Mechrey is a community on the Tonle Sap River located in Keo Poa commune’s Peam Ta Uor village in Siem Reap province’s Puok district. It is home to over 300 families, most of whom are fishermen.
In addition to fishing, villagers of all ages are currently collecting floating plastic waste from the river to exchange it for rice from the Tampaing Snong Russey Foundation.
One of the villagers, Chhoeung Hokly, 30, expressed her appreciation for the project. She said plastic waste has practically disappeared from the village since the project was launched.
“The plastic waste for rice exchange programme is really good for my village. We collect the plastic waste so that it no longer pollutes the river like before, which was not good for us.
“Now, our villages have changed so much. Before [the exchange programme] there was a lot of rubbish in the river,” she said.
Similarly, Peam Sen, a 30-year-old fisherman in the village, said the Tampaing Snong Russey Foundation established the project so that each family learns to dispose of their rubbish properly and everyone knows to pull it out of the river and into their boats when they see it floating.
“It is really good that the foundation runs it like that. The project helps reduce plastic waste in the water. When there is too much plastic waste it can actually make the river shallow.
“[Cleaning up waste] also helps to improve our standard of living. If somebody had thought up this idea earlier then our villagers would have been doing it for a long time,” he said.
There are two basic requirements for participation in the plastic for rice programme. First, the villagers must keep all of the used plastic rubbish from their homes in one place so that it can be disposed of properly.
And secondly, they must collect plastic waste from the river and dry it out before turning it in to the foundation in exchange for rice.
Phak Nan, a volunteer for the project, said the plastic collected by the villagers first went to a plastic waste storage facility in Peam Ta Uor village.
She added that the villagers were happy when the foundation announced it would provide them with rice in exchange for rubbish.
“50kg woven rice sacks are to be filled up, and the villagers must sort the plastic waste properly. A full sack can be exchanged for a 5kg sack of rice for individuals and a 10kg sack of rice for families,” she said.
The project was established in June of this year in two villages – Peam Ta Uor and Chong Bralay – where a total of 400 families are benefiting from it.
Sea Sophal, founder and president of the Tampaing Snong Russey Foundation, said on December 22 that Mechrey is the first community that the NGO had recruited for the project. In future, the project will be expanded to other communities on the Tonle Sap.
This is not the first project that Sophal has supervised as part of his foundation’s goal of cleaning up Cambodia’s environment.
In fact, he has launched many initiatives with the same overall goal over the past three years – to encourage individuals and communities to take an active role in protecting the environment, and the Tonle Sap River in particular.
“I’ve created some simple programs in the village. I’ve asked people to clean trees when the water level rises; we take boats to collect plastic waste on the water and we collect it on land too when the water goes down,” he said.
“We find a lot of waste in Peam Ta Uor village when the water recedes and there is a lot of plastic waste on the trees when the water rises,” he added.
He said one of the purposes of the project is the preservation and protection of the Tonle Sap and its birds and fish from pollution and plastic waste, a task he decided to take upon himself after noticing that plastic waste seemed to be everywhere on the river’s surface and banks.
“The Tonle Sap is a rich ecosystem, but there is too much plastic rubbish. Tonle Sap is also a tourism site. As a citizen, I must do something [to help] because it is the heart and blood vessels [of Cambodia.] If we don’t take care of the Tonle Sap’s health, it can only cause us problems,” he said.
Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra supports the project, saying that the ministry would continue to support the Tampaing Snong Russey Foundation in its efforts to educate the people. The collection of plastic waste helps to reduce pollution which is harmful to the fish and the ecosystem.
“[The plastic waste and] waste storage from the Mechrey community and other communities with participation [in the project] will be recycled [or used] for raw materials for pavement at some schools or pagodas,” he said.
According to Sophal, the Tonle Sap is shaped like the bottom of a pot, so rubbish gathers and it flows into rivers and streams when people along the Tonle Sap throw plastic waste into the water.
Sophal hopes that development partners will continue to support the project in the future, especially the Ministry of Environment, so that the practice of exchanging plastic waste for rice can be sustained at its current locations and possibly expanded to other communities.