The road to Kandal province’s Tuol Kraing village winds through fertile farmland, skirting burgeoning vegetable fields and rice paddies.
The village, a picturesque line of traditional wooden houses along a small dirt road, abuts a canal dotted with pumping machines.
The irrigation canal and machines were constructed throughout the village’s Kraing Yov commune in the late 1990s as part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s campaign to alleviate rural poverty.
And yet, amidst the apparent bounty, more than 200 families in the village each pooled their last $0.50 earlier this month to hire trucks to carry them to Phnom Penh to beg for food.
“By the time we arrived some villagers had passed out from hunger and others were dizzy because they had not eaten for days,” said Chor Nhenh, a 62-year-old widow who went on one of several trips.
“Some families wanted to go to Phnom Penh but did not even have the money for transportation,” she said.
The villagers said they often go hungry at this time of year, as this season’s harvest is not yet in and farmers must hold on to the remainder of the last yield to sow the next crop.
Chronic starvation is not unique to Tuol Kraing, in Sa’ang district. But the plight of the villagers, within an area that Hun Sen designated a rural development zone, typifies what experts say is the failure of poverty reduction projects to actually reduce poverty.
Some 40 percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty level—or on the equivalent of less than $1 per day—and poverty is four times higher among rural Cambodians than city-dwellers, with farmers comprising the majority of the poor, according to the UN Development Project.
“[T]here are signs that economic growth during the past decade in Cambodia has not produced any significant poverty reduction. Indeed, there are some signs that the situation is worsening,” according to a UNDP report released in March, titled The Macroeconomics of Poverty Reduction in Cambodia.
Though Cambodia has recorded surpluses of rice every year since 1995, “nearly half of the 24 provinces are food deficit areas and a significant proportion of the population is unable to meet the minimum rice requirements,” the report said, citing mid-July to mid-October as a critical period when the most shortages are reported.
And of those who do not necessarily lack rice, tens of thousands of people die each year of complications related to protein deficiency, the UNDP said.
Nearly half of Cambodian children are malnourished and infant mortality is on the rise, the report said.
“From the point of view of human development, things are getting worse,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
Officials, however, don’t seem to be paying attention. Asked about the reports of starvation in Tuol Kraing, Kandal province and Sa’ang district officials flatly denied that people were going hungry. Chin Sokhon, director of the provincial Department of Agriculture, said he was surprised when told the villagers traveled to Phnom Penh to beg for food.
“The agriculture in this province is well developed,” he said. “Currently we use a rice crop that grows only for 3 months and 10 days before being harvested, so villagers are not starving.”
Khem Chann Kiry, Sa’ang district governor, said he was aware of the villagers’ journey to the capital, where they showed up at the Sam Rainsy Party headquarters.
But he said the trip was made by people looking for easy money, not food.
“I am aware of every detail of the villagers’ arrival to the Sam Rainsy Party office because those villagers are incited every year, led by a person who always makes propaganda to villagers and asks them to go to Phnom Penh and other towns to proclaim their starvation,” said Khem Chann Kiry, Sa’ang district governor.
“One year, villagers went to the municipality and asked for rice, but it was very funny because villagers took the rice and sold it,” he said.
The Kraing Yov commune chief, Lun Leang, was the only official interviewed who said that some people were starving in villages throughout the commune.
He said he was organizing communities to encourage richer residents and donors to give starving families rice.
But he also said villagers who traveled to Phnom Penh were not necessarily hungry, just greedy.
“Last year, or maybe the year before, two or three families went and begged for food from the [King Norodom Sihanouk] and he gave them 50 kg of rice and 50,000 riel ($12.50) each, so when those villagers came back, others also started to go to get rice and money.”
Chea Vannath said authorities around the country typically deny that residents are going hungry in the regions they govern.
“In the Northeast region, for example, people report that villagers eat the roots of any edible tree because they lack rice,” Chea Vannath said. “Local authorities said the different thing, they said nobody is starving. Authorities say everything is rosy and fine, the people say they are poor and have nothing to eat.”
Villagers also refuted authorities’ claims, saying they traveled to the capital out of sheer desperation. “You can check the families’ pots. There was no rice in the families’ pots,” Loah Liep said.
“The officials are afraid it will reflect badly on their leadership, so they always say that villagers go and beg for rice to sell,” she said.
For those who are starving, official denial of the problem has likely made it harder for them to get food.
Representatives of the World Food Program and the Cambodian Red Cross, both of which provide food when shortages are confirmed, said this week they had not received any reports of food shortages in Kandal.
Though information on food shortages comes from many sources, local authorities are often key in pinpointing need, said Ram Saravanamuttu, World Food Program deputy director.
Ouk Damry, vice president of the Cambodian Red Cross, said the organization counts on local representatives to report shortages. The Cambodian Red Cross representative for Kandal is Mak Sam Oeun, who is also the province’s third deputy governor.
Contacted this week, Mak Sam Oeun hung up on reporters without comment.
Villagers themselves said lack of support from authorities is what prompted them to go to Phnom Penh. “In the past, villagers wrote letters to district officials asking for permission to go get rice in Phnom Penh, but they said, ‘You have legs and arms. Why do you need to go beg for rice?’” Chor Nhenh said.
Even traveling to the capital did not ensure the end of their food shortages. Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Ung Bun-Ang said the party can only afford to give water and transportation money to the hundreds of people who come to them. Representatives pass on the villagers’ request to the King and to organizations that might be able to provide them with food.
They send the villagers to the human rights’ NGO Licadho, where they get one meal and water. “We do not investigate the cases because they are not victims of human rights violations, such as land grabbing,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said, adding that rural Cambodians come to Phnom Penh every year around this time in search of food. And even if the villagers do get badly needed donations of food to momentarily quell their hunger, the cycle of starvation will continue. In a country assessment made in May by the International Monetary Fund, the IMF also said agricultural reform is essential to poverty reduction goals. It called for pro-poor policies on the part of the government and recommended that donors invest more in the agricultural sector.
Agriculture investments currently account for about 8 percent of all annual aid, it said. “At the core of the problem is the poor use of land,” the study said.
Villagers say they need more pumping machines to irrigate fields that are farther away from irrigation canals. Right now, rice fields near the canal do well, while those in less desirable locations underproduce. Villagers also need other ways of making a living when harvests are small, such as diversified crops or other sources of income like livestock, Ram Saravanamuttu said.
Villagers themselves acknowledge that a series of typical problems has made starvation in their village a bigger problem then in neighboring towns, which are home to just a handful of hungry families.
The village has a lot of widows, said Loah Liep, 52, herself a widow with nine children.
“We do not have enough physical power to plow the fields,” she said.
And an outbreak of an unknown illness several years ago forced many residents to sell the farmland to pay for medical treatment, she said.
Chea Vannath said the government needs to begin taking responsibility for the needs of the people, particularly the rising cost of living and low incomes. “If something happens there is nobody responsible,” she said. “If fish is depleted nobody is responsible. If the price of gasoline goes up, the government is not responsible.”
In the center’s public forums conducted in every province, participants complain about the increasing cost of living, and low incomes.
“I don’t know how long the government can turn a blind eye to this issue,” she said.
“The gap between the rich and poor is widening. The poor see the rich, but the rich don’t see the poor.”
the cambodia daily