supply
In order to alleviate aggressive groundwater extraction for the sustainability of island agriculture, Mr. Ban also highlighted the pressing need of an alternative water supply, offering the installation of water pipes from the main island to Koh Trong as a possible solution. Instead of executing such resource and financially intensive operation, the island should consider tapping on the central inundated regions made up of 7 rivers that merge in the wet season due to excess water.
LET'S POM IT UP
Moving forward, there is undoubtedly a massive potential for the flourishing of island agriculture through Koh Trong Pomelo. In unity, both the community and governmental body play unequivocal roles for pushing its island specialty to greater horizons and help improve the farmers’ livelihood in a sustainable manner, creating a brighter future to come!
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