Building just relations in Cambodia
Gabriel Lamug-Nañawa SJ (PHI)
As we nearly complete three years of our existence as the Ecology Program of Jesuit Service-Cambodia, we look back and ask ourselves, "What can we be happy about since we began working together for the environment in Cambodia?"
We started early in 2013, with two fresh graduates from Banteay Prieb, our vocational school for persons with a disability. Sokhom and Chanthon were young men who had just finished the agriculture course: Sokhom (then 28) a fisherman who contracted poliomyelitis as a child, and Chanthon (then 23) also a fisherman who had lost his left leg to a motorbike accident. Together we built a tree nursery and both Sokhom and Chanthon quickly learned how to grow native Cambodian hardwood seedlings. It was a humble beginning, but we were eager, light-hearted, and willing to try different things.
A huge part of the environmental context in Cambodia is about deforestation. In fact, in a study done this year by the World Resources Institute, Cambodia ranked first in the world for the highest rate of forest loss between 2001 and 2014, mainly due to economic land concessions. Deforestation is really a dangerous topic in Cambodia, wherein powerful and well-connected local tycoons strip the land, and for which journalists and activists, such as Chut Vuthy, have been killed.
One of the things that members of our group identified as making them happy was that we have unconsciously developed a team culture of sharing, respect, and trust. There is a frequent and free exchange of ideas, listening to others, respecting their positions, and discerning options together based on their own merits and not on who articulated them. There is welcome and no discrimination. This is not insignificant, especially for a people for whom free and open discussion is not exactly encouraged. "When we have to decide on something important, we listen to each other's opinions, including my own!" says Bory (22) our newest member.
We are also quite happy about our low carbon footprint. Our office is completely powered by the sun, with our electrical supply solely coming from solar panels. Mobile phones are charged by the sun. Paper is reused and then sold to recyclers. Food waste is made into fertilizer for the seedlings. Carbon emissions from the car we use are offset by the trees we plant. And each member is given a reusable water bottle so that there is no need to purchase water in disposable plastic bottles. For those who do though, a solid waste tax is applied. In striving to be responsible stewards of God's creation, it makes sense to look at our own lifestyles and do our own part in treading lightly upon the Earth.
One of our works that we enjoy is giving workshops to schools or communities about different environmental topics. Chanda (22), who is our main teacher when we go to schools, shows slides and videos to children and talks about the value of forests, the ill-effects of garbage, etc. She says, "I enjoy when the children enjoy, when their mouths drop open as they see strange animals on the screen and they recognize them, when they somehow gain an appreciation of how their actions affect those animals." In a real way, seeds of understanding are planted in the hearts and minds of the children.
But perhaps working with forest communities is what makes us the most exhausted and the most fulfilled. As deforestation defines the stage and the nature of the drama, with businessmen and government officials dominating the scene, we strive to support local villagers, especially indigenous Kuy communities such as in Prey Lang, whose voice and intentions are mainly ignored. One of the ways we try to help is by cooperating with these communities in replanting denuded parts of their forests, which have high biodiversity values that make them significant for the overall ecosystem of the region. This involvement also empowers our members, as says Sokhom, who has helped produce more than 20,000 seedlings from our nursery, "I feel proud because I have the opportunity to help society, to serve my country." The members of our team who are persons with a disability now see themselves less as beneficiaries and more with the ability to serve their fellow citizens.
As for me, I am happy how these foundations have come about and how we are in a position to go further and deeper into communities such as Prey Lang and Stung Sen, which actually support the greater region ecologically. Communities are wellsprings that give us life; staying close to them keeps us at the peripheries, reminding us of our mission. We are happy to accompany villagers and indigenous communities, to cooperate in working for positive change, so that we all may find solidarity with creation and with one another.