T he NGO Padek showed Michele-Ann Okolotowicz how it is revolutionizing lives.
In the south eastern provinces families are eagerly turning to a new form of cultivation to raise their living standards - fish farming.
The Partnership for Development in Kampuchea (Padek) is an NGO helping farmers in Prey Veng and Svay Rieng to dig ponds and stock them with fish to be nurtured, raised and eaten.
Fisheries adviser to Padek Dr M.C. Nandeesha said: "Although rice is widely cultivated, many people are unaware of the proper way to raise fish.
"Up till now villagers have relied on the country's natural resources. These are getting more and more scarce and people are coming to realize the benefits of raising their own fish."
Some farmers have been lucky enough to buy land with an already-excavated pond. Koy Vata, a 41-year-old Thai border camp returnee who has three children, said: "I spent ten years in the camp. There I was able to see the Thais were growing fish in an organized way with man-made ponds and rigorous methods.
"My wife Sok Khim, was born here [Angkor Chait, 30 kms from Phnom Penh] and so we looked for good land to settle on. I realized that by raising fish I could make more profit than growing rice. Untac helped me with the $500 I needed to buy the land and pond."
Vata's pond is a textbook beauty. It has a depth of 2.5 meters and a total area of 2,400 square meters.
He proudly says: "The water is just the right shade of blue-green, fish cannot survive in turbid ponds or ponds which are too green because of poisonous weeds. With outside labor to help me I manage to net 525 kg harvest from the 6,000 fish who happily swim in my pond.
Vata said: "I grow common and silver carp, pangasius and tilapia. A man buys my catch for 1,500 riel per kg and sells the fish in Phnom Penh. He can sell them for 3-4,000 riel per kg.
"I'm planning to buy a motorbike and trailer. That way I can cut out the middle man and make more money."
Although Vata is able to feed his family with the fish, he has more ambitious plans: "I would like to go one step further and produce seed from the fish to sell to other farmers interested in growing fish."
Dr Nandeesha says to succeed Vata will require a great deal of investment and some detailed technical assistance, training and effective back-up and quality seed from Padek.
Villagers like Vata can attend fish farming training courses tailored to their needs at the 12 hectare Bati Fish Seed Production and Research Center which is run by Padek in Peam Ro District, Prey Veng province.
Dr Nandeesha says currently the Bati center supplies fish seed to local farmers but with the growing interest the farmers display in it, the center will have to find ways of diversifying the seed supply.
The doctor says the government has banned the extraction of seed from wild fish and has taken steps to supply centers like Bati, but he says the supply is inadequate.
Vata has already given some thought to the question of raising the money he needs to produce fish seed.
He says: "In the border camp, my wife picked up basic hairdressing skills. Now, if she has the time she goes to the village in the afternoon to cut hair. She can make between 8,000-10,000 riel per day.
"When Pol Pot's regime came to power I was a first year student at the Faculty of Pharmacy. The Mennonite Central Committee has a vacancy for a lab assistant, they pay about $165 per month and provide a motorbike and gasoline. If I work there at night I can increase my monthly income to perhaps $250."
Vata's wife 39-year-old Khim is also heavily involved with the fish pond. Every day she rises at 5 am to feed the chickens, pigs and children.
The wooden pig sty is built on top of the pond and the pig manure goes directly into the water providing essential nutrients for the fish.
Khim prepares food for the pigs and the fish, which mainly consists of rice bran and morning glory (an aquatic plant). She prepares the evening meal at 7 pm after having spent the afternoon hairdressing.
Dr Nandeesha said: "Women play an important role in fish farming. But they need spend only a minimum of thirty minutes a day on the pond and so it does not interfere too much with other farm work and child-rearing activities. Many women find the work easy and the children often show interest."
Khim notes: "We often like to watch the fish, especially at feeding time. It is very relaxing."
Vata says he is working on totally integrating his pond into the environment by growing fruit and vegetables around it which will help supplement the family diet and income.
He says he has hired help to dig holes for 50 coconut trees and their roots will be able to feed on the pond-water which will help to prevent soil erosion.
The pig manure will also enrich the soil and Vata has been able to sell nine pigs at market.
He says the water from the pond can be used to nurture his vegetable garden and in two to three years if he can get the fish seed project to thrive he says his family will be quite comfortably off.
Another fish farmer Pol Hun has dug two ponds. His family has four hectares of land [about four times the national average] and they grow rice and raise silver carp, pangasius and clarius.
Hun speaks of the advantages of growing fish: "To produce one kg of pig meat I have to feed the pig 10 to 12 kg of rice bran. To produce one kg of fish meat only requires 5 to 6 kg. Growing fish is easier because I spend less dollars and get a higher return."
Hun says he will be able to grow rice-fish on his land. This is a system by which a small canal links the rice paddy to the fish pond. The fish find their way into the paddy and feed on parasites. Their activity improves the water and soil for the rice. In the dry season the fish return to the pond.
But Hun says not all farmers are able to grow rice-fish because low-lying areas are not conducive to this type of fish-rearing.
Pol Hun's wife, Phan Rim, a stately lady of 54, prefers looking after fish to growing rice. She has 10 children and is aware of the health benefits of eating fish.
She says: "Fish provide vitamins and protein and ensure good health. They can help reduce heart disease and increase one's intelligence."
Asked whether she shared the Khmers' belief that eating fish kept women slim and gave them a good skin complexion, this normally shy woman went off into peals of laughter.
Not all farmers are as well off as Hun and Vata. Sean Geait Bora, 48, is ill. His eyes are bright with fever and his body bears testimony to his belief in the virtues of coin-rubbing to alleviate the pain.
Talking about his situation, he says: "I have six children, aged between six and 24 and I have often been unable to feed my family. There was an irrigation dam project in my area (Polors) in 1992 but it was not a success.
"I heard about Padek in 1993 because they had approached my friend Pol Hun and helped him with his pond. This year, I am a trial farmer under his supervision.
"Padek has supplied me with fingerlings (young fish, the size of a finger). Last year I had a good yield and I am now able to eat fish five times a week. "Sometimes the family eats pork. We feed urea [fertilizer] to the fish as well as cow dung, green manure (compost) and pig waste. I am very happy to grow fish."
Farmers say they are unsure about raising tilapia [a gray colored fish of about 10 cms in length] because of their high mortality rate.
Usually tilapia is stocked in ponds and Dr Nandeesha says the farmers often do not check beforehand that predator fish have been removed from the ponds.
He says snakehead fish particularly enjoy feasting on the helpless tilapia. Farmers come up with all sorts of theories to explain the poor yield when raising tilapia.
One farmer said: "When there is a thunderstorm the tilapia are frightened so they dive down into the mud to hide. In the mud they die." Another farmer claimed that explosions occurring near his land killed the tilapia.
Tilapia is the favorite fish of the children at the Prey Veng orphanage. The children say they relish fried tilapia and also like to eat tilapia in soups.
Fish farming is not on the school curriculum but all the children claimed to express an interest in it when they were interviewed by the Post.
The orphanage has two ponds one of which the Indian Army helped to dig during the Untac period. Five species of fish thrive in the ponds. All the children help to feed and catch the fish. The fish are raised to feed the children but the pond is not farmed on a commercial basis.
Twelve-year-old Soa Tony is happy to eat fish and explains that he wants to farm them because it will avoid him having to ask relatives for money to buy fish.
His friend, Khat Sokho, wants to be able to sell the fish for profit. But both boys want to be policemen when they grow up.
Asked whether they would like to have an aquarium for recreational purposes, the orphans' reaction was unanimous: "Oh yes, that would be great! We could stock it with fighting fish!"
Prey Veng province's Governor, His Excellency Tep Nannary, expressed an interest in fish farming although he seems to be more educated on irrigation issues.
Eventually the Bati Center will be handed over to the provincial authority and His Excellency hopes that NGO money will continue to support the Center since his financial autonomy is fairly limited.
Whilst aware of Cambodia's need for human resources training, Nannary said: "As yet there is no plan to train agricultural staff. The provincial authority already deals with administrative issues. Farmers must be trained in Phnom Penh or elsewhere.
Every day in Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces farmers are living up to the old Chinese proverb "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to grow fish, you feed him for lifetime."
Or as my fishmonger used to say: "Eat more fish. Fish make brains. Brains make money to buy more fish."
"Like the Prime Minister, Prince Ranariddh, I am interested in Bati Center because it can help the people to grow fish. Further research will require a great deal of money and if it cannot come from the government or outside investors, perhaps UNDP and non-governmental organizations will help."
The Governor would like each of the 12 districts in the province to be equipped with a fisheries Center but government funds are lacking.
He says he is also interested in roadside aqua-culture whereby ditches are used to farm fish and the excavated soil from farmer's ponds would be used on road construction and upkeep.
At the Bati center students are carrying out their research and writing their end-of-study dissertations. Many of them come from Phnom Penh's Chamka Doung Institute which sends its best students to the Center.
The station's director, Ngan Heng has been working in the fisheries sector since 1980.
Heng has 12 full time workers under him and he supervises 47 ponds. But he says too few students come from the provinces and female students are very rare.
The students often want to work in Phnom Penh after leaving the Bati center.
Dr Nandeesha believes that it might be a good idea for the government to take a look at some kind of affirmative action for provincial-born students, who have a vocation to work in rural areas, to gain access to the Center.
Eventually he would like to see centers similar to Bati functioning at a regional level through the whole of Indochina.