Prey Veng province, where farming, the only industry, is stricken by the alternating
curses of flood and drought, is facing an exodus of poverty-stricken villagers to
Phnom Penh to escape starvation.
Nan Pha and two of her three sons at the grocery in Prey Krakhob village where she sells cakes every morning to make ends meet. "What I earn in the morning is just enough for the morning, and what I earn in the evening is just enough for the evening. I can't save anything for the next day," she says.
Rural poor from all over Cambodia are migrating to the capital in search of work,
but nowhere more than Prey Veng, which provides the most workers from any province
for Phnom Penh's garment factories, according to an Asian Development Bank (ADB)
report on the industry.
The 2004 report said that almost 20 percent of the nearly 300,000 workers in the
garment export industry come from Prey Veng province. But as legions of young workers
trade an agricultural lifestyle for the industrial workforce, findings from the Economic
Institute of Cambodia (EIC) suggest that the transition may hinder the long-term
development of the province.
"People in the province have two classifications of well-off people these days:
first, those who have capital, and second, those who have daughters working in the
garment industry in Phnom Penh," said EIC researcher Visal Lim on August 18.
Lim said that in 2005 the EIC made an assessment of four poverty-prone districts
around Cambodia, one of them Prey Veng's Me Sang district. He said the only real
production in the district was rice farming. "People in Prey Veng don't have
any choice - either farm or come to Phnom Penh," he said.
The EIC's report, released in March, said that, in general, in Cambodia, though the
rich are getting richer, the poor find themselves in a "poverty trap."
The report says that although the garment industry has given Me Sang a comparative
boom in recent years, the only possibility to increase prosperity in the future is
through agriculture, and that required irrigation and other capital investment to
In Me Sang district's Prey Krakhob village, 32-year-old Nan Pha said that last year
she went to Phnom Penh to work in the construction industry.
"But I cannot go to work in Phnom Penh this year because my health is not good,"
"My three sons and I don't have enough food. What I earn in the morning is just
enough for the morning, and what I earn in the evening is just enough for the evening.
I can't save anything for the next day."
The lives of most people in Prey Krakhob village are no different from Pha's: many
go to work in Phnom Penh to avoid starvation.
Keo Ney, Prey Krakhob village chief, said about 100 out of the 169 families in his
village had daughters and sons working in Phnom Penh.
"People in my village have given up hope with rice farming now. They don't get
good results from rice cultivation because we often have droughts and we've got no
major irrigation system," Ney said.
"Even my family has two children working in Phnom Penh - one daughter is a garment
factory worker and one son is a construction worker."
He said there were 16 families in his village who were in a more serious situation.
"They have no land for planting rice, no cattle, and live in small huts. They
make their living working for others," he said.
The ADB report said Prey Veng was one of the three most populous provinces. Because
of lack of infrastructure, population pressures, natural disasters common to the
Mekong flood plain, and the proximity to Phnom Penh, Prey Veng had a large migrating
population, the report said.
The EIC report said that people with no land were worse off than before because labor
wages had not kept up with inflation. Also, depletion of natural resources such as
fish stock had deprived them of food sources.
Ramaraj Saravanamuttu, acting country director of the United Nations World Food Program
(WFP) said poverty and malnutrition rates were very high in Prey Veng. He said the
WFP, in conjunction with the National Committee of Disaster Management (NCDM), had
given drought relief to 1,276 Me Sang families, who had each received 50kg (an average
month's supply) of rice on August 2-3.
"Migration is a coping mechanism in Prey Veng - their options are limited,"
Chheav Nak, assistant to NCDM first vice-president Nhim Vanda, said reports from
local authorities showed many Prey Veng families were "vulnerable" and
could not survive.
"Until now the main concern has been drought, but now the rains are coming,
so it's turning to flooding," Nak said.
Khem Kanh, 60, also from Prey Krakhob village, said three of her children would soon
go to Phnom Penh to work in construction when they had finished planting rice; the
rest of her children were already working there.
"I'm sending all my children to go to work in Phnom Penh because it doesn't
look good for rice this year. Worms have eaten almost all of the rice I've just planted,"
"If my children don't go and work in Phnom Penh, my whole family will have nothing
Pha said she did not have land for farming rice. Since she had been divorced from
her husband for three years, she now had to look after her three children on her
"Nowadays I have to sell cakes and work in people's rice fields in exchange
Men Makara, ADHOC coordinator in Prey Veng, said Me Sang and Prey Veng districts
were the poorest in the province.
Hang Savouth, Me Sang district governor, acknowledged that his district was the poorest
district in Prey Veng because of the drought during last year's rice planting season
and the flooding at the end of the rice season.
He said 10 to 15 families per village in his district faced food shortage. Me Sang
had 118 villages and more than 22,000 families; 85 to 90 percent of the population
were rice farmers, he said.
Savouth said the rain his district had had in the last few days was good for the
recently planted rice, but he was concerned that the crop would die if there was
no more rain in the next 10 days.
"The only thing that can solve food shortage in Me Sang is to build a major
irrigation system that can store water for both the dry and rainy seasons,"
In neighboring Chipouch village Noun Thim, 42, also said drought was a problem.
"Now I don't have any rice to eat because last year I didn't get a good crop
due to the drought," he said. "But luckily I have two children working
as garment workers in Takmao who send me $20 every month."
The EIC report said the average amount sent home from garment factory workers was
around $30 per month, which was "very high" compared to the average annual
$100 per hectare income earned from rice paddies.
Makara said food shortage caused a lot of problems in society, including crime, domestic
violence and a rise in beggar numbers when people migrated to Phnom Penh and could
not find a job.
According to the EIC report, Me Sang had been "infamous" for begging, but
people were now better off than before, largely due to their daughters working in
the garment industry. However, the very poor could not take up jobs at garment factories
because they could not pay the commission fee demanded by middlemen, the report said.
Me Sang villagers denied that any of their relations were making their living by
begging in Phnom Penh, when asked by Post reporters last week. They and district
governor Savouth also said they had no information about Prey Veng women working
as prostitutes in Phnom Penh.
However an International Labor Organization study, cited in the 2004 ADB report,
stated that Prey Veng was the province "most at risk for having women and children
exploited through labor or human trafficking", due to poverty and the proximity
to Phnom Penh.
Hun Huong, operational chief of Me Sang Referral Hospital, said this year the number
of people infected with HIV/AIDs had increased in Me Sang district. Most were women
infected by their husbands who had gone to work in Phnom Penh.
Huong said one in 10 of the 100 or so people who came to his center for an HIV test
each month tested positive.