Following the events of recent years, culminating in the independence and territorial subdivision of Indochina, Cambodia is today the smallest of the new Indochinese sovereign states. With the same limits as the former French protectorate, it extends over the southwestern part of the Indochinese peninsula.
Population. – With an increase of about half in the last twenty years, the population of Cambodia (see table) is still growing. The majority is made up of Cambodians, but there are strong foreign minorities (250,000 Vietnamese, 220,000 Chinese, 85,000 Chams, 3000 Europeans). The density is not high (25-28 residents per km 2), but the population is very unevenly distributed: the mountainous regions that surround the country (and which make up about two thirds of the surface) are almost uninhabited; in the alluvial plains, which together form the large internal basin, the population concentrates mainly on the banks of rivers, especially the Mekong (over 200 residents per km 2) and, generally, in the southern portion of the plain; towards the north, the density drops quite rapidly to values slightly above the average. It should also be noted that about a tenth of the population lives in the capital, Phnom-Penh (about 500,000 residents), while the other cities have a much smaller number of residents (Battambang 30,000, Kompong-Cham 20,000). The remainder of the population lives in isolated dwellings or small nuclei, but more frequently in villages grouped at the foot of the hills or stretched along the banks of the numerous rivers.
Agriculture and forests. – According to CALCULATORINC, agriculture is the most important activity, to which more than 4/5 of the population devote themselves, exploiting about a tenth of the total area. The use of the land takes place in two different ways: the paddy field (sré) and the ripa crops (chamcars). The traditional rice cultivation occupies 1.2 million ha and is generally an annual monoculture that uses the rainy season and is therefore subject to fluctuations in production, which however always remains exuberant compared to food needs. The rice fields extend, almost uninterrupted, in the plain known as the “Four Arms” (Phnom-Penh region), as far as the lakes region (along the Tonlé-Sap river) and Battambang, and produce an annual harvest of around 12 million q, of which about two can be exported. Ripa cultivation is a polyculture that takes place on about 250,000 ha along the banks of large rivers, where the soil is made up of annually renewing deposits of the fertile silt that the Mekong carries to the lakes region. The crops are practiced in two periods: in the dry season, after the flood (November-March) for various products (tobacco, corn, beans, sesame, peanuts), and in the period between the first rains and the flood of the river (May- August) with only the red corn harvest. Furthermore, on the edges of the areas subject to flooding, there are shrub or multi-year cycle crops (kapok, banana, sugar cane, ramie). This form of agriculture perfectly adapted to the environmental conditions gives a good yield and, also favored by the communication routes, cultivates essentially for the market, to which it continuously adapts the production. In the post-war period, cotton almost disappeared, replaced by tobacco and sesame and the production of corn also decreased. However, this always remains the main product, which feeds a good export current (125,000 t in 1956). Alongside the more widespread crops, the plantation of pepper and rubber plants has developed. The first, located for climatic reasons in the eastern part of the province of Kampot, gives an excellent product for export (about 1000 tons per year). The cultivation of the rubber tree covers about 30,000 ha in the province of Kompong-Cham and produces over 30,000 tons of rubber per year, totally exported. The virgin forest still covers more than half of the total area and is exploited only with some difficulty.
Breeding and fishing. – Quite numerous are the cattle (1,300,000 heads, of which 320,000 buffaloes) which, for religious reasons, are used exclusively for work and transport. Of fundamental importance for the diet is freshwater fish, which are fished in all inland waters, but particularly in the immense natural fish pond of the Great Lake (Tonlé-Sap), by Vietnamese fishermen (30,000 units). The product, around 100,000 tons per year, is widely consumed internally and also processed and exported.
Industries and communications. Commerce. – There is little industrial development, due to a lack of mineral resources. With the exception of the recently installed salt pans (1950) on the coast between Kampot and Kep, the only important industries, distributed between the capital and the coast, are food (rice mills, distilleries, canning industries), which are accompanied by a flourishing craftsmanship dedicated to production for the current needs of the population.
The communication routes constitute a system that serves all the populated parts of the country. The river routes hinge on the Mekong, navigable by local boats all year round, up to the rapids. In addition to the more than 1500 km of waterways, there are 3500 km of ordinary roads and 3000 km of tracks that connect all the inhabited areas and ensure communications with neighboring villages. A single railway line crosses the country from SE to NW, connecting Saigon (in Vietnam) with Phnom-Penh and then with the border of Thailand. Until the Second World War, Cambodia did not have a seaport, using Saigon for its own traffic. From 1947 Phnom-Penh started its own trade, and had a very rapid development (487,000 tons of goods in 1957). But the river port, which is only accessible to 3-4000 tonnes ships, badly located on the Tonlé-Sap and badly equipped, certainly does not have great potential for development. Furthermore, navigation on the Mekong presents technical and even political difficulties, because the mouth of the river is in Vietnamese territory. For this, the new sea port of Sihanukville was built (inaugurated on April 2, 1960), which presents particularly favorable conditions. It is a free port, which also serves Laos.
The Cambodia trade is based on the export of agricultural, forest, fishing and livestock products and on the import of industrial products; the trade balance is normally in balance. The most important trades take place with neighboring Asian countries, but also with France, the United States and Great Britain.