Cambodia: Knowledge, Empowerment and Passion

Phnom Penh, 24. April 2018

Erika Piñeros is a Colombian photographer, living and working between Colombia and Cambodia. In March, she joined Johanniter’s team to visit two of our development projects in the provinces of Ratanakiri and Kratie in the northeast of Cambodia. We asked her to write her impressions.

“It is all about the communities. They know what their problems are, so they can come up with better solutions. We just help them in the process”. These might not be her exact words, but they are certainly the ones that stayed with me after spending a week with Johanniter’s Country Director in Cambodia, Kyra Marwaha and her inspiring team. I was asked by Johanniter to photograph their projects in two of Cambodia’s provinces: Ratanakiri, a land of indigenous groups where the red dust covers everything you see; and Kratie, where fishing boats cruise over the Mekong river along its majestic Irrawaddy dolphins.

Thuy Ampil, a small Kroeung indigenous village in the northeast of Cambodia, was my first stop. It was early morning, and as the sun came up tinting everything in red, an older woman warmed up her hands by a burning pile of rubbish. The other prepared their empty gourds and plastic bottles to make the journey through the forest to fetch water from the nearest natural spring.

Changes Happen too Fast to Adapt

For the Kroeung, as for many other minorities in Cambodia, the development of their nation has meant a rapid loss of their habitat and their traditional ways. Changes are happening too fast and the communities are struggling to adapt. In Thuy Ampil, for example, deforestation has contributed to the contamination of the villagers’ water sources, while open defecation – a common practice in rural areas across Cambodia – has quickly become a serious problem.

“The forests are too far away now and it’s dangerous for us to go”, says 34-year-old, Campri Khon. “It’s not clean and it’s also very uncomfortable when it rains”. For Campri, a mother of four girls, the dangers and inconveniences of not having a toilet became clear after she attended a WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) presentation given in her village by Johanniter’s local partner, Human and Health Organization (H&H). She says the training not only motivated her to build a toilet for her house, but it also encouraged her to improve her family’s hygiene habits and send her daughters to school. To my surprise, the trend was catching on. Besides Campri’s latrine, over a dozen more were under construction at the time I visited.

Including Communities in the Assessment is a Key Factor

Claudia Zehl during a meeting at Lung Khong Village.

When I reported back to Johanniter’s Program Coordinator, Claudia Zehl, she smiled and said their “belief is to motivate villagers to make the changes by themselves, so it’s great to hear the program is working; even better than we thought!”. Claudia also added that such achievements can be traced back to the good coordination with other stakeholders on the ground. During my years living and working in the region, I have seen good intentions fail over and over again. So to me, seeing the villagers take part on the construction of their latrines without external funding or help was an uncommon sight.

Counterintuitively, development agencies often fail to nurture ownership among beneficiaries or to fully include them in the assessments of their problems. This commonly results in the aid they deliver being misused or forgotten: water filters become pots for plants, mosquito nets become fishing nets, and condoms are turned into fun toys for children. But in the villages I visited during my time with Johanniter, the situation seemed a little different.

The Secret Is Called Persistence

As we arrived to Kachan, an indigenous community where Johanniter and H&H installed a Solar Powered Water System, members of the Water Committee were building a fence around the tank to protect it. Their own initiative. I asked H&H Team Leader, Penh Ke, what the secret to get villagers involved and motivated in their projects was; he quickly replied it was persistence. He explained that working closely with the villagers for a long time has allowed his team understand their problems better, and to motivate them to find solutions together.

For Penh and Kyra creating a sense of ownership among the villagers is essential for any project to be sustainable in the long run.

You have to give the communities a chance to do it by themselves”, says Kyra.

She insists that finding technologies within the country not only supports the local economy, but it provides maintenance and technical support that villagers can access by themselves at any time.

Since Johanniter’s projects are very recent, it’s hard to tell whether Kyra and her team’s approach is effective or not, but something felt different about the villages I visited. In Ratanakiri, I saw families actively take part on the construction of their latrines; while in Kratie, a villager carefully explained to me how to breed bees step by step. There was knowledge and empowerment among them; even passion. The villagers seemed genuinely involved and motivated; and while I am sure the road isn’t always smooth, I look forward to visiting their projects again to see if such approach paid off in the long run.

Note from the author: I was asked by Johanniter to write my impressions of my assignment photographing their projects in Cambodia. While it is an uncommon practice for me, I agreed to do it as their sustainable approach in the field seemed worth highlighting.

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