Below are pictures and captions from the MCC Laos Learning Tour to Cambodia. A meaningful time for both country programs!
Written by SALTer Audrey Thill working as Advocacy Assistant at MCC partner organization, Building Community Voices
The average person living in the United States will consume approximately 66 pounds (30 kg) of added sugar next year. The global demand for sugar is being met, in part, by the rapid expansion of industrially grown sugarcane in Cambodia. Though sweet for business and investors, the mass production of sugar cane has bitter consequences for ordinary Cambodians.
In Cambodia, land is everything. Approximately 85% of the population live in rural areas, and 60% work in agriculture. Communal forests and farmland sustain many communities, and in some cases, forests and mountains hold religious significance for indigenous groups.
Since the 1990s, the Cambodian government has been parceling out land to private investors. A steep increase in these Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) has resulted in the transfer of over two million hectares of land to private companies for development projects, industrial agriculture, or mining concessions. Sugarcane plantations are one of the many crops being grown on ELC land. According to government policy, ELCs must be issued in an “equitable, transparent, efficient, and sustainable manner,” and in consultation with the affected families.
Nevertheless, national and international organizations are raising concerns about the lack of transparency in these deals and the adverse effects on Cambodian communities. Since 2007, a total of 14,247 households, or 66,960 people have been forcefully evicted from their homes because of ELCs. Some of these families accept compensation from companies, though the sum is rarely enough to offset the cost of finding a new home. In addition to land, they potentially lose communal ties and their source of income, for example, a farm, stand of fruit trees, or job to which it is now too expensive to commute. Though the government issued a moratorium on new concessions in 2012, land disputes persist and many Cambodians remain at risk for eviction or are currently displaced.
Sugar companies are a major player in this divvying up of Cambodian land. Human rights monitors have documented instances of companies burning down homes and using violence against people who resist them. Sugar companies like Mitr Phol, Tate & Lyle Sugars, and many others are responsible for major land grabs and forced evictions. Mitr Phol is one of Coca-Cola’s top three suppliers. Tate & Lyle Sugars, now owned by American Sugar Group, sells under the brands Domino, C&H, Florida Crystals, and Redpath in the United States.
The European Union’s “Everything but Arms” (EBA) initiative is another external factor driving the increase in sugar production. This trade agreement invites trade with Least Developed Countries like Cambodia by eliminating duties and quotas on all imports except arms and armaments. Critics of this policy say it further enriches big business and tycoons rather than helping Cambodia’s poor. Though EBA contains provisions to protect human rights, some say it has led to the expansion of the companies linked to massive land grabs.
One cannot lay sole responsibility for land grabbing on any single party. Everyone along the supply chain—sugar companies, intermediaries, and consumers—as well as governing bodies are all complicit at some level. Though this makes for a complicated situation, layers of responsibility provide many points of entry for mitigating the negative impact on Cambodians. Consumers have a voice—both in how we spend our money and what we communicate to companies. Sugar manufacturers and companies must ensure ethical practices are followed in the procurement of their sugarcane. Banks that fund these large projects must attach conditions to their loans, ensuring that the companies honor human rights. The government must protect its citizens and work for solutions to existing land conflicts. It takes effort at every level to ensure the rights of Cambodians are respected.
Advocacy is also happening on the ground from those who are closest to the land. Nongovernmental organizations and affected communities are collaborating to raise awareness of what they are calling “blood sugar.” The Clean Sugar Campaign is one example of a joint effort to promote the interests of local farmers and communities, document and end abuses, and seek justice for those involved in land disputes. With the experiences and capacity of Cambodians at its core, this kind of grassroots organizing amplifies the voices of impacted communities.
Finally, Cambodians are not silent. A growing number are mobilizing to protect their land, forests, and livelihoods. Community representatives are signing petitions and meeting with companies to voice their concerns. They are traveling long distances—sometimes by foot—to protest in the capitol. Building Community Voices, a current MCC partner, facilitates exchanges between communities who are involved in similar situations. Exchanges provide communities with the opportunity to form relationships, share and learn about advocacy techniques, and see the bigger picture of land disputes in Cambodia.
Community-based advocacy is not always successful and there are risks for those who speak up. It seems the playing field is tipped drastically against the communities who lose land and livelihoods for the sake of sugar production. Nonetheless, they continue to speak up, demanding recognition from those who are complicit in their losses. Now it is up to others to listen and prevent Cambodians from paying such a high price for sugar.
[Update: The European Union launched an investigation into cases of forced evictions and violence perpetrated by companies that benefit from the EU’s trade deal. Coca-Cola and Pepsi recently adopted zero tolerance policies for land-grabbing, and Coke is supposedly conducting an investigation in Cambodia. We’ll see if any of this translates into changes on the ground.]
 Royal Cambodian Government, “Declaration of the Royal Government on Land Policy,” No. 27, July 1, 2009.
 The NGO Forum on Cambodia, Statistical Analysis of Land Disputes in Cambodia, 2013 (Phnom Penh: The NGO Forum on Cambodia, 2014), 22.
 Open Development Cambodia, “Company Profiles,” http://goo.gl/fBl1su.; Clean Sugar Campaign, “The European Union and the Everything But Arms Initiative,” http://goo.gl/vxY8gK; Kevin Ponniah and May Titthara, “Coca-Cola auditors visit sugar suppliers,”The Phnom Penh Post, February 27, 2014, http://goo.gl/Q0P7oZ.
 Ponniah and Titthara, “Coca-Cola auditors.”
by Sara Klassen, MCC SALT volunteer at ICF (Interfaith Cooperation Forum). Sara witnesses, gathers, writes, and edits in order to help share stories of peacemaking across Asia.
The 3rd through the 13th of November I travelled to Bangladesh with Max Ediger, my supervisor/colleague on behalf of ICF. Our first purpose was to attend and participate in the Festival of Justpeace which was planned by the ICF National Forum of Bangladesh, many of whom work with Shanti Mitra, a local peace school. MCC Bangladesh and Mati, a local environmental justice group also sponsored the event. An ICF friend suggested that I write about the things I saw, tasted, heard, listened to and felt. This was a practice Lisa Bade, a former MCC Cambodia service worker and an art resource person for the School of Peace, taught in one of her sessions with SOP. Thanks, Lisa, I’ll try it.
so many colors.
Colors burst out at me and stuck in my memory. Colors are what I mention first when people ask me about my time there. Vibrant pink, red, blue, green, magenta… I guess you know your colors I don’t have to list them, but there were so many, all brighter than what seems possible. They popped from different yet matching patterns in women’s clothing in either the draping sari form (similar to India), or the shalwar kamiz three-piece shirt, pants, and scarf combo. Each outfit sports different, brightly colored patterns, no one looks the same, and rarely did I see a monotone fabric (except on MCCers, ha.). But fabric was not the only bright thing. I was surprised that even industrial dump trucks flashed colorful flowers, designs, and sometimes even lush countryside scenes. Rickshaws also could hold their own in a parade. They reminded me of an elementary arts and crafts project, but the teacher’s version—with each colored shape precisely cut and glued on the interior and exterior in a symmetrical layout, the occasional gold or silver shape glinting to attract potential customers like crows. Flashy ornaments dangle from the back of some and ribbons flutter from the handlebars of others.
the arts. Each night of the festival held cultural performances. The first night a theater group from a local university performed traditional drama and dances from several indigenous groups. I was delighted to see young people interested in and devoted to preserving their own and minority groups’ traditions. The next night reminded me of a talent show, but two to three times longer and so much more skill and ability than just a “talent” whipped out at the last minute. There was a slew of soloists accompanied by drumming, dramatic recitation of poetry, many dances and a few more dramas including the classic, no-one-planned-on-this act after the final thank yous, this one unusual in that it was portraying transgender struggles and advocating for rights. While I sat eating peanuts from a small newspaper cone, lost in the whirl of dancersnot only did I feel like I was in a movie or a dream, but also a grand celebration of a culture so rich with traditional arts and youth so excited to carry them on. The cultural performances were only one example of this. Shanti Mitra, the main planning organization of the festival is also encouraging the arts as a way to learn about and act for peace. This organization was started by the Taize brothers thirty some years ago and now functions predominantly on its own with leadership by national staff and volunteers. Shanti Mitra believes creative activities are essential in peacebuilding work. I encourage you to read their insightful ideas about creative activities and more about their and peace classes here.
curry spices right off my fingers.
Bangladesh used to be part of India, so many cultural aspects are similar. We ate with our hands and rice and dal were basic components of just about every meal often supplemented with grilled chicken or beef and a curried vegetable dish. I drooled over thick butter nan blanketed in biscuit crumbles and enjoyed the comfort of basic bread, ruti (similar to japati), used to pinch up fried eggs for breakfast. I also ate twice as much at every meal than I would normally. I have grinch images in mind: Her stomach grew three sizes that day… There is no doubt we had thorough hosts.
sweet milk tea in tiny cups.
Tea is a morning and afternoon—or really any time of the day—ritual, a great way to show hospitality. Little tea shacks nestle between other street vendors and provide thick shade like good old trees on small lane intersections. These joints are definitely a man’s world (as are most public spaces. I won’t get into gender observations but inequality felt blatant at times), so I felt super awkward and on display when I stopped for tea. To ignore the stares I focused on my own observing. I was enthralled by the habitual ease of each tea sellers’ ritual as they rinsed, flipped and scalded miniature cups, poured tea from on high, stirred in milk and plenty of sugar and swooshed out to serve from a tray in one smooth routine.
people sing in the afternoon.
At any time of the day people broke into quiet self serenades. Our many friends at MCC, Taize brothers, and Shanti Mitra explained that Bangali culture especially loves song. After those comments my ears were heightened to hear it.
honking. Traffic felt crazy, but it worked, so I’m sure there’s a system and set of social agreements in place that I could not figure out in just ten days. What I did notice is that you just go until you get stuck then you find a way around and swerve if someone’s coming at you. And you honk. Honking is everyone’s way of saying “I’m here! I’m coming! Don’t hit me!” Beep! beep-beeeep! beeeep beeeeeeeeeeeeeep!
I heard Muslim call to prayer in the morning. We got to participate in the Taize noon prayer services on both the first and last day of our time there. The chanted repetition of tunes I already knew created a spiritful, meditative space to both prepare for and then reflect on this cultural experience.
stories of struggle.
While the first part of our time there was focused around the festival, the second half we spent visiting our ICF friend’s homes and work places and communities facing social justice issues. We traveled by CNG (stands for compressed natural gas) to Birisiri, an area composed of smaller villages, where we stayed on the beautiful campus of the YMCA which our friend Biplob directs. We were to stay with his family, but his wife had just given birth to their first son (whom they named after Max) but a few days before we arrived.
The first evening we visited a YMCA volunteer worksite where they were rebuilding the river embankment to prevent flooding. Biplob showed us photos of a rescue effort he participated in right after the most recent bad flood. He explained that flooding affects these villages every year, but when it’s really bad people stand in water up to their armpits awaiting rescue because the flood washed their livestock away, they have no means to cook, and no place to sleep. The next day we visited the YMCA’s rural clinic and school and sat with Garo people (an indigenous group) who have lived on their land for generations but do not have rights to it. They said they walk 12 miles into the mountains to harvest wood and twelve miles carrying it back on their head to sell at the market. Because they do not have land rights they cannot cut the trees they have planted on their land or even harvest the trees’ fruits lest they risk government trouble.
Our last day in Birisiri we drove through the countryside to see the site where clay is harvested and shipped out to produce china dishes. Here too indigenous people have been living for generations but without formal rights to the land. Now big companies slice out chunks of hillside by their homes. One grandmother we visited said 11 children have died already this year from falling from these new cliffs by their homes.
Back in Mymensingh for our last day of visiting, we went to Biplob/Mijanu’s family home and visited the national park forest. The government wants to make an ecopark there to preserve the land, but to do this they would force indigenous people off of their ancestral land.
Unfortunately land rights have become a point of conflict all over this dear globe. But that is not the only story of this place, I also heard
someone playing flute across the road at night.
cool air and shivery cold showers.
I didn’t have to use a fan at night and wanted a heavy blanket!
uncomfortable as people stared and would not stop staring even when I made eye contact. According to our friends there, Bangali people are known for their curiosity. Friends said it is expected that any stranger on the street may come up to you ask what you’re doing and tell you how to do it better. The staring made me uncomfortable, but it triggered important thoughts about how tourism promotes a kind of consumerism with our eyes. I am a part of this whether I like it or not. As much as I try to live alongside a culture, whenever I travel, even inside the country and observe new sites and people I am the one staring. Being stared at was a helpful reminder of how important it is to engage with people when possible rather than just take pictures or stare.
It’s just about thanksgiving and I have a lot of gratitude to express. I am thankful to travel to other countries and learn from experiences like the ones I am having this year. That I get to do this with MCC and ICF who emphasize building relationships as first priority is an extra treat. I am so grateful to the people who donated to help me do SALT, all the coordinators and staff that make the SALT program run smoothly, to ICF for giving me this placement that requires I travel to meet even more incredible people, and to so many loved ones who are sending e-mails, making Skype calls, and praying to encourage and support me.
encouraged (water of the heart rising) and inspired by young people working for peace and well-being in so many ways in so many parts of this world.
On the 28th of November Maly and I traveled to Nepal for the peace education workshop in Kathmandu. Maly works as a partner advisor assistant for education in Prey Veng province. It was very exciting for her to fly on an airplane for the first time. She was looking around patiently, and couldn’t wait to see the airplane take off. At 7:15am we arrived at Bangkok, there at the airport we met 4 other MCCers they were also headed to Kathmandu for the workshop. The six of us were traveling the same airplane, we left Bangkok at 10:30am and we arrived to Kathmandu at 1:30pm. From the Kathmandu airport, it took us about one hour to Pathik Foundation where we were going to have our workshop. By 2:45pm finally we reached our destination the Pathik Foundation, it was very rural you could smell the cow manure and the sound of the goats crying. We really liked the place as we stepped out from the van, we met many people that lived there. They came to us with a big smile on their faces, and introduced themselves. It was nice to meet very friendly people after a long day of traveling.
In the evening we met more people from other countries that came for the workshop. Everyone was very excited to get to know each other. The next morning, our meeting started at 9:00am, and everyone introduced themselves to the group. There were 9 countries from Asia (China, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos.) A big thanks to Sriprakash Mayasandra, he facilitated this conference. The schedule was full. In the morning at 7am we had yoga for one hour and then we had breakfast. Then the meeting started at 9am and lasted until 5:30pm. In the evening at 6:00pm we had meditation for one hour then we had dinner at 7pm. We really enjoyed our time there very much. The conference was sharing and learning from each country about peace education, and how we can integrate peace in MCC programs. We enjoyed hearing, and appreciated all the countries presentations, and we felt that we have gained new insights and ideas for our work and for the work of MCC in our country.
Our meetings lasted for three days, and we had one day of sightseeing. During this time visited: Swoyambhu temple, Basantapul, and Patan heritage site it was all very amazing. Everyone seemed to enjoy their time there. We will miss spending time together, and the people there at Pathik Foundation.
After watching the sideshow read the introductions and farewells found below!
Farwell to Michael and Lisa Bade
By Tony Janzen
On October 3rd, the MCC Cambodia team said “goodbye” to Michael and Lisa after 4 years living and working in Cambodia. Lisa worked as the Global Family Partner Advisor and Michael served as Videographer for MCC Southeast Asia. They lived in Prey Veng Town, which is about a 2.5 hour drive Southeast of Phnom Penh. They have since returned to their home in Seattle, Washington.
The MCC Cambodia team will miss them for many reasons. Primarily, they were passionate about working collaboratively and respectfully with their Cambodian counterparts, and creatively approaching development work and story telling. Additionally they provide the MCC team support, welcoming visitors at their place in Prey Veng to escape the bustling life of Phnom Penh, and providing advice and expertise to the rest of the team in their own work.
Our farewell gathering consisted of a boat ride on the Mekong River where we played trivia game, with most questions specific to Michael and Lisa. Teams got a chance to guess the names of Michael’s published book and cd, and what color (purple) Lisa dyed her hair while teaching in the U.S. After the boat ride, the team headed to one of our favorite Indian restaurants located on the riverside.
The Bade’s will be missed by many in the Cambodian community, and we here at MCC Cambodia think and pray for them as they start the transition of returning home.
Farewell to Seiha
by Ringsey Rath
Seiha has worked for MCC as an Exchange Coordinator for 11 years and 10 months. With her long-term assignment, MCC found that Seiha is an asset and a much appreciated staff. She had put so much effort and passions to serve Cambodia people/beneficiaries through MCC projects. With MCC, Seiha also played as the Partner Advisor for the partner named Initiatives of Change Association (ICA). She assisted ICA’s president in project development and proposal writing. She involved actively with ICA’s activities, especially social activities such as study kids for pupils, rice and pork packages for volunteer youths. Seiha devoted many years of her life to the work of MCC, and we are all sad sad sad to see her leave, but excited for her in her new position of service to her community.
Welcome to Sophea Ly! Exchange Coordinator
I work as Exchange Coordinator. I graduated from the Human Resource University in field of Management and Accounting from the National Institute of Business. I did the MCC IVEP exchange program in 2013/2014. During this year I lived in Harrison Virginia and worked at the Gift and Thrift Store.
My main job is to work with young adult that MCC sends to other countries. I will be the one who is in charge of selection process, visa request for applicants and give them support while they are in their year of serving.
It was always my dream to work for a non-for-profit organization but look at what God has responded me. I work for an international Christian none profit organization. I love the vision, mission and value of MCC. I felt like I am an important resource to work for MCC as I could be a piece of puzzle that try to make better change in my country.
I like spending with friends, listening to music, cooking, nature view, and of course drinking Cambodian Ice with sweet milk coffee and I am interested in travelling.
Welcome Hanna Kurtz! Peace Program Advisor
As Peace Support Worker, I will be working with two Cambodian NGOs, Women Peacemakers and Returnee Integration Support Center. I will assist both of these organization in program development, management, and evaluation.
Despite moving many times as I child, I always say I grew up in Westover, MD, on my Grandfather’s farm property. I graduated from Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, PA, in 2013, with a special major in Peace and Conflict Studies and a minor in Educational Studies. In the fall of 2011 I did a semester abroad at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, in Belfast, Northern Ireland and I interned at two Northern Irish young adult focused peace organizations. During college I worked at the college theatre as a stagehand, technician, and stage manager, as well as babysitting and interning with MCC Peace and Justice, in Akron PA, and Broad Street Ministry’s Youth Initiative, in Philadelphia, PA. After graduating from Swarthmore, I was a SALTer at the Arab Episcopal School in Irbid, Jordan.
One of my favorite experiences so far as been hiking up Ba Phnom. It was one of my first experiences with traditional Cambodian architecture and religious symbols, and of course the view was beautiful. The landscape was different from anything else I had ever seen.
One of my goals for this year is to be able to give general directions around the city, in either Khmer or English.
Other than my parents, family, and friends, I’m going to really miss knowing the restaurants around and knowing where to get good food. I guess this just means I have to explore the restaurants here in Phnom Penh.
Welcome Henry Stewart! SALT, Teaching English at RUPP
My favorite experience in Cambodia so far has been getting more involved with my host brothers’ lives, having conversations with moto taxi drivers, and trying pong tia koun (half-developed duck eggs) for the first time. They are so good. Words cannot describe.
I will miss my family, my best friend Phil Scott (who showed me what friendship could be), playing the piano and the feelings of winter.
Henry’s blog is here: http://yearinthekingdom.wordpress.com/
Welcome Keila Medina – YAMEN Child Support Worker at Let Us Create
During this year I will work with children. I will teach music, English and also about oral hygiene.
My favorite experience in Cambodia is learning something new every day (language, culture etc) here I can learn than no matter if the people are poor, professional or not, I ALWAYS can learn from them. My favorite job at work I love serve the lunch because the kids are very excited in the lunch time, really I love this.
I miss a lot of things especially, my younger brother, speaking Spanish!
Welcome Sara Klassen – Editor and Story Collector for School of Peace
I am working for Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) as a communications assistant. So far I have been editing stories collected by ICF colleagues from indigenous contexts, but I will soon start interviewing alumni from ICF’s School of Peace and writing their stories.
My favorite experiences in Cambodia so far have been building relationships first with the girls at the EMM dorm and now with my host family. A close second favorite is the thrill of biking in crazy city traffic.
Besides missing family and friends, I think I will most miss the change of seasons and the feeling of jeans being cozy rather than feeling like Saran wrap on your legs.
Welcome Audrey Thill! – SALT: Advocacy Assistant at Building Community Voices
This year, I’m working with an NGO called Building Community Voices (BCV). BCV is an NGO that trains people in media, advocacy, and organizing so that marginalized groups can voice their concerns about issues such as land grabbing and forced evictions. My role is to facilitate communication between BCV and its current donors and assist with English language editing.
So far, I have loved trying different kinds of fruit and learning Khmer.
Other than family and friends, I think I’ll miss the Indiana outdoors and seasonal changes
Welcome Yui Iwase – SALT: Demonstration Farm Coordinator
I am working at The Organization to Develop Our Villages this year. As the Demonstration Farm Coordinator, I will be working with the other farmers onsite to research different varieties of seeds and experiment with different sustainable agricultural techniques.
My favorite experience so far in Cambodia… wandering around the demonstration farm with one of the farmers foraging different foods to make samlaa (Cambodian soup).
What I will miss is farming in the fall weather back home!
Welcome Allision Montgomery – SALT: Program Assistant at Precious Woman
I am working as Program Assistant at Precious Women, a partner organization of MCC that works with women who have been sexually exploited in the entertainment industry of Cambodia. I will be editing documents and grant proposals, brainstorming and planning for a 5 year strategy fundraising plan for the organization, updating and maintaining the website and other social media platforms, and providing assistance wherever else is needed.
One of the experiences in Cambodia so far that makes me laugh the most when I think of it (so therefore has to be one of my favourites) was when our team was in Prey Vang visiting Lisa and Michael, and Keila and I, after only a week or so of language class were with a Khmer host family that spoke no English. Our first night there we were absolutely exhausted and heading to our room but we wanted to first say goodnight to the two girls we had been sitting with. We couldn’t remember the word, so we said “Knom keeng,” meaning “I sleep.” They nodded but for some reason we weren’t satisfied enough with that exchange and so we each kept repeating “knom keeng, knom keeng,” pointing to ourselves and motioning to our room. We were wanting them to respond saying “goodnight” so that we could learn the term, but that point was not coming across. So then we started waving at them (as they stood right in front of us) and said “sua sday! sua sday!” meaning “hello! hello!” and then once again motioned goodnight, waving our hands some more and motioning to our room. They just kept standing their nodding, clearly understanding that we were going to sleep and wondering why we kept saying hello and repeating ourselves. Finally we heard ourselves and realized how ridiculous we sounded, ran away to our room and died of laughter as we replayed our one sentence conversation attempt.
Besides missing my family and people at home, and missing driving a car, probably at the top of the list is cheddar cheese.
Allison’s Blog is: is http://girlwithabackpack.tumblr.com
Welcome អ៉ុយដូងចន្រ្ទ (Doung Chang!)
I come from Prev Veng Province and am studying accounting at the Cambodian Mekong University. I will work at MCC as an Office Assistant.
I am excited to work for MCC to gain experience, make a salary to help support every day living, and for the chance to follow Christ. In my free time I enjoy reading English books, playing tennis, researching, and talking with friends.
Daniel and Amanda Talstra were volunteers with MCC Cambodia for 6 years, from October 2008 to July 2014. While they were here they started a family. First with a baby boy they named Cedar and then a few years later a baby girl they named Ezra Sparrow.
Amanda worked with Womens Peace Makers of Cambodia.
Photo: Women Peace Makers Goodbye Party for Amanda and Family.
Daniel worked with Returnee Integration Support Center. See RISC video here:
The Talstras were a part of a home church community that met regularly and supported each other with prayer, sharing, meals and fun activities. Daniel and Amanda’s home was always open for MCC workers working outside the city to spend the night. They were known for their hospitality and a friendly open ear to anyone in need.
As an accomplished musician Daniel played in local bands on some weekends and at MCC functions whenever needed.
This July they returned to Amanda’s family in Rochester NY and will be making their way to Daniel’s family in Terrace BC where they hope to settle.
An integral part of the MCC Cambodia community the Talstras will be missed by the staff here and the many lives across Cambodia they wove into their own.
Women Peace Makers Video.
Written by, Michael Bade of Seattle, Wash., MCC worker in Cambodia.
While Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, boasts landmark lavish homes of rich government ministers, a sprinkling of new office towers and a growing tourist infrastructure, most of the rest of the country’s 15 million people live simply, relying on subsistence farming and fishing.
A two-hour drive southwest from the heart of Phnom Penh is Trapang Khna village, in Takeo province, and the roadside store of Sao Sarat and her husband Ith Tharoth. Their two sons, 4-year-old Horayu Oeun and 3-year-old Horavuth Oeun, scamper barefoot on the store’s concrete floor.
As a steady stream of customers, young and old, comes in — some getting just a cold drink, others grocery items or toiletries — Sarat shares how she has been able to build her business since joining a village savings group of Takeo Community Forestry and Integrated Development Association (TCFIDA), an MCC partner, in 2008.
Village savings groups provide a low-interest source of money to borrow, enabling people to begin small shops or establish other additional sources of income, says Derek Hostetler of Portland, Ore. He and his spouse Leakhena Hostetler serve as representatives for MCC’s work in Cambodia.
“In order to join you have to begin saving first,” Sarat explains. “Every month we each put in what we can. It might be 10,000 riel ($2.50 U.S.) or up to $50 a month or more. We pay ourselves 1.5 percent interest per month, which is a good incentive to save.”
Once people have given a certain amount to the savings group, they can begin to borrow at a rate of 3 percent per month, generally for short-term loans of one to six months.
“I started by borrowing $50 to $75 each time. But now by borrowing $300 to $500, I have been able to increase the variety of my inventory and therefore increase my customer base and sales,” Sarat says. “Every time I pay back a loan I have more profit and savings than I did before.”
In a space not too much larger than a one-car garage, Sarat has tucked a variety of inventory — baskets of salted dried river fish, cloth sacks of various beans, vats of pickles, bottled drinking water, shampoo in packets, snack foods, totes full of cold soda and soybean drinks on ice, dried noodles, insecticide, cooking oil and much, much more.
And that’s not all.
Sarat’s eyes brighten as she talks. “Have I told you about my pigs?” she asks. “I know you need to visit Takeo village but on your way back, stop and I’ll show you my pigs.”
Reaching Takeo village means a journey down increasingly remote dirt paths, more suitable for walking and bicycles than a pickup truck.
In Takeo village, the store of Mom Chhoeun is much more humble, with maybe a fifth of the inventory in Sarat’s store. Yet since Chhoeun joined a savings group in 2005, she has been able to repair her house, increase her inventory and buy piglets to raise.
“But most important,” she says, walking over to a machine with hoses nearly 4 inches wide on both ends, “is this big water pump we purchased so that we can irrigate our fields.”
Her husband Khut Thon points to one of the only green fields in sight. “We not only get two rice crops a year now, where we only got one before, but my wife and I can grow a third vegetable crop as well.”
In the field Chhoeun pulls up one of the plants by the roots. “See. Peanuts.” She smiles and holds out a bunch. The field holds hundreds of peanut plants, each with 20 or more peanuts under the ground.
That represents a lot of protein in Cambodia, where according to the United Nations 40 percent of all children are chronically malnourished, the bulk of those in rural areas.
“The village savings group has made a huge difference to our family,” Chhoeun says. “I don’t know where we would be without it.”
Back in Trapang Khna village, Sarat walks from her store across the street to her pig shed. She says she started with one piglet. “I wasn’t sure if I knew how to raise one, if it would live or die,” she says. “So the next year I bought three piglets and the next more, and now I have 23. I time them so they are mature right during the Cambodian and Chinese holidays. That way I get maximum value.”
“I am so thankful to the backing of MCC to help support the village savings group,” she says. “It has made a real difference in many people’s lives.”
Of the 32 participants in her group, 28 are women, she tells me.
“It has given us hope for the future,” Sarat says. “Myself, I hope to one day become a wholesaler, which will save people in our village even more money. But that is a ways away. I have a lot to learn before then.”