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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

B.C. firm defuses remnants of war in Cambodia

GeoSpatial helps remove land mines and assists farming

Fiona Anderson, Vancouver Sun
Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fiona Anderson was in Cambodia with Seeing the World through New Eyes, a short-term fellowship program that sends new B.C. journalists to report from developing countries. It is funded by CIDA and administered by the Jack Webster Foundation.

Almost since its inception, the Kingdom of Cambodia has been a country of conflicts, fighting its neighbours -- Thailand and Vietnam -- gaining independence from France in 1953 and then being bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War.

But it is the regime of the Khmer Rouge, led by the infamous Pot Pot, that has done the most damage, killing at least 1.5 million Cambodians in a purge of artists and intelligentsia between 1975 and 1979.

And, while the unabated killing ended when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, the fight went on.

To protect its geographical strongholds, the Khmer Rouge buried land mines in fields surrounding its locations. To protect themselves from the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian government did likewise. When the remnants of the Khmer Rouge finally surrendered and gave up its land in the late 1990s, what was left was hectares of booby-trapped fields and hundreds of injuries and deaths every year.

Organizations from around the world, including Victoria-based GeoSpatial/SALASAN Consulting Inc., have been helping the country rid itself of the mines, but it's a slow process. Each mine has to be removed by hand, with the dirt being brushed off its top and then lifted out to safety. With millions of mines buried, it is expected take 100 years before the "all clear" can be sounded.

But once the land is cleared, the local populations still need to be taught how to make that land productive. And GeoSpatial, with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency and the cooperation of Cambodia's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, has stepped up to the task, setting up a program that helps families and communities in the most-affected area of Cambodia turn formerly mined lands into successful farms.

GeoSpatial's project -- called "Agricultural Development in Mine-affected Areas of Cambodia" or ADMAC -- is targeting the municipality of Pailin and the provinces of Banteay Meanchey and Battambang, an area that is one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge. The area pushes up against the Thai border and the Khmer Rouge were able to survive by nurturing ties with Thailand. The local market still quotes prices in Thai baht rather than Cambodian riel.

But as the last stronghold, the land is heavily mined and on the rough road to Pailin signs warning of mines dot the landscape, often incongruously placed in front of homes, evidence of the battle between surviving and staying safe.

Other than the mine-action groups, little foreign aid has come to the area, partly because of its remoteness, but partly also because of the danger. As recently as 2001, people were warned not to be outdoors after 4 p.m. because of rogue Khmer Rouge attacks.

So the help of GeoSpatial is very welcome, Pailin's Deputy Gov. Eang Vuth -- the son of one of the leaders or "brothers" of the Khmer Rouge -- said in an interview.

Now that the war is over, people are moving back because it is one of the few places in the country where land is available, Eang said. And many of the people who come are former soldiers who don't know how to farm, he said. So poverty is still prevalent.

GeoSpatial's program provides funding and training to the poorest families in the area, as chosen by the local communities called communes. Money is given to buy vegetable seeds or fruit seedlings, chickens and the occasional cow. Training -- like showing farmers how to raise animals or helping them to decide what crops to plant -- is also given to both the poor and more established farmers. Eventually the project would like to introduce a community savings component as well.

The program expects to help more than 13,000 families in 35 communes. Under the program's gender equality requirement, at least half will be women.

Khim Vann and his wife Pen Chan, along with their four children, are one of the families taking part. Their two-hectare farm is also the site of an ADMAC experimental farm that is used to teach area farmers what works and what doesn't.

Khim and Pen are both ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers who came to Pailin because land was available for free to those willing to clear and farm it. Not only did Khim have to clear the trees, he also had to clear the land of mines, something he said he was comfortable doing because he was an ex-soldier.

Khim admits he knew nothing about farming before coming to Pailin. Now, through ADMAC, he's learning how to plant fruit trees and how to properly water them, as well as what can grow and cannot on his land. (For example, he was thinking of trying to grow a special mango that matures early, so it can bring in more money. ADMAC's agriculture adviser Hong Samnang advised against it.)

At a village meeting to determine which families should be part of the program, many in attendance have been injured by land mines, many are widows.

One of the project's community workers asks the group how to determine whether a family is rich or poor. The difference is slim. The rich have a house with a tin roof and a car. The poor live in thatched-roof cottages and have a used motorcycle.

The worker then asks the group if they know what gender equality is? Everyone shakes their head "no."

Because of meetings like this that he attends, the deputy governor believes the project will go beyond just improving agriculture and alleviating poverty.

A third benefit is related to democracy through the participation of the people, Eang said.

fionaanderson@png.canwest.com

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The Mobius Diaries: A postcard from Cambodia.

Templeton's emerging markets guru Dr Mark Mobius was suprised by the investment opportunities he found in Cambodia.

'Cambodia is a big surprise. And it’s not because of Angkor Wat but because of so much more that is happening in this country. It’s not a big country. Compared to its neighbours, its population is only 14 million, while Vietnam’s is 84 million and Thailand has 65 million. Of course, it has more people than Laos’ six million. Of those four adjoining nations, Cambodia has the smallest land area of about 177,000 square kilometers compared to Laos 231,000, Vietnam 325,000 and Thailand 512,000. I always look at these countries together since they share so many cultural and historical characteristics.

'We flew to the capital, Phnom Penh. There we could tell that Cambodia is enjoying an economic boom. Since 2003 the country has been growing at about 9% a year as a result of a spectacular construction boom, increased garment exports and tourism, which now results in almost two million visitors a year. Garment exports rose 17% to over $2.5 billion in 2006 with most of it going to the US. Tourism, mainly because of Angkor, earned the country about $1.4 billion in 2006. The optimism can be felt as we traveled around the country and particularly in Phnom Penh. Our visit to NagaCorp’s, NagaWorld hotel and casino complex in the heart of the city was an eye opener.

'Dr. Tan Sri Chen, who is Chairman of listed companies in Malaysia as well as an economic advisor to the Prime Minister of the Cambodian Government, has created an attractive complex drawing visitors from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries in the region. He graciously showed us the entire well run complex as well as his plans for extending the complex. Those plans call for the construction of a spectacular water fountain display in front of the complex as well as many other facilities.

'More and more countries are looking for investment opportunities in Cambodia. For example, Korean companies have already built up a strong market position in the IT sector while Chinese companies are also involved in some mega infrastructure projects.

'Despite the sad history with the Khmer Rouge and the “killing fields” atrocities, the people clearly are in a positive mood and look forward to a better life. Another hopeful sign: oil and gas reserves have been discovered off Cambodia’s coast in the Gulf of Thailand. Of course, a lot needs to be done if the country’s 14 million people are to rise out of a very low standard of living. Wages are low as I learned from the beautifully crafted handicrafts hawked at Angkor Wat at unbelievably low prices. The average wage for most Cambodians is less than $1 per day. This means that the country will continue to have an advantageous position in a number of high labour content industries.

'We left Cambodia knowing the country was moving rapidly towards a more dynamic and influential position in Southeast Asia. The prospects of investing in companies with exposure to Cambodia are good and we continue to look for such opportunities.'
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