Self-sufficiency or surplus: Conflicting local and national rural development goals in Cambodia

Arnim Scheidel, Mario Giampietro and Jesús Ramos-Martin
Cambodia is currently experiencing profound processes of rural change, driven by an emerging trend of large-scale land deals. This article discusses potential future pathways by analyzing two contrasting visions and realities of land use: the aim of the governmental elites to foster surplus-producing rural areas for overall economic growth, employment creation and ultimately poverty reduction, and the attempts of smallholders to maintain and create livelihoods based on largely self-sufficient rural systems. Based on the MuSIASEM approach, the rural economy of Cambodia and different rural system types are analyzed by looking at their metabolic pattern in terms of land use, human activity, and produced and consumed flows. The analysis shows that the pathways of self-sufficiency and surplus production are largely not compatible in the long term. Cambodia's rural labor force is expected to increase enormously over the next decades, while available land for the smallholder sector has become scarce due to the granting of Economic Land Concessions (ELC). Consequently, acceleration in rural–urban migration may be expected, accompanied by a transition from self-employed smallholders to employment-dependent laborers. If the ELC system achieves to turn the reserved land into viable agribusinesses, it might enable added value creation; however, it does not bring substantial amounts of employment opportunities to rural areas. On the contrary, ELC have high opportunity costs in terms of rural livelihoods based on smallholder land uses and thus drive the marginalization of Cambodian smallholders.