“We used to have a saying in Cambodia. ‘Where there is water, there are fish’. But this is no longer true”.
One of the national organisations we met this week works with rural communities across Cambodia to support local people to develop sustainable livelihoods and food security. With around a third of the country living under the poverty line, they have a big job in their hands. He explained that the same chemicals that have been sold to farmers to increase yield have had a massive impact on the biodiversity in the fields, forests, streams and rice paddies. The land is dying. And fish are harder to find these days. But when you are poor and need to feed your family, the ecosystem can never be your first priority.
The organisation supports households to come together to form savings groups that allow local people to prioritise where they need to spend money. With the support of the organisation these savings groups often develop into agricultural cooperatives, and more than 90% of those set up so far are still active and successful.
It’s a great solution. By coming together with common goals, community relationships are strengthened, local issues are prioritised and access to the market is facilitated. However, Cambodia’s dark history means that it’s not always easy talking about the benefits of cooperatives.
When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, they endeavoured to create an entire nation of what they called cooperatives. These forced labour farms saw hundreds of thousands of people die under the regime with hundreds of thousands more – especially urban, educated populations – tortured and murdered in death camps. Around three million people were killed which at the time was more than a quarter of the population. Within living memory of so many people, the Cambodian genocide can still be felt in all aspects of life today.
Today, organisations doing such work tend to call coops ‘agricultural communities’ to make these life-saving programmes more accessible. By working together to end poverty, we are also ending corruption, injustice and environmental destruction.
It’s the first step in bringing the fish back for good.
Next Stop: Kampot — at Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.