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Leaving behind Cambodia’s troubled legacy

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Meas Sopheap at her rice field in Krang Lahong, Cambodia. Photo: Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America Meas Sopheap at her rice field in Krang Lahong, Cambodia. Photo: Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

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The rice growers I met are moving forward and embracing new techniques.

Just outside the village of Krang Lahong (about two hours south of Phnom Penh) there is a reservoir. On an October day, near the end of the rainy season, it holds a good amount of water. When local farmer Meas Sopheap looks at it, she thinks there will be enough water for a crop of winter rice this year. Sopheap, 44, says the reservoir was built in the Khmer Rouge years (1975-1979).

Traveling in Cambodia while reading Elizabeth Becker’s book When the War Was Over made me think a lot about the irrigation projects undertaken by the Khmer Rouge, and the horrific conditions in which the people worked: “The [Khmer Rouge] party wanted some 1.5 million hectares of fields irrigated by dams, dikes, and canals the people were to build with few tools and no technical expertise…” (p. 219). Survivors told Becker “They worked like ants, digging the earth with crude picks and shovels, carrying back-breaking loads of dirt in bamboo baskets balanced on poles across their shoulders” (p. 219).

Most of the dam and reservoir projects were dismal failures: The Khmer Rouge distrusted engineers with technical skills, theorizing that the “political character of the workers was more important” (p. 250). In many cases the dams broke or lacked proper spillways and caused flooding in heavy rains. About 1.7 million people died in the Cambodia genocide, many starving to death as they worked on projects like these.

The good news is that this reservoir in Krang Lahong seems to be functioning, and the farmers will benefit from it this winter. All 52 farming families here have learned new ways to grow rice using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) practices. “I really see a difference in the last few years,” Sopheap said when I spoke to her outside her home. “They all sell more rice…three to four tons each year.” This can be double or even triple the amount they used to grow.

Sopheap’s life is improving since she started using SRI practices in 2010. She and her brothers and sisters have fixed up their house, and they even installed a nifty biogas system that uses waste from their pigs and cows to collect gas for cooking and light in the new kitchen she built.

I wrote a story about Sopheap and the ways that training and innovation are changing the ways that farmers work and organize with each other, it’s in our new OxfamCloseup magazine (see p. 4). She’s a great subject for a story (and a video) because she has used her success as a farmer to improve the lives of her extended family members and serve as a community leader.

The legacy of conflict and suffering is strong in Cambodia; it is hard to avoid it. But unlike the Khmer Rouge years, farmers here are embracing new technology and innovative ideas like SRI. So they are taking the water from the reservoir, adding their hard work and technical skills, and moving forward.

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