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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Daily grind to survive in countryside

Daily grind to survive in countryside

K on Thnaut Hamlet, Kompong Thom - Daily survival for the Luon family seeking a

threadbare living in this drought-stricken hamlet rests on the mechanical

dependency of two rusty bicycles used to collect firewood.

In common with

many Cambodian villagers living in Kompong Thom, the family is battling to stave

off the combined effects of flood and drought which has caused devastating

failure of this year's rice harvest.

Kompong Thom is among the worst

affected provinces but others have also been badly hit, particularly Prey Veng

and Svay Rieng east of the Mekong River.

Humanitarian aid agencies say

the failure of the rice harvest will require the importation of at least 90,000

tonnes of rice to offset starvation among the hard-hit rural communities. The

European Community, Japan and Australia have been quick to donate tens of

thousands of tonnes of the food staple.

"We don't have any cattle and we

don't have ploughs or rice seed. It is very hard for us to live. We have to find

firewood to exchange for rice," said 55-year-old Leng Luon, head of a family of

ten.

Luon's home is a squalid, one-room thatch hut on stilts lying on

Route 12, just north of Kompong Thom town.

"This year is the worst. We

have to find young bamboo to mix with rice for our food," Luon said.

In

the sweltering still evenings the family supplement their menu by catching

plump, juicy crickets and spiders to add to their meal of thin rice

gruel.

But on most days breakfast, lunch and dinner consists of broken

rice mixed with salt and prahok, a preserved fish paste.

Every ten days

the family saves enough cash to buy several small fish to supplement their diet,

said Luon's wife, Theng Bi, 48.

Ironically much of Kompong Thom province

is green from early monsoon rains and appears fertile, but the countryfolk are

despairing because they have no rice seed to plant.

"Last year we did

plant rice but we lost the harvest due to flood and drought," said

Luon.

He said he went out into the forests every day with his neighbor to

forage for firewood which he could sell for about 2,000 riel (80

cents).]

"Almost everyone in this village collects firewood for rice," he

said.

Their plight is echoed in other districts in the province where

impoverished families struggle in the fight to find food.

In Phum Krasang

on National Route 6, 32-year-old Peang, a mother of two, looks at a tray of palm

fruit cakes drying in the sun which she hopes to barter in exchange for

rice.

"If I lose this capital I'll have nothing to eat. We rely on this

business," she told the Post.

She said the 2,000 riel earned from selling

the cakes would be "enough to pay for one meal, then I'll do it (cook)

again."

Her husband had been fortunate to find temporary work as a

ploughman but the family had borrowed rice seed on the promise that they would

double the amount of seed as repayment.

"We will borrow 84 kilograms of

rice seed but we have to pay double back," said Peang.

In cooperation

with the Cambodian Red Cross, the World Food Programme has started a "Food for

Work" self-help scheme to assist the worst affected villagers in Kompong

Thom.

At Phum Tankok near the border with Kompong Cham about 150

villagers from two hamlets have nearly completed excavation of a fish breeding

pond.

The villagers are paid between three to five kilograms of rice in

exchange for digging one cubic metre of clay.

The work site swarms with

villagers, their heads shaded from the intense heat by kramas.

In fact,

the pond excavation closely resembles a scene from Pol Pot's Killing Fields

years of the 1970s where entire communities were mobilised on canal digging

projects.

Taking a break from his paddy hoe, one grizzled old villager

called Neang said, "We just want rice to eat and rice seed to plant."

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