29–30 December 2015, Prek Thout Village, Kampot Province.
A week ago a rural family shared their hearts and home with me for a brief interlude of two days and the connecting night. ActionAid, through its partner NGO, SAMAKY, arranged this brief immersion experience and provided an excellent guide and interpreter, Meas Sopheareak.
What are my impressions of the family’s life? Three themes dominate: vulnerability, isolation from knowledge and some markets, and resolute hard work. How is the family vulnerable? The biggest example has to be vulnerability to shocks. Sen Navy, the mother of the household and wife to Seung Samai had a motorbike accident two years ago causing an acute injury to her left leg. The course of treatment in Vietnam quickly consumed the family’s savings and left them in debt to a microfinance institution. This shock caused Seung Samai to abandon fishing as his main occupation and to become a horticulture farmer on the small, half-hectare plot around their modest house; growing chilli, long bean, cucumber, tomato, eggplant, and lemongrass. Sen Navy now walks with a pronounced limp using a bamboo stick or crutch for longer walks around the sloping yard or in the nearby town’s marketplace. Despite her injury and a long, painful period of recovery, Sen Navy is vigorous as a caring mother, and supports the household from the outdoor kitchen and with her almost continuous preparation of lemongrass for the market. Her fortitude is impressive and inspiring. But in her context and to her neighbours it probably appears normal. For, poor people often have problems, big problems, but they get on with life without whining. Life is ‘do or die’; only the rich get to worry about ‘pizza or pie’.
The other factor to which the family are vulnerable is the rising level of the nearby sea and the occasional storm surges which flood the coastal rice plains rendering them useless for cultivation. This trend, caused by climate change, has transformed a productive resource which in the 1980s was a major source of food security and cash into a wasteland pocked with crab holes and pieces of discarded plastic and styrofoam brought in by the sea. The level of the sea became catastrophically high in 2008 causing the largest incursion of sea water toxifying the soil for rice cultivation. Only about 10 plots of the 200 marked out across the nearby plain are still cultivable in the rainy season. Seung Samai is able to use one thanks to his wife’s mother’s family that owns it. He proudly showed us the plot containing the dried stalks left over from the recent harvest. The other consequence of the rising sea level is that the 28 metre borehole sunk in the family garden and topped with a fine, new, red electric pump sucks up salty water. Seung Samai without any apparent trace of bitterness, declared it to be “a waste of money.” I did not have the courage to ask how much money he had spent.
And finally, in this El Nino period, we heard of increasing incidents of unreliable rainfall: late start or early finish to the main rainy season; and massively intensive storms uprooting young fruit trees and delicate vegetable shrubs, and washing away the sloping, light sandy soil.
To counter the unreliability of rainfall in the wet season, and to extend the growing season, SAMAKY advised Seung Samai to invest in a simple drip irrigation system. The blue, plastic pipes ($80) were provided by SAMAKY through a grant from the Benoy Foundation, whilst the elevated plastic water tank ($200) was paid for by Sen Navy’s mother. SAMAKY’s help to the family has been essential to the transition from fishing to farming. In return for Seung Samai’s hard work he has been declared a model farmer for others in the community to follow. He freely gives advice and is a point of distributing seeds that SAMAKY freely supplies to the area. SAMAKY (‘Solidarity’) emphasises self-reliance, independence, community support and organic horticulture. On the surface, it all seems wonderful. But can SAMAKY support a growing group of farmers with answers to technical questions about plant disease, and farming practice? And can the local market town of Prek Thnout sustain an increased supply of vegetables in the face of trade from Kampot town one hour away by motorbike.
This area west of Kampot beside the coast is beautiful. From the family plot one can look out to see over the top of the mangrove to the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc in the distance. The towering and misted escarpment of the Damrei mountains in the Preah Monivong National Park stands inland as a marker of where the sea used to reach. The scenery is quite dramatic and it is no surprise to see evidence of investment in tourism, the most notable of which being the 2012 development of the Bokor Highland Resort. The resort and access road cost $21m. The stiff sea breeze cools and refreshes Sen Navy in the very brief moments in the day when she can rest her back by lying down on a bamboo bed in the outdoor kitchen in the company of her youngest son. It stimulates Seung Samai’s 88 year old mother, Bei Phal as she cuts grass with a long-handled hoe from the moist land shaded by a large tree. I see later that a sack of grass is sold for KHR500 (8cents) to a neighbour for forage.
Despite living aside national highway No. 3 as it runs between Sihanoukville and Kampot and the presence of mobile internet and mobile phone signal, I was surprised by how isolated Seung Samai was from horticultural technical knowledge and market information. I noticed what looked like anthracnose infection on a short row of chilli plants. My concern was heightened by a dim memory that chilli and eggplant growing in the neighbouring row were in the same plant family and so would share the same susceptibility to disease. Thanks to a simple smartphone, and an internet search, it was not long before Meas Sopheareak and I were able to confirm the diagnosis, and find some recommended actions to reduce the spread of the infection. But I was left with the lingering concern of why does the isolation continue? Why did Bong Samai have no awareness of alley farming — the technique of growing crops on sloping, sandy soils prone to erosion? Why did he not know where to buy certified disease-free seeds? He was eager to learn, and quickly removed from under the thatched, slatted roof a plastic file with paper and pen. He took notes on our conversation and asked us if cucumbers were also affected by the infected chillies.
Here was a market failure: the demand for knowledge was firm, but the supply was absent. And this irritated me, as it left Bong Samai hopelessly poor and vulnerable just because he was dependent. The market did not reach his business reducing his ability to make investment choices. There were other market problems I observed. The large plot of nearby vacant land that had been cleared but left idle by a Phnom Penh investor in tourism. Why was this land not available for rent in the rainy season to grow maize? The land ownership title that Bong Samai had obtained from the commune office — called a ‘soft title’ was all the security he had. But would it be enough to rebuff an elite from Phnom Penh who might one day arrive with a hard title for the plot, purchased from the national authorities in the capital? Whilst it was easy to borrow from any of the sixteen MFIs in the area who occasionally SMS’ed their latest offers of short-term credit at 2½% a month, it was not possible to save small amounts in a secure way without the 5km drive to Prek Thnout and waiting for the MFI office to open.
This disconnectedness was the fundamental cause of why the family were ceaselessly and resolutely working. I got up at 4:30 AM, no longer able to sleep on the thin woven plastic mat covering the hard concrete floor, to find Bong Samai and his wife with head torches on preparing for the day. One picking long beans, the other uprooting lemongrass. By 5 AM we were following Bong Samai to a nearby pond created by excavation works for the foundations of a massive rice mill at Prek Thnout. Despite having slept outside on some wooden boards, Bong Samai energetically set about using the motor on his walking tractor to pump water into the tanker. He supplements his farm income by selling water to those in the community who need it. Across the lake I saw a young woman scrambling up the steep, loose sides of the pond carrying two large plastic buckets suspended across a bamboo yoke over her shoulder. This was survival — day by day.
The work continued without break when we returned home with the water. Almost immediately departing for Prek Thnout market to sell the lemongrass that had been cleaned and trimmed into beautifully packaged parcels for R1,500/kg. The act of selling was fast, but we lingered in the market and I felt a twinge of anguish at seeing so much to buy but knowing ‘we’ had so little to spend. I was glad when Meas Sopheareak bought some waffles and small, sweet, dense doughnuts to take home for the children who we had left asleep, and a round of sweet black iced coffee. It felt wonderfully indulgent and releasing. And this, after less than 24 hours of immersion!
At home, I asked Sen Navy what she thought about education and the half-day school that her two sons and daughter attended in Prek Thnout. She replied, “Education leads to a better life. With no education, one either goes to the mountains (forest), sea (fisheries) or Phnom Penh (construction).” She smiled and then got down from the small, pink, plastic chair to sit on the ground with her injured left leg stretched out straight and re-started cleaning the day’s lemongrass for marketing tomorrow. I joined her, happy to contribute practically in some small way but perhaps also to make a moral point, that I care.
This ever-so-brief immersion experience succeeded in opening my mind and heart to the condition of poor people in Cambodia and to the small role that I can play in facilitating their ambitions. It also reawakened in me a desire to be grateful and keep working.