chhuk district, Kampot province – Two months ago, this 5-hectare field in Kampot province was a web of overgrowth. A month ago, it had been organized into neatly plowed rows and planted with seedlings. On Wednesday, 12 different kinds of organic vegetables were growing, tomato plants were beginning to flower, and rows of sweet corn stood a meter high.
This farm, part of 250 hectares of land granted by Prime Minister Hun Sen for disabled soldiers in Taken commune, is called Kilometer 99. A month from now, if everything goes according to plan, it will serve as a for-profit organic vegetable farming school for 268 disabled soldiers and their families.
Michel Marty, organic farmer and manager of the Garden Shop near Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok market, is the director of Kilometer 99. On a visit to Kilometer 99 Wednesday, he said the farm is progressing right on schedule.
“In one week, we’ll have product to sell,” he said, pointing to healthy rows of butter lettuce. is progressing right on schedule.
“In one week, we’ll have product to sell,” he said, pointing to healthy rows of butter lettuce.
According to Marty, 80 percent of Cambodia’s produce is imported from Vietnam and Thailand. Kilometer 99, Marty says, will help reverse that equation.
A company in Singapore has already ordered the sweet corn, he said. Seeds from white corn will be sold in Vietnam. Much of the rest of the all-organic produce will stock hotel restaurants in Phnom Penh, or be sold from a planned shop on National Road 4, near the farm’s entrance road, Marty said.
Ram Sinak, the wife of a disabled veteran, is part of a core group of former soldiers and family members who are doing the farming on the model plot. She said she looks forward to teaching other families how to grow organic vegetables.
“I’m really happy to live and work here because I can develop both my income and new techniques for improving my family’s condition,” she said.
The farmers are learning many techniques at once. Flowers grown for sale, for example, double as bee magnets, cross-pollinating adjacent vegetables. Black plastic netting warms the soil; white netting cools it. Straw mulch keeps the soil moist and discourages weeds. Crop rotation enriches the soil with nutrients and limits the likelihood of disease. “Even though I used to farm, all these techniques are new to me,” said RCAF veteran Ngoun Savoeurn, general manager of the model farm. “I expect to earn much more money than before,” he said.
“I really welcome the project,” said RCAF Major Tith Menglong, director of the Defense Ministry’s Disabled Soldier 317 Center. Before, he said, disabled soldiers in veterans’ camps had little to do but gamble and drink wine.
“Now they have their own land,” he said.
In Cambodia, Tith Menglong said, army veterans typically receive only $5 and a bag of rice per month from the state. At Kilometer 99, families in the pilot project receive a salary of $70 a month and 33 kg of rice. The disabled soldiers’ camp is also home to 11 nurses and one doctor who treat the veterans, he added.
According to Michel Marty, the farm will also serve as therapy for mentally disabled soldiers.
“The budget to support mental illness is very low in Cambodia, so we look to agriculture as a form of psychosocial rehabilitation,” said Dr Ka Sunbaunat, dean of medicine at Phnom Penh’s University of Health Sciences, who directs health development for Kilometer 99.
“Veterans used to be maltreated and neglected,” he said. “When they were active, they sacrificed their lives for the country. When the war stops, they become depressed. No one needs them anymore—and they may also have physical injuries.”
“Even if they have a leg or arm amputated, they can still work. They can see a good future, and feel that society will still respect them and support them,” he added.
“The veterans could be from government forces, the Khmer Rouge, or other resistance armies,” Ka Sunbaunat said.
“Psychologically, they have all been exploited by their military leaders. They were taught to see each other as enemies. Working together, they will forget ideological conflicts. When they have a good life, they have no time to think of other things.”