The first mention of kampot pepper is in the 13th Century when Chinese diplomat, Zhou Daguan, visited the Angkor Empire. In 1900 pepper was the largest export crop in Cambodia and production had reached 8000 tons per annum.
From 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge and the Democratic Kampuchea government under Pol Pot and others forcibly depopulated the country’s cities and in trying to create their ‘agrarian socialist utopia’ they carried out the Cambodian Genocide in which 1.5 to 3 million people (around 25% of Cambodia’s population) died. The Khmer Rouge leadership boasted over the state-controlled radio that only one or two million people were needed to build the new utopia. As for the others, as their proverb put it, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
Anyone who they considered bourgeois including educators, physicians and other professionals, commercial traders, shopkeepers and unfortunately for them, the pepper farmers. In this short period the pepper farms were all but destroyed.
Kampot Pepper is grown at the foot of the Phnom Voar (Vine) Mountains and what is not widely known is that this isolated region was the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge rebel forces until the late nineties. That is one of the reasons why the region is one of the most undeveloped regions in Cambodia and according to SOS Children’s Villages approximately 70% of the population live in poverty. The region lags some twenty years behind the rest of the country. The Cambodian average income is only $1,093US. Figures are not available but it is certainly lower in Kampot and Kep Provinces where the pepper is grown.
Once the rebels were gone the farmers, having saved the seed stock, began to rebuild but in 2000 only two tons of pepper was produced in the Kampot region. Now that Kampot Pepper has achieved the much coveted ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ (PGI) production has increased to 70 tons last year and this amazing ‘black gold’ is reclaiming its place internationally as the ‘best pepper in the world’. This is great for the local pepper farmers and their families who carry on a tradition that goes back a thousand or more years. With the increased farm gate price families can stay on the farm instead of moving to Thailand or Vietnam for work.
There is a major roadblock for small pepper farmers for as Fair Trade Canada reports:
“… Small-scale pepper growers face unreliable income because of significant fluctuations in the price. In the last decade they have also experienced an overall decline in the price of black pepper due to increased competition …. Today, the trading price of black pepper is lower than it was in 1990 and falls far short of production costs.”
In ancient times pepper was worth more than gold by weight and was used as currency. Reviving and supporting the Kampot Pepper farming system will serve as currency for the next generation of Cambodian youth as they recover from the social and economic devastation of the mass genocide perpetuated by the Pol Pot regime.