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Slinging mud to save the trees

Slinging mud to save the trees

BATTAMBANG - For the last year and a half, Frenchman Thierry David has been trying

to do his bit to stem the tree-cutting tide in Cambodia, searching for an alternative

to wood as a building material. He believes he has found the magic answer, and a

simple one: mud.

"Mud is an alternative in a country where choices will be more and more limited.

It's a good one," says David, one of two expatriate architects in Battambang,

who runs a technical-training NGO called 'Hiscal'.

Cambodia's northwest has proven fertile ground for David to explore opportunities

for building with mud bricks. It's a subject close to his heart, and one he has been

interested in for many years.

Raised in Niger, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast, David became used to the problems

of deforestation and aware of the need to find construction materials other than

wood.

"In no more than five to ten years, I believe Cambodia will face the same problem

as Mauritania: desertification.

"In Sisophon there is already a 'Sahelization'. It is basically like sitting

in the desert trying to find a solution. You have to be creative," says David.

During his fourth year studying architecture in Colombia, David started to work in

shanty towns helping people to move out of Bogota. This is when Hiscal sprang up

to help urban communities move to rural areas within the means available.

His next destination was Cambodia, where he moved six years ago to establish Hiscal

here. The NGO now works in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap.

"In certain areas in Cambodia, it takes the average farmer two or three years

to gather the necessary wood to build a house," he says. "Almost eighty

percent of Cambodia's population live in the countryside. Wood...is massively exported

and illegally traded [but] small local workshops struggle."

With large quantities of Cambodia's high-quality timber being exported, local people

face raised prices and shortages of wood, not to mention the overriding problem of

deforestation.

"We wanted to show that the technique of mud-brick construction is a basic solution."

David is something of a mud expert. There are, he says, about 20 different ways of

using mud in construction. In Yemen, for example, all big cities use the troglodyte

process which involves digging holes to build habitats straight into cliffs. Along

the Thai border, people use another method called torchis, using mud held together

with wooden trellises.

In Cambodia, he says, "We came up with a completely unknown technique: mud bricks."

The sandy mud found in most of Cambodia's northwest, along with red laterate mud,

is fine for turning into bricks. Stabilized with just five percent cement or lime,

most of the bricks don't need to be cooked.

"Cooked bricks are forest eaters," says David, noting that using firewood

to cook bricks defeats the environmental purpose of using mud.

Turning mud into bricks in a relative easy process. A small press, manually operated,

is used to make the initial molds.

The pre-fabricated molds can be carried easily to different villages where the local

communities can participate in the production of roof tiles, squares and mud bricks.

"With domestic natural material and a local work force, this technique provides

communities invaluable independence," touts David. "With a press, spare

molds, and a mobile mixing-grinding machine, you can have two schools built in a

village."

Hiscal, along with the Ministry of Rural Development, is promoting the idea by establishing

rural technical training centers. The concept is to teach how to transform basic

available ingredients into every day useful tools.

The opportunities are boundless, it seems, and there's an environmental answer to

every puzzle.

For example, putting up buildings with mud does require a small number of cooked

bricks - which are stronger than the uncooked - to be used in the construction.

Faced with this problem, and loathe to use wood to cook the bricks, Hiscal has come

up a suitable, sustainable solution: it burns rice husks to fuel the ovens.

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