Cambodian silk industry on its last threads
In a small room in the Cambodian capital, laboratory technicians wearing latex gloves and flip-flops inspect hundreds of buzzing white silkworm moths before pairing them up to mate.
With its silk industry in rapid decline, Cambodia is pinning its hopes on moth matchmaking and disease control to save its precious silkworms and keep centuries-old traditions alive.
More than 30 years ago, the brutal Khmer Rouge regime all but eliminated silk farming and the sector has been slow to recover, lagging regional rivals that use modern technology to produce better quality silk.
Now the country's silkworms are once again under threat, but from a different kind of enemy.
"Disease is killing more than 50 percent of the silkworms," said Mey Kalyan, director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Cambodiansilk programme.
"Those that do survive are a third of the size compared to other regional producers," Kalyan said.
"In a nutshell, the (silk) farmers have stopped doing it. The weavers have stopped weaving and the plantations have stopped growing mulberries needed to feed silkworms," he added.
The amount of Cambodian land set aside for mulberry cultivation has plummeted from about 6,000 hectares in the 1940s to just 40 hectares today, Kalyan said.
Established by the FAO, the Silkworm Egg Production Center in Phnom Penh is part of a $475,000 rehabilitation project launched in September 2009.
Placed over several sheets of newspapers, the silkworm moths are each inspected by technicians who then couple them so that they can reproduce.
After four to six days, the female moths will be placed on a chemically treated sheet and isolated to lay their eggs, which are later sterilised and incubated.
Under the project, seven silk farms have also been opened across the country and training in silk production has been provided for those interested in the industry.
But after three years, funds from the FAO to run the egg production centre will run out in March and no one else seems interested to invest.
There is hope however.
After three years of work, the researchers discovered a high-yield silkworm hybrid that feeds exclusively on cassava, something which is abundant inCambodia.
The breakthrough provided a rare glimmer of optimism for protecting a tradition which dates back to the 13th century.
The fine texture and quality of Cambodia's "golden silk" has been sewn by local reelers and weavers into some of the finest quality garments in Southeast Asia, but the trade is slowly dwindling into extinction.
Silk yarn production has slowly declined in recent years, from five tons in 2009 to about four tons a year today.
Locally made yarn has more than doubled in price since 2010 and Cambodia now imports approximately 400 tons each year worth a total of nearly $10 million.
Ven On, a 60-year-old silk weaver in Takeo province's Prey Kabbas district who uses Cambodian yarn, is only able to make about $50 a month selling her silk scarves and traditional sarongs, which are too expensive for most buyers.
"I make only a little money and I can't support my family," she said.
Her hand-woven sarongs fetch between $120 and $150, depending on the quality, but her profit is only 10 percent.
The quality of Cambodian-made silk is generally poorer than that of other regional producers due to a traditional manual reeling process that results in fabric that is too coarse for the luxury market.
In more developed silk-producing markets such as China and India, which together produce more than 90 percent of world supply, reeling machines make the process less time consuming.
"The Cambodian silk industry, especially silk thread production, is having trouble right now," said Madagascar-born clothing designer Eric Raisina, who has shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap but uses mostly silk imported from Thailand and China.
"That is a shame for a country that used to have great reputation with its unique yellow cocoon called 'golden silk'," he added.