I joined the Bayon team two and half years ago and, on my arrival, we put in place the Green Project. We support and accompany 11 families – parents or grandparents – of our primary pupils during the setting up and development of their vegetable gardens. The healthy vegetables grown are sold to the school canteen and feed each day our 250 pupils. Although it was not part of the plan, it has turned out that all the farmers are women.
When I signed up for the project, I know that I would have to invest a lot of time, energy, patience and perseverance. However, I could never have imagined just how much I would get back in return from these women. Whilst they own practically nothing, living in misery and isolation, working so hard and having to face illness and grief, they continue to smile, to show generosity, goodwill, gratitude, empathy and courage – a real lesson in life which makes me stop and reflect.
The project is moving forward one step at a time, the Cambodian rhythm. These women live on the margin of society and are frequently financially dependent on their children. Nowadays, they are working, producing something and earning money. Despite the linguistic barrier, and the fact that I do not always understand what they are saying, I can see that they are brimming with pride.
In rural areas, young Cambodians usually have to leave home to find work elsewhere, often quite far away. The fragmentation of the family is contrary to Khmer tradition where the idea of family is fundamental. Culturally, grandparents, parents, children, daughters- and sons-in-law, grandchildren all live together under the same roof. During our weekly visits to the farms, we got used to meeting these women alone with only children or very young grandchildren in their care.
The COVID-19 crisis and the absence of tourists has however led to the loss of many jobs for the younger generations, who have now returned to the fold. Family life has been revived on the farms! The return of the younger generations also means necessary new hands to work the land. As a result, the size of the farms has grown, as has productivity and the development of new activities.
These women, whom we have been training in agroecology for the last two years, are now passing on their knowledge to their children and grandchildren, as well as managing them and overseeing their work. They are full of pride to be the head of the family and the boss on the farm.
Sem Chum – a new atmosphere on her farm
Sem Chem is a 57-year-old widow, mother of 4 children and grandmother to 3 grandchildren. On her farm, only birdsong used to disturb the silence. Despite the solitude and hard work that she accomplished, she always welcomed us with a big smile. Nowadays, the smile is even wider, reinforced by a feeling of legitimacy and dignity in the eyes of her family.
The silence has been replaced by children’s laughter, lively discussion, cooking pots bubbling away, frogs croaking, ducks quacking and hens clucking. Orders and advice are fired off in order to ensure the smooth running of the farm where we can sense new momentum. Three months ago, Sem Chum saw two of her sons return home with wife and children as well as her youngest daughter.
Under the management of our farmer, this new family team has got down to work. The production has obviously exploded and new activities have been developed. Thanks to the training that she received as well as the human and financial resources now available, Sem Chum and her family have extended their vegetable garden as well as started breeding frogs, chickens, ducks,,.. a barn is being built to house a cow. Furthermore, chicken and duck droppings as well as cow manure, previously bought to make natural compost, are now available free of charge. All these new activities provide income as well as providing the means to make the farm practically self-sufficient.
Despite these unforeseen consequences, organic vegetables’ production in Cambodia is very poor. Half of the vegetables consumed in the countries comes from Thailand or Vietnam. However, Cambodian government is encouraging local cooperatives to develop themselves through small projects such as : https://www.khmertimeskh.com/50732783/ministry-pledges-to-achieve-drop-in-poor-landowners/. Today, the Bayon farmers have secured their production. We now need to find commercial opportunities to sell their vegetables and encourage the organic market in Siem Reap.
I would like to thank all volunteers who got involved in the project: Marine, Paul, Léa, Camille, Soraya and Clémentine.