Landscape in Rattanak Moudoul district, Battambang province. Since 1998, population migrations along the pioneer front resulted in large-scale forest conversions due to the rapid expansion of annual upland cash crops. Migrations have been also stimulated by flourishing international agribusinesses of cereals and tubers that facilitated farmers’ access to agricultural mechanization and agro-chemicals. Small to medium landholders were involved in this rapid conversion of vast degraded forest lands into cultivated land (from 120,000 ha in 2000 to 800,000 ha in 2012), leading to what can be considered as the first and biggest national social land concession. Intensive mono-cropping mainly for cassava and maize productions, based on tillage and herbicide use has resulted in significant soil erosion and land degradation. In a general context of labor scarcity, resources-rich farmers cope with the risks by shifting from annual crops to perennial crops. Poorest farmers who cannot afford such strategies may further fall into the poverty trap by selling out their land to the other farmer groups to become wage-earners in their former land. Ultimately, land concentration process may benefit the multinational agribusinesses that are engaged in large-scale land grabbing.
The integration of Khmer Rouge legitimated the allocation of forest lands in the late 90s, which could considered the first and largest social land concession in Cambodia. Farmers gradually reclaimed the forest land for subsistence crops like upland rice. They progressively cultivated pulse crops as soybean, peanut, mung-bean, along with sesame. When the Thai market became more accessible, hybrid corn became the main cash crops. More recently (2011), the cultivated areas of cassava increased sharply due to higher profitability, and then to fruit trees (longan, mango, papaya) for the same reason. Farming in the uplands is in rapid transition driven by the depletion of the soil fertility and by the regional agribusiness.
Poorest farmers used to reclaim landmines suspected forests and often sell out later when the price is higher. Some, and particularly former Khmer Rouge soldiers, demine the land by themselves. They usually rent detector for anti-tank mines. Others pay for demining service between 50 to 100$/ha and then clear the land manually or mechanically. Tractor are used to reclaim deciduous forests.
To sustain livelihoods, smallholder farmers in the upland areas cultivate wherever possible even on steep slope. Plow is even done along the slope increasing soil erosion and limiting on a short-term period annual crops profitability. Healthy and richest farmers will then shift to perennial crops (fruit trees).
With remaining tree stumps, the field could not be tilled. The farmers spray herbicide, burn out the dried vegetation and manually plant hybrid corn or cassava by hoe. Nowadays, manual sowing represents a small proportion of lands due the availability of planters.