srayov village, Kompong Thom province – Chun Oeu had hoped the day would never come when she had to choose between her eight children. But earlier this year, it did.
“We cannot feed them all. We had to send some away,” the 40-year-old farmer said last week.
Of her eight children, ranging from a few months old to 17 years, Chun Oeu chose two middle sons, ages 12 and 14, and sent them to live with relatives. The boys will help on the relatives’ farm in exchange for the food they will eat and some rice seed next year.
After two consecutive poor rice crops, the family members have found themselves beyond poor. They face starvation, and they are not alone.
Srayov’s village chief, Hem Chhum, estimates that 95 percent of villagers face food shortages because of flooding and rat infestations in previous years. He knows of two families that are already out of rice altogether.
“The economy is so bad people have difficulty raising money between harvests to tide them over,” said Ken Noah Davies, the acting country director of the UN World Food Program’s Phnom Penh office. He said the organization plans to increase the amount of rice allocated to Kompong Thom.
Poverty in this central province is so bad that many families have had to send their children elsewhere to work, human rights workers say. Others are foraging in the forest for food or going hungry for days at a time.
“My family and I have gone to sleep without eating many times because we had no rice in the house,” said Luy Thin, a gaunt mother of three in Chong Dang village, about 25 km north of Kompong Thom town.
“Our children will be dying of starvation,” echoed Sou Vorn, another farmer in Chong Dang. “When I returned the other day from selling berries I had collected to people in Kompong Thom town, my two children were crying. They had eaten nothing all day.”
Villagers said they spent two or three days collecting berries, before setting off at 2 am to walk to Kompong Thom town to sell the fruit. The berry sellers cannot afford to take a moto-taxi, as each trip only yields 2,000 to 3,000 riel.
One villager, Koung Kin, said people were gathering wild cassava from the jungle because they had no rice to eat.
Things are so bad, there have even been rumors of mothers selling their children.
“That information has been flying around over the last few weeks, but we could not confirm it because people are very secretive,” said Chhun Chheng Mony, chief of administration for the human rights group Adhoc. But he added his organization would be investigating the claims.
Mok No, also of Srayov, said her husband earlier this year sent the family’s two oldest daughters, aged 20 and 17, to different sets of relatives “because we cannot feed them.”
The family fields simply are not producing enough to feed all eight of them, she said.
To supplement their diets and income, Mok No’s husband fishes and also collects esbania, an edible yellow water plant, to sell to other villagers or barter for rice, she said.
The Ministry of Rural Development said it plans a road-building program in Kompong Thom province that would pay workers in rice.
Ngy Chanphal, the undersecretary of state at the ministry, said Japan was donating 15,000 tons of rice. “I know there are places that face rice shortages and other areas where people are starving,” he said.
But Davies said he didn’t think the country is facing mass starvation.
“I don’t think there’s a potential famine,” the World Food Program country director said. “But we’re already feeding about ten percent of the country.”
(Additional reporting by Nanaho Sawano)