Making the cut: a boy heads up a palm to tap flowers for their sweet juice.
alm sugar producers are risking their health by using waste clothes from garment
factories as fuel.
When burnt, the clothes give out dangerous gases, cause respiratory problems and
are particularly bad for children and pregnant women. But farmers are carrying on
with the practice despite Ministry of Environment warnings.
"We tried to educate the people not to burn clothes, but we could not stop them,"
said Thach Sovan, chief of environment office of Kandal province. "It is difficult
to solve this problem, it is the job of the people."
The villagers were too poor for fines to be levied and although some realized it
was bad for their health the prac-tice continued. He called for cooperation from
the local authorities to help educate them, especially the commune officials who
were very close to the people.
Palm sugar is made by boiling off the water from the sweet juice extracted from palm
flowers for about two hours. The clothing waste is used to fuel the fires because
of the scarcity of other materials.
Palm sugar is a common crop for farmers after the rice harvesting season, but since
clothes are more expensive than other fuels the situation is also hitting poor farmers
in the pocket.
Sum Loy, 53, a palm sugar producer since 1979, lives in Prey Chamkar village, Lumharch
commune, Ang Snuol district, Kandal province. He said: "I started to burn the
pieces of clothes two years ago; before that I burned wood, sawdust or cow manure,
but they are no longer available.
"One month's supply of waste clothes from a factory costs me 80,000 riel [$20].
I do not know it is bad for my health although it has a bad smell, but I have nothing
else to burn. My neighbors are doing the same thing."
Farmers can make between 8,000 riel and 16,000 riel ($2 to $4) a day selling the
palm sugar for 800 riel per kilogram bag to middlemen, who then sell it at markets.
The price of palm sugar at Phnom Penh markets is 1,000 to 1,200 riel per kilogram
($0.25-0.30) depending on the quality. It is used as commonly in big cities as it
is in the countryside.
Mer Thy, 32, living in Prey Totoeng village, Ang Snuol district said: "I have
no choice besides burning the piece of clothes, I have used it for four years. It
has a bad smell and harms my health, but the wood is more expensive and difficult
He said all the palm sugar producers in the village are burning off-cuts of clothes.
They cannot buy sawdust because the government has banned the cutting of forest trees.
Chim Socheat, 34, Prey Totoeng village, said "Palm sugar is my second job after
farming, I have produced it for 20 years."
Keo Samey, 48, who has sold palm sugar for three years at Orussey market: "We
can use the sugar with many kinds of food; it is very necessary, especially for dessert.
I buy the sugar from Kampong Speu and sell about 20 to 25 kg per day."
A pollution control official at the Environment Ministry, who did not want to be
named, said: "We are aware that it causes health problems, so we asked the provincial
environment officials to educate the farmers and ask them to stop. It is difficult
to control the sale of clothing waste."
He said officials had been sent to warn the garment factory owners not to sell waste
material to farmers because it affects their health and the smoke is especially dangerous
to pregnant women and young children.
"If the garment factories would stop selling the waste clothes, the palm sugar
producers could not buy it to burn any more."