Cambodia still faces many problems caused by landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW), as a result of the protracted wars which began in the early 1960s and lasted to the end of 1998, when Prime Minister Hun Sen’s win-win policy secured peace. To contribute to solving these problems, in 2000 the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) began a wide-ranging education programme about the dangers of landmines.

Despite the campaign, there are still people who venture into the forests to seek out non-timber forest products to supplement their living expenses. Sadly, many of them continue to fall victim to ERW. To alleviate this issue, the CRC provides interest-free micro-loans to people as capital for finding alternative sources of income. In this way, it is hoped they will no longer feel the need to risk life and limb in the remaining mine-infested districts of the Kingdom.

Provision of the loans began in 2005, and as of October this year, the CRC had provided loans to 8,115 households. Thanks to the interest-free financing, their lives are improving day by day, said Men Neary Sopheak, first deputy secretary-general of the CRC.

She said that the loans were initially only available to people who had been disabled by mines and ERW, but the scheme was later expanded to include those who were most vulnerable to the danger posed by mines, such as impoverished widows, the elderly, orphans and veterans and their families.

When the programme was first introduced, the loans were capped at 800,000 riel, but that has been expanded – in line with increases in costs of living – to one million riel. Borrowers have one year to repay the loans, and can borrow for a second time, she said.

According to Neary Sopheak, the majority of the recipients of the micro-loans had used the cash injection as capital to invest in farming, animal husbandry, grocery sales, hairdressing and bicycle and motorcycle repair.

“We have seen lives changed by these loans. They are now able to generate a regular income without migrating away from their homes, or relying on dangerous work in the forests. This means we are seeing families staying together and taking care of one another, which is an excellent outcome,” she said.

She added that the interest-free micro-loans had piqued the interest of more than 60 landmine-affected countries around the world, with representatives from many other regions which had experienced conflict attending a workshop in Siem Reap to learn more about the life-changing programme.

Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) first deputy secretary-general Men Neary Sopheak during an interview with The Post on October 20. Heng Chivoan

Neary Sopheak said that the ultimate goal of the programme was to improve the daily lives of the people living in areas which had not yet been cleared, by making sure they could avoid exposing themselves to the hidden dangers that lurked in the deep forest.

Recently, in response to appeals by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the president of the CRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding to provide $2 million to the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority, which has committed to the government’s goal of a mine-free Cambodia by 2025. The campaign is being led by the Samdech Techo Project for Mine Action, which is run under the theme “Providing Safe Ground, Creating Smiles”.

Yong Kim Hean, executive director of the Red Cross in Preah Vihear province, said more than 500 of the province’s families had received micro-loans from the CRC. As a result, he said, about 65 to 70 per cent of the population had improved their lives.

“Some families have changed their livelihood, swapping their careers or expanding their businesses. Some haven’t been able to capitalise on the additional funding, but we have given them a second chance to put the loans to good use,” he said.

Ka Sreung, a resident of the province’s Rovieng district, said that year after year, her family’s lives have improved steadily, thanks largely to the jumpstart to her business that the micro-loan provided to her business. She sells pork and noodles, and raises livestock.

“Initially, my business was not going well – I wasn’t selling all of my noodle and pork each day, so I was wasting stock and losing money. This meant I could not afford to raise animals of my own, and had to deal with spoiled meat. When I heard about the Red Cross’ micro-loan programme, I jumped at the chance. I was able to invest in two pigs, one for meat and one to raise. With my own supply of pork, I was able to run my kitchen much more efficiently – and I could use any leftovers to fatten my remaining pig! When it was large enough to sell, I was able to take the profit from the pig and buy ducks. Since then, business has been booming,” she said.

Khieu Sin of Rohas commune’s Kampot village in Rovieng district said that she had been fortunate enough to access the micro-loans twice, expanding her business each time. This year, she used to money to plant cucumber, beans, water spinach and chilli peppers.

She added that when she first obtained a loan four years ago, she invested in kiosks which sold papaya salads, and that they supported her family of seven.

“Once I had the capital to do so, I was able to expand to more than one kiosk. In this way, my income kept growing. Whenever I had enough savings, I added more items to my business, and we now sell not just papaya salad, but beef, shrimps and snails,” she said.

Met Mean of O’Ambel commune of Anlong Veng district in Oddar Meanchey province, said that he had borrowed money to grow cassava and this had generated enough capital that he was eventually able to invest in raising chickens and ducks. He was especially proud that he now earned a good enough living that his children could attend school.

He added that raising the livestock had taken perseverance and love. Otherwise, he would not have been able to make it a success.

“When the Red Cross approved me for a micro-loan, my life changed. I was able to feed my family and I while still generating capital that I could invest in our future. The business keeps growing – previously, we had no savings – I could not even afford a bicycle! Now my family has a motorcycle, and my children ride bicycles to school each day. They are in grades four and five,” said the proud father.

Khin Nhean, Oddar Meanchey provincial deputy governor and permanent vice-president of the CRC provincial branch, said that the loans were purpose made for improving people’s livelihoods. He added that the Red Cross carried out feasibility studies of each loan application, to ensure they made a positive contribution to the recipients.

“We examine the general circumstances and the business plan of each applicant. It they are likely to succeed, we approve them. Generally, as long as they are going to be able to clear a profit, their applications will be successful. If it looks like they will invest unwisely, we will decline to lend to them. The most important thing is that the micro-loans benefit families,” he added.