Heng Saram, a 60-year old farmer living in Oundong II village – tucked into Pailin province’s rural Salakrout district – says that her village is praying for rain so they can plant a rice crop amid the deep pain that comes with hunger.
“The weather is getting hotter and hotter,” she says. “We’ve made the demons angry. When we don’t offer them enough food, or we’ve said something wrong or cut down their shelters – somewhere in the mountains, or the forests – they get angry.”
Heng Saram insists her village is being punished by the spirits; she knows nothing of climate change or modern science.
“I don’t know what climate change is,” Heng Saram explains. “But Buddha tells me that the end of the world will come with a fire, so I know the end of the world is coming.”
“Only the holy people will be spared in the fire. I must try to do good things for Buddha.”
Fifty-six-year-old Chor Seoun, another villager in Oundong II, says that she grew up on tales that the end of the world would come with a fire. This is a tenet of Buddhist endemic to the villagers’ beliefs, she explains.
But one day, Chor Seoun caught a radio programme on the effects of climate change. She questioned her beliefs for the first time.
“I told the other villagers that cutting down trees will be bad for us after learning [about climate change],” she says. “But whenever we prayed for rain in ceremony in the past, it was effective and the rain came. So no one believes me.”
A monk of Pailin’s Bangsovanaram Pagoda says that Buddha will show the end of the world to people by setting fire to it. So if there is climate change, he says, it means that people have done something wrong to Buddha.
“It is true that the demons are angry. In Buddhism, monks always educate people to do good things, especially planting trees and protecting our natural environment,” he explains.
Back in the rapidly modernising capital, where religion has little place in a university’s budding science department, students hope to educate the indigenous population with their secular studies.
“Climate change is caused by people,” says Kun Vibol, a 21-year-old environmental science student at Royal University of Phnom Penh. “Those who don’t understand it will become the most vulnerable to its dangers.”
“We have to raise awareness of climate change in rural areas, and train them how to adapt to it,” he adds.
For Chem Kunthea, a 20-year-old student at National University of Management, the issue hits home. Her parents and relatives in rural Takeo province pray for rain as they face dire prospects.
But Chem Kunthea has rejected these beliefs held deep within her ancestral roots.
“Climate change is caused from cutting down trees, air pollution and an increasing population,” she asserts.
According to Keo Kalyan, a climate change analyst for UNDP, “We cannot prohibit people from their beliefs. But we can educate them to understand basic science, like what climate change is.” “We want them to rely on science over belief.”
Keo Kalyan looks to ameliorating the affects of climate change in Cambodia’s rural provinces through the implementation of turbines, hydraulics and solar energy. She points out that villagers can find water by digging for it and making ponds, instead of waiting for rain.
Meas Rithy, Deputy Manager at the ASEAN Cooperation Department with the Ministry of Environment, says that local and international organisations have been educating Cambodia’s rural population about climate change.
But climate change is a new area of study in the Kingdom, even in Phnom Penh, he explains – so raising awareness has been anything but easy.
“This is just the first step for us,” Meas Rithy says.