Step into the Gap: Working together to weave change in Cambodian communities

James Ronan, who is currently taking part in CAFOD’s Step into the Gap, talks about the village communities he spent time with in Cambodia where local organisations are empowering communities to change their lives for the better.

Step into the Gap volunteers walking through now flourishing fields
Step into the Gap volunteers walking through now flourishing fields

Cambodia’s long history, most recently the civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime, has “left many communities broken”, said Singha, one of the founding members of CAFOD partners, Village Support Group (VSG).

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“The communities are like a broken basket, it needs reweaving. VSG was founded to help support and enable communities to strengthen capacity and weave change to support themselves.” And from what I have seen from my short time in Cambodia, local organisations really are making an inspiring difference by helping to empower communities across Cambodia.

The first village we travelled to was an agricultural village in Ou Breus, an agricultural village, where we heard from the village committee about the issues of water scarcity and the impacts of climate change. The Ou Breus community suffer water shortages lasting six to seven months in the dry season. We heard about the community’s development plans with the community working towards greater access to water year-round.

The three-year VSG programme that was helping the community make their plans a reality was called the ‘Water Saves Lives’ project. The project has already helped support the community install a water pump, with further plans for reservoirs and other water sources in the future.

The communities in Ou Breus mainly rely only on Cassava for their livelihoods, and even though it is drought resistant, many families’ livelihoods are not as diversified as they could be, lacking protection from a bad harvest and crops failing due to too much rainfall when the rains do come.

Suong Sarath with her family
Suong Sarath with her family

We talked to a local mother, Suong Sarath, and her family about the issues facing the community. She told us that “for the first few years we planted sesame seed and corn. Now the land is dry and there is not enough water.” This led to almost all the families in the village growing Cassava as it is not so reliant on rainfall. Yet, as more families switched to only growing Cassava, it has caused more problems. “The prices for Cassava have halved over the past few years from 700 riels to 400 riels ($0.1USD) per kg due to the number of families producing them,” said Suong.

The issue of an over-reliance on one type of crop contrasted to the stories of families in a village not far from Ou Breus. The village of Poy Tasek have started a project to diversify their crops and are focusing much more on rice production and vegetable growing. Drought and flooding of crops are common issues in the village, so VSG has taken the first step to tackling these issues; it would also like to install a sluice gate, which would help control the flow of water from the river to the crops.

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The common theme throughout both the communities we talked to in Ou Breus and Poy Tasek is the impact of climate change on livelihoods. As they can no longer farm their land due to it becoming infertile, many men migrate to pay off loans generated from investing in crop growing. This has led to families breaking apart as the husband goes off to try and earn more to pay off the debt, this then leads to a break in the village community.

In this situation, it is often the children, youth and older people who are left behind. As a result, many communities we visited had a lack of youth-led leadership. Talking with Singha, he said in the future he hopes to create youth leadership opportunities so they can lead in projects to diversify livelihoods and ensure that families can earn a living wage in their rural homes.

The women’s self-help group CAFOD’s partner Srer Khmer supports
The women’s self-help group CAFOD’s partner Srer Khmer supports

This is the approach that CAFOD partner, Srer Khmer, is currently implementing in the village of Lvear. The village used to have problems with severe food shortages, illness due to lack of proper sanitation practices and a lack of technical skills.  Srer Khmer have helped to set up community-led ‘farmer schools’, which aim to strengthen the capacity of the village and sustainably increase agricultural productivity, supporting the communities to create prospering livelihoods, which train people in developing technical skills, give information on proper sanitation practices and educate people on how to create hygienic working conditions.

They have also developed a women’s group, which is helping women in the community to create action plans for their households. Groups such as these have helped families focus on a vision of how to improve their lives as well as bringing communities together.

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While in the village, we had the opportunity to speak to the village chief who said: “there is a need to help people to grow, especially the poor in the community. Education is the most important thing we need to achieve this.”

From what we have seen, the work of CAFOD’s partners and the support they have provided have really helped in laying the foundations for further development of the communities themselves over the next few years. With support from CAFOD and the Catholic community in England and Wales, the future looks promising for these Cambodian communities.


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