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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Evolution of a farming village over 35 years

Evolution of a farming village over 35 years

John C. Brown reports on a remarkable documentary of a community by two US academics.

TWO American anthropologists have completed an investigation of economic relationships and patterns of labor in a Khmer village.

Dr May Ebihara and Dr Judy Ledgerwood reported on their findings to a "standing-room-only crowd" at the Cambodian Resource Development Institute on July 29.

Dr Ebihara explained that the village on which they focused was the one in which she had conducted her dissertation research in 1959.

She indicated that their current findings not only illuminate current economic and social patterns, giving some indication of wider characteristics of the 80 percent of the Cambodians who are rural, but that their work also helped to answer questions about the extent to which Cambodian village life has changed by the major disruptions it has suffered.

Their research also gave some indication of the correlates of poverty in Cambodia's rural areas.

Dr Ledgerwood, an anthropologist trained at Cornell University, was a collaborator in the research.

Both were here at the invitation of the Ministry of Culture, Dr Ebihara said.

Speaking about the village, she said: "If you take a historical perspective these people have experienced extraordinary, devastating changes.

"The village was devastated by war in the 1970s, re-built and reorganized as a commune in the Pol Pot period, and rebuilt and reorganized during the PRK period."

Of the 139 villagers that were alive in 1959, and on whose families and situation Ebihara's dissertation was focused, 70 died during the Pol Pot period, Ebihara said.

"After 1979 a number of features of pre-revolutionary period were revived. Household production and consumption re-emerged, families were re-united, and Buddhism revived.

"These are in some ways similar [to the earlier period], but not exactly the same. There are still changes going on. For example, a few families now have TVs which run on batteries."

In 1959-1960, the village, which Dr Ebihara declines to identify, had a population of 790 people. In her initial research, Dr Ebihara focused on 159 people in the western hamlet of the village. These people were rice cultivators, subsistence farmers. People lived in nuclear families and extended families (Kruesaw touc and Kruesaw craen), Dr Ebihara said.

Dr Ebihara said that land was re-distributed in 1986. "It was basically equitable. Larger families got more land.

"Large families got two hectares."

Ledgerwood expained: "The families who had the largest number of children got the most land."

Farm work gets done in several ways. "There are share-crop arrangements, cooperative labor exchange, and hired labor," Ebihara said.

"There are many kinds of [labor] arrangements. Some households rely exclusively on household labor, other households rely on hired labor. Combinations of these arrangements also exist, and these vary depending on circumstances during the year. Rice cultivation remains a very risky proposition with no irrigation, and a total reliance on rainfall."

"Some extended family units pool their resources and labor. There is cooperative labor exchange. Men may plow together. Teams of women go out and plant together. There is more cooperation of labor than I saw in the past. Because of lack of women or men, some jobs need to be done quickly."

"There is only one harvest a year. The 1990 harvest was reduced by a long dry spell. These people are subsistence farmers for consumption only, only rarely can they sell. Some buy or borrow before the next season."

"Therefore, many households pursue side activities to make ends meet. Pigs and chicken are raised for sale. Some men go to Phnom Penh to be moto-dups.

"Interaction between the commuity and the city is not a new phenomenon. But there are more connections between Phnom Penh and the country-side than in the past."

Because of this village's proximity to Phnom Penh, this feature of the village economy may not be more widely generalizable, the researchers warned.

Dr Ledger-wood said that some of the village women sell cakes and noodles along the road-side to bring in extra money. Some have gone to the city to work. A few have found state employment as teachers and policewomen.

The income of some of the households is increased by a system of remittances, Ledgerwood explained. This may include money from family in the United States, or what Dr Ledgerwood called no-interest loans from Phnom Penh relatives.

Dr Ebihara explained economic differentiation in the village. "In the past there were no social classes in the village.

"People did recognize relative degrees of wealth which depended on the relative amount of rice fields that a family had. There were people who were considered rich (neaq mien), those who had enough (neaq lmoom), poor people (neaq kraw or neaq dowal).

"These differences in wealth were leveled during the DK period. These classes re-emerged in the PRK and SOC period as private property and a market economy were instituted," Dr Ebihara said.

Now there are few people at the top and a few people at the bottom. More are considered to "have enough."

"There are a number of households that are poor. These are houses with a large number of young children or are households with widows.

"Economic disparities have increased since 1979. The standard of living has improved significantly for some, but other families are still struggling.

"In 1991 there had not yet been sale of paddy fields by villagers.

"Now some land is being sold. This may lead to wider disparities. There continues to be a huge economic disparity between the rural peasants and the wealthy urban people," the researchers said.

Dr Ledgerwood talked about shifts in gender ratios in the rural areas.

She said: "In my last Unicef report I estimated the gender ratio in Cambodia was 64-5 percent female to 35-6 percent male. Now there is an over-all movement toward more balance.

"The Secretary for Womens Affairs now estimates that the percentage of women is 60 percent.

"In the village some men have returned from abroad. Soldiers have returned from the Army.

"Three men have married into the village, and more men are growing up.

"Some village women have shifted to Phnom Penh, to work in a factory, or as policewomen."

Dr Ledgerwood talked about the relationship between women heading households and poverty.

"Widowhood is not correlated with poverty, lack of male labor is," Ledgerwood said.

Dr Ledgerwood said that it is commonly held that the poorest of the families in Cambodia are headed by women who are widowed or abandoned by their husbands.

However, the rural families that are the poorest are the families which lack male labor, a grandfather or older sons for example.

Another indication of the poverty of female-headed households was the relative lack of draught animals for plowing.

In general, the researchers found that households without male labor have fewer cows, 52 percent have none. There is no evidence of widows selling land and going to the city.

Dr Ebihara wrote the first American anthropological dissertation on Cambodian village life in 1959.

At the time, she said: "I looked at Thailand and found that a large number of studies had been made, but Cambodia was under-studied."

The year was 1959. After a year of field work in Cambodia, Dr Ebihara wrote, "A Khmer village in Cambodia," and received her PhD from Columbia University.

In her second visit to the village Dr Ebihara focused on contemporary life in the village.

In 1990-1991 Dr Ebihara collected oral histories of the people who had survived the Khmer Rouge period.

Because the villagers fled to Phnom Penh after American bombing, upon their return under Khmer Rouge control, they were considered as new people, rather than base or old people, and consequently recieved harsher treatment those who had stayed behind.

Some were unable to return to the village in the evacuation of Phnom Penh, because they were sent to other parts of Cambodia. Many died or disappeared and never returned home Ebihara said.

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