P rey Kmum, Kampot - More than 300 villagers here have complained to local human
rights organizations about the deadly effects of a brackish runoff from
factories processing a medicinal vine known as voa romeat.
woody vine is collected in the forests by peasants who are paid 100-200 riel a
kilo. They bring the vine to half a dozen processing plants in the province,
where it is soaked for several days in a mixture of sulfuric and chloridic acid
and them turned into a saffron-colored powder.
Foul-smelling waste water
from the factories is then channeled into run-off ponds or dumped directly into
surrounding rice paddies or the Kampot river.
At one site in Prey Kmum
commune north of Kampot, the soil has turned black in rice paddies next to the
run-off ponds, which are located only a couple of hundred meters from the
village drinking water supply.
"My house is only 500 meters from the
place," said one resident of Wat Po village near the Prey Kmum plant. "On a hot
day when there's no wind, it really smells bad. We get headaches and feel dizzy
all the time and sometimes vomit. Our chickens. pigs and ducks have all
A human rights investigator said: "I have seen cows with their
noses burned off and their tongues hanging out, near where they process voa
romeat. The animals are all dying. Who knows what the health effects are on
On June 16, citing environmental and health hazards, the Kampot
Ministry of Agriculture issued a notice for all voa romeat factories in Kampot
to cease operations. But personnel at two factories interviewed by the Post say
that they had already stopped operations several weeks before the government
order because the value of processed voa romeat had dropped from $12 to $4 and
also because the onset of the rainy season made it difficult to dry the
"If the price goes back up, I'll start again during the dry
season - in another place," said Uy Sabuth, manager of the Prey Kmum voa romeat
No-one interviewed by the Post was exactly sure what the
processed vine is used for, although in its natural form Cambodians use it to
treat malaria or as a tonic. According to Uy Sabuth, the acid-processed vine is
sold to Vietnamese middle-men, who export it to Singapore, China and Taiwan,
possibly for medicinal purposes. At the Cambodian factories, the Vietnamese
traders provide on-site technical experts who mix and administer the acid
The acid solution regularly corrodes through the metal and
concrete soaking tanks. Uy Sabuth has to build new tanks every three
The waste water in the run-off ponds are separated from the
surrounding rice paddies only by earthen dikes. "We use only a little acid. When
the rain comes and mixes with the water it will be diluted."
He said a
National Assembly representative came to Prey Kmum several months ago after many
people complained about the smell and other health effects. "The people are
afraid (of the vine) but even my employees who process voa romeat are not
affected," he said. "So how can people say it will hurt them?"
the closure order, people here say the run-off ponds still pose a health
"No-one is doing anything about the ponds of poisoned water that
are still sitting there," said one human rights worker. "The stuff eats through
steel or brick in only a couple of months so of course it's spreading from the
run-off ponds into the surrounding area. It will get rally bad in the rainy
season because the polluted water will seep in the rice fields and into the
Uy Sabuth said that until recently voa romeat was
being processed at seven other Kampot locations, including near the tourist
waterfall site at Tuk Chou. In addition, he said, the vine is processed in Koh
Kong, Kompong Cham, Kompong Speu, Stung Treng and Ratanakiri.