Reviving the Spice of Life

Pepper from Cambodia’s Kampot region was once world renowned, but the industry almost disappeared under the Khmer Rouge. Now, a new initiative is spicing up the region's growers.   Tom Vater   reports

Pepper from Cambodia’s Kampot region was once world renowned, but the industry almost disappeared under the Khmer Rouge. Now, a new initiative is spicing up the region's growers. Tom Vater reports

Cambodian farmer Bol Yert pushes his floppy army-issue hat back and looks across his pepper vines. ‘My father grew pepper in Kampot when the French were here,’ he says. ‘After independence, he continued and in 1970, he even expanded his fields. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge came and all our vines were destroyed. Everyone had to grow rice.’ 

Yert, from Trapeang Chrey village, is one of 160 farmers who currently grow the formerly world-renowned Kampot pepper in southern Cambodia. The spice is named after Kampot, a sleepy market town on Cambodia’s southeastern coast. Each year, a trickle of tourists passes through to take a look at a few crumbling blocks of French colonial architecture. But it hasn’t always been like this. One hundred years ago, Kampot was Cambodia’s main port, as well as an agricultural centre well known across Europe, and especially in France. The reason: Kampot pepper. 

Troubled history
Pepper has been an integral part of Cambodian cuisine for centuries. Chinese diplomat Chou Ta-Kuan, who visited the court of the Angkor kings during the 13th century, described pepper as one of several noteworthy local products and recommended that it be consumed fresh, when it’s blue–green in colour. However, it wasn’t the efforts of the French, but Dutch colonial ambitions in Indonesia that inadvertently created favourable conditions for industrial pepper production in Cambodia. In 1873, the sultan of Aceh burned down the region’s pepper plantations to keep them from falling into Dutch hands and production shifted to Kampot. 

The pepper was initially harvested in the wild by Chinese immigrants, but during the 1890s, production was scaled up to industrial levels by the French, who couldn’t ship enough of the fragrant spice back home: it was importing 8,000 tonnes a year until the outbreak of the First World War virtually halved consumption. Today, France consumes around 6,000 tonnes a year. 

In 1953, Cambodia gained independence and the pepper trade continued to flourish, but it wasn’t to last. At the end of the 1960s, Cambodia slipped into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War. Five years later, the Khmer Rouge took over and confiscated what little pepper there was. Most of the vines died from neglect.

Kampot province remained unsafe until the late ’90s, when the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge withdrew. Slowly, farmers such as Yert drifted back to their old plots. ‘I started to grow pepper in 1998, because I had learned it from my father,’ he says.

The impoverished farmers had to take a gamble. It takes three years for pepper plants to mature, and the vines reach maximum productivity after six years. Still, some 30 farmers invested in pepper. But then in 2000, global pepper prices collapsed, and by 2005, many pepper farms had reverted to growing rice. 

At the time, a group of foreign residents in Kampot joined together to revive the pepper trade. Frenchman Jerome Benezech was one of these idealistic foreigners. He formed FarmLink, a private company dedicated to re-establishing Kampot pepper as a global brand. ‘The main problem was the low price,’ he says. ‘We thought about how we could market pepper – first to tourists in Cambodia, then for export. Initially, we approached just a few farmers.’ 

Global brand
In 2006, FarmLink bought and sold a modest 200 kilograms. ‘Due to a lack of irrigation and sloppy processing, overall quality wasn’t very good,’ Benezech says. ‘At the time, the market price was a meagre US$1 a kilo. We spoke to several NGOs and managed to create ponds for irrigation, and within two years, we had export quality. In 2006, we paid farmers US$2.50 a kilo. In 2007, we paid US$4.’

More farmers joined FarmLink, and by 2007, the company was exporting Kampot pepper to seven countries. But selling the world’s most marketable pepper remained a struggle. ‘In 2008, we bought six tonnes, but then the global recession hit,’ Benezech says. ‘In 2009, we were forced to purchase just one tonne. But we expect to have recovered by the end of this year.’

Kampot pepper is currently sold in four different varieties – fresh and green for local consumption; black, red and white for export. Most pepper plots in the Kampot area are small – generally no more than 200 poles on half a hectare of land. But bringing Kampot pepper back onto the world spice market and guaranteeing a sustainable income for the farmers has required a number of further initiatives. 

Help has come via the Ministry of Commerce, which was keen to achieve Geographical Indication (GI) protection for several Cambodian products. GI status, a signal that the goods in question have a specific geo­graphical origin and possess qualities, reputation or characteristics that are essentially attributable to that place of origin – Parmesan cheese and the wines of Champagne are classic examples – would guarantee better prices for Kampot pepper. Assisted by the French Agency for Development and the French NGO GRET, a draft for a Cambodian GI law, as defined by the World Trade Organization (WTO), was created.

‘The Kampot brand is still fairly well known,’ says Lao Reasey, chief of the Bureau of Geographical Indications and Trade Secret at the Ministry of Commerce. ‘But below-quality pepper is being sold by unauthorised dealers as Kampot pepper, and we want to create a legal framework to put a stop to cheats and make our product a globally respected brand once more.’

Purity counts
Creating the law is one thing, ensuring lasting quality standards in today’s Cambodia is another. In order to guarantee Kampot pepper’s purity, the Kampot Pepper Producers’ Association (KPPA) was formed. Farmers, traders and processors who want to sell Kampot pepper have to be members. 

Em Trou is a KPPA inspector. He’s also a pepper farmer himself. ‘In order to be certified for GI, a pepper farm is inspected twice a year,’ he says. ‘We look at soil quality, water supply, the spacing of the poles and the plants’ quality.’

Alongside the KPPA, an outside arbiter, Ecocert, which specialises in organic certification, makes sure that WTO standards are adhered to. Benezech is pleased with the progress. ‘Production costs rise due to the inspections, but we can ask a better price on the market,’ he says. ‘The farmers stand to benefit.’

While the Cambodian government hasn’t passed the GI law yet – that’s due to happen later this year – Kampot pepper did achieve GI status at the beginning of April and total output now stands at around 20 tonnes. Of the 160 farmers growing pepper in Kampot, 150 are now KPPA members. Nevetheless a number of teething problems remain. FarmLink almost went out of business in 2010, because of corruption in Cambodian ministries.

‘Publicly, the government promotes export,’ Benezech says. ‘But in reality, procedures aren’t published and the administration isn’t clear on the law. For every shipment of pepper we try to export, the rules change and under-the-table money demanded by customs raises the price so high that it may become impossible to sell.’ Reasey, the government representative promoting Cambodia’s products, concedes humbly that ‘it’s beyond my capacity to explain what’s happening in the Customs Department’.

Back among his pepper vines, Yert remains optimistic. ‘I expect my grandchildren to take over my pepper poles one day,’ he says. ‘It is our tradition to grow great pepper.’

Tom Vater - November 2011, Geographical Magazine