ACROSS the Tonle Sap from the Royal Palace, vegetable farmers carry on an increasingly
profitable activity in the midst of an unruffled rural peace.
How much longer they will be allowed to do so is unclear.
Like farmers everywhere in Cambodia, these farmers follow the rhythm of wet-season
- but in both seasons, the river dominates life, the rhythm of ebb and flood shapes
life and life's possibilities. It gives these farmers easy access of psaa jah and
psaa kandal; it provides water for their dry-season gardens; it's a playground and
bathtub for the children.
The river also insulates these farmers and their families from the bustle of the
city. Across the river Phnom Penh stretches from the Cambodiana to the Japanese bridge
in a narrow strip trapped between sky and water; a silent panoramic video.
But life here too is shaped by another reality - that of eviction. The farmers say
that before the elections most of them sold their land to a member of the Royal family.
Though for four years they have continued to work as if their ownership was uninterrupted,
they realize that eventually the legal owners will come to make their claim.
But they work while waiting. Tomatoes ripen on the vine, and children splash and
bathe at tngai lik.
Du Saree, 54, has farmed one hectare here since 1980. Before the Khmer Rouge regime
he lived in Sa'ang, near Takhmao. He's a handsome, silver-haired grandfather whose
speech is measured and gentle. Every now and again he tries a French or English word
half-remembered from his schoolboy days. One of his grandsons perches on his lap,
intently following the conversation.
At this time of year Saree lives in a small hut he built in the middle of the Chamkar
fields, seeking a greater peace on the lower ground between the river and the village.
It's breezy here, he says, and the air is cool and clean: sokapiap la'aa (very healthy).
Though he doesn't like to live "where there are many people and where it is
busy," when the rains come again to swell the Tonle Sap and Mekong he will return
to his house in the village.
Saree has nine children aged five to 29, and eight grandchildren. Six of his children
are unmarried and live at home with Saree's wife, along with four grandchildren.
The peace he's found in the vegetable fields is comfortably disturbed by a grandchild
or two. They'll sleep over at their grandfather's hut, which is little more than
a sleeping platform thatched with sugar palm fronds.
Mut Huong lives near Saree; in spite of a life-time of hard work and 13 children,
she looks so much younger than her 48-years. She too gardens a single hectare of
land. This year, it's planted in tomatoes. Apart from the Khmer Rouge time, she's
been here since she was a child.
Life has an annual and daily rhythm. Vegetables are grown from November to July.
In the wet season only water cress can be grown. During this time Huong is at home
with her children. Saree buys wholesale vegetables from one market in Phnom Penh
and sells them to another.
Saree and Huong both have lots of children to help carry water up from the river
during dawn and dusk. "Life is not easy here, everything is difficult,"
Huong says, "but the most difficult thing is to get the water."
Late afternoons are for picking and preparing the produce for sale at the market
the following day. Boats start shuttling across the Tonl Sap from 4:30am, bound for
Wat Onalaom where the wholesale buyers wait. It's quick to get across - maybe eight
minutes, much quicker than using the bridge. In any case "the road is rough,
and your tomatoes will bounce out," Huong says.
It costs 300 riel per person each trip, and 100 riels for each basket of vegetables.
At 400 riel for each kilo of tomatoes, Huong makes about 8,000 riel a day from two
or three laden baskets.
Saree grows pumpkins, watermelons, eggplants, squash, tomatoes, dry-season water
cress and peppers, each at different times of the year, governed less by market demand
than by the weather.
Both Saree and Huong sold their hectare blocks, they say, to the husband of Princess
Bopha Devi, the daughter of King Sihanouk. They believe that the land may have been
re-sold to another company, but they are not sure about this nor do they know the
name of the second company.
The offer to buy the land came during a meeting of farmers organized before the elections
by village and district leaders. Officials from the government and the company wishing
to buy the land came too. Saree says that the sale price was set at $4 a square meter,
or $40,000 per hectare, the price being adjusted if the land was on low ground and
therefore prone to floods.
Though it's a lot of money, many farmers at the time felt their land was worth more,
they say. Some asked for $7 a square meter, others $10. But the price was fixed at
$4, and the farmers say it appeared at the time that the company and local officials
had already agreed between themselves what the price would be. Some felt pressured
to sell, fearing that if they refused the land would be seized regardless.
"Ninety to ninety-five percent of the farmers sold their land," Saree says,
in spite of their reservations. Very few Cham farmers sold, he says.
Four years later, everyone is still farming as they always have. No land has ever
Saree and Huong continue to farm though they've also prepared for the future. They've
both bought land elsewhere with the money they received and have insisted their children
be schooled - even Huong, who didn't go to school herself.
Saree says he doesn't know whether his children would be farmers like him. "That
will depend on their education."
Until the developers come, Huong and Saree - and other farmers like them - continue
a life governed by the seasons and dominated by the river that separates them from
Phnom Penh, enjoying a rural pace denied their urban neighbors across the way.