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Friday, June 06, 2008

Recycling boom endangers Cambodia’s dirt-poor children


In Phnom Penh, where an economic boom has also fueled the trash trade, some 70 percent of scavengers are reported to be children

By Lucie Lautredou

Doctor Tuy Puthea was finishing his rounds one day in late March, inspecting a wound on the neck of a young boy, one of a dozen children loitering in an alley behind Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium.

His 10-year-old patient, wearing only ragged shorts and a T-shirt, was just one among thousands of youngsters scraping out an existence scavenging waste on the streets of the Cambodian capital.

Cambodia’s growing demand for recyclables — from bottles and cans to cardboard — has seen a sharp rise in the number of child scavengers trawling through the capital’s waste heaps, many of them press-ganged into what advocates say is one of the world’s most hazardous forms of labor.

In 2006, around 4,000 children were working on Phnom Penh’s streets, according to Chan Haranvadey, an official with the Social Affairs Ministry.

That number is estimated to have spiraled to between 10,000 and 20,000, though the number dips during the planting season in May and this month, when many children return to family farms, non-governmental organizations say.

“These child scavengers are the most vulnerable,” said Tuy Puthea, who works with the NGO Mith Samlanh, which helps homeless children.

“They use neither gloves nor shoes, they inhale toxic fumes, eat out of garbage bins,” he said, listing ailments he sees every day, from headaches and infected wounds to diarrhea and hacking coughs.

Across Cambodia an estimated 1.5 million children under 14 are forced to work, child advocacy groups say. They say that while most labor on family farms, up to 250,000 work in hazardous conditions while begging, scavenging waste, working in factories or mining.

In Phnom Penh, where an economic boom has also fueled the trash trade, some 70 percent of scavengers are children, according to Mith Samlanh of child advocacy group, For the Smile of a Child (PSE).

They can be seen day and night, sometimes alone or with their families, picking through piles of trash or begging for bottles and cans from customers at street-side restaurants.

Scavengers’ lives defined by violence, degradation

By foraging for plastic, glass, metal or cardboard, a child can make a dollar or two a day — no small sum in a country where 35 percent of the population is mired in poverty.

But scavenging also places them in a rigid system of patronage, extortion and intimidation at the hands of local thugs acting as middlemen for large recycling outfits operating in Thailand or Vietnam.

These handlers, sometimes children only a few years older than the scavengers themselves, often pay lower than market value in exchange for protection or small tips.

It’s a necessary arrangement in a world defined by violence and degradation.

“They are exposed to others problems — violence, drug use, sexual harassment or trafficking,” says Tuy Puthea, whose clinic treats about 30 children a day.

That number could drastically increase as plans to close Cambodia’s largest dump get underway. Phnom Penh needs to find somewhere else for its garbage because the current dump is almost full, say city officials.

Only a few kilometers from Phnom Penh’s burgeoning downtown, at the end of a dirt lane crowded with garbage trucks, is the Stung Meanchey tip, a vast horizon of trash.

Here hundreds of scavengers, many of them children, wander through the smoldering squalor, their clothing stiff with grime and faces tightly wrapped with scarves against the stinging, ever-present smoke.

But without the dump, they will be forced onto the streets, swelling the ranks of those already prowling Phnom Penh’s litter piles but also taking them further from the reach of the groups most actively trying to help them.

“Closing the dump is a good thing — this should not be so close to the city,” said Pin Sarapitch, director of the programs at PSE, which for 12 years has operated on the fringes of Stung Meanchey, providing education or vocational training for more than 5,000 children.

“The closure should be followed by more social intervention from the state. The government cannot close the dump and leave these families without a place to live or work,” Pin Sarapitch said.

“Where will they go? And how will we be able to our work with them if they cannot be found?” he added.
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Gov't mulls ending ban on foreign marriages

A ban on marriages between Cambodians and foreigners could soon end, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has said, as a meeting of top government officials got underway to discuss legislation that would allow these unions to resume.

The ban was enacted in April amid concerns that thousands of often poor and uneducated Cambodian women were being married off by brokers to foreign men, making them more vulnerable to trafficking.

"Trafficking has many faces ... therefore, we closed all of those marriage brokers," Sar Kheng said on June 4.

He was speaking at the release of the US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons study, which this year upgraded Cambodia to Tier 2, the middle of three tiers which indicates that the country's is making efforts to address its trafficking problem.

Concern was sparked earlier this year by reports that the number of Cambodian brides going to South Korea has risen from just 72 in 2004 to more than 1,700 last year.

Large numbers of Cambodian women were also marrying Taiwanese men through brokers in Cambodia, many of which are unregulated.

"We cannot suspend [marriages] for a long time, or forever because it contradicts the Cambodian constitution and is discriminatory," Sar Kheng said.

"I will lead a meeting to draft a sub-decree [Friday] at the Ministry of Interior to end the suspension," he added. (Nguon Sovan)
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Gov't threatens legal action against police who abuse sex workers

Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has threatened legal action against officials accused of sexually abusing or robbing sex workers taken into custody during an ongoing crackdown on prostitution.

The threat comes a day after sex workers gathered in Phnom Penh to protest the implementation of a new anti-trafficking law that critics say gives authorities a license to rape.

The law, promulgated in February, is aimed at curbing people smuggling, either for labor or sexual exploitation. It has resulted in mass brothel closures throughout the country.

Critics say implementation of the new law has led to rising abuses by police against sex workers. At a June 4 protest against the new law several sex workers alleged being raped, beaten and robbed while in police custody following brothel raids and sweeps through public places where prostitutes ply their trade.
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“We have heard this information ... the government, especially the Ministry of Interior, will take legal action against the officials who are accused of rapes of sex workers," Sar Kheng said June 5

Sar Kheng added, however, that sex workers have yet to present any evidence of abuse.

He was speaking at the release of the US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons study, which this year upgraded Cambodia to Tier 2, the middle of three tiers which indicates that the country is making efforts to address its trafficking problem.

Hundreds of sex workers attended the June 4 rally against the new legislation. In addition to alleged police abuses, they said the new law has hindered HIV/AIDS care and prevention programs among prostitutes.
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Cambodia's Sihanouk says his son may abdicate

Phnom Penh (dpa) - Cambodia's former king Norodom Sihanouk hinted Friday that his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, may be considering abdicating to live a "simple life" in France.

In a letter posted on his website received Friday and dated Thursday, the octogenarian former monarch outlined a conversation he said he had had with Sihamoni on the day of writing.

"My beloved son told me, 'Papa, please do not worry - your darling son could return to Paris and live a normal life'," Sihanouk wrote in French on his blog.

"I will hire a small room and stay with my wife, have a simple bathroom and eat simple food I can buy from a simple shop," Sihanouk quoted his son as saying.

Sihamoni is currently a bachelor.

He also said Sihamoni would refuse contact with journalists.

In the letter, entitled 'The Real Story', Sihanouk warned of a possible upcoming upheaval in the monarchy.

Sihanouk shocked many when he abdicated in 2004, citing advancing age and ill-health, and Sihamoni, previously an ambassador to the United Nations Education Scentific and Cultural Organization and a classical dancer before his ascension to the throne, took the reigns.

Fluent in French and Czech, Sihamoni, 55, was initially little known to ordinary Cambodians due to his long overseas career but has earned adoration in a country which recognizes kings as demi-gods.

He has eschewed politics, unlike his mercurial father during certain periods of his reign, who strutted the world stage.

Sihamoni's half-brother and Sihanouk's son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, is currently in exile after being convicted for breach of trust in absentia and sentenced to 18 months in jail for his role in selling the headquarters of his former political party, Funcinpec.

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Cambodia launches chemicals management initiative

PHNOM PENH, June 6 (Xinhua) -- The Cambodian government launched its project here Friday aiming at integrating chemicals management into the country's development planning process, said a press release from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The Sound Chemicals Management Project, supported by the government of Sweden and the Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate for a two-year period, will assess the management of chemicals regimes and put in place a plan to address gaps in the national regime, said the release.

It also aims to improve the incorporation of chemicals management priorities and procedures into the national development discourse and planning agenda, it added.

"Cambodia is not a producer of chemical substances. We are merely a consumer. Therefore, we have to carefully review the management of the substances in order to protect our people's health and environment," Khieu Muth, secretary of state at the Cambodian Ministry of Environment, was quoted as telling a workshop to launch the project.

Sophia Baranes, UNDP deputy country director for Cambodia, told the workshop that "chemicals play a part in almost all human activities and are a major contributor to national economies. But when they are not properly managed, they can put human health, ecosystems and national economy at risk."

The UNDP and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) are working to support the Cambodian Ministry of Environment in implementing the project through a common partnership initiative that is also being carried out in six other countries selected to pilot a new approach to implementing chemicals management into the development of related countries.
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In Cambodia, a case for localizing climate-change research


Researchers know global temperatures are rising. Now scientists from as far away as Finland are studying what that means for the 1 million floating residents of the Tonle Sap Lake.

Nam Lai, a carpenter in this remote corner of Cambodia, remembers when it was easy to park his movable houseboat on the Tonle Sap Lake where he lives. But now, it’s getting harder to find a suitable spot for his small barge. “I have to move the house farther and farther from the shore,” he says.

For years, the 1 million inhabitants of the lake – Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater body – have lived a mobile existence to keep step with the seasonal ebbs and flows brought on by monsoons and melting Himalayan snows that expand the lake to five times its normal size. But many villagers say the deeper waters needed to park their houseboats are harder to find as the summers get hotter and the lake’s water level drops.

Lai’s observations, together with evidence of climate change’s impact on other fisheries around the world, has scientists deeply concerned that Tonle Sap Lake – one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems and one of its most productive fisheries – is also under threat. The lake is essential to Cambodia’s food supply, its fish providing 60 percent of the country’s protein, while supporting the livelihoods of about 12 percent of its people.

The problem is, nobody knows the impact of climate change for sure – even the teams that have come to find out from as far away as Finland – since scientific inquiry has only just begun. Observers say that the uncertainty underscores that better understanding of local scenarios, not just global modeling that looks at steady increases in world-wide temperatures, is needed to pinpoint climate change’s impact on people and livelihoods.

“There’s a whole area of science that needs to relate climate and physical change to people and social changes – to identify relationships between physical changes and social consequences,” says Eric Baran, research scientist at the Phnom Penh office of the World Fish Center, a research organization headquartered in Malaysia.

The Cambodian government has begun looking at the problem, creating a climate-change office in 2003 and undertaking a climate-change vulnerability assessment in 2001. But neither of those measures has focused specifically on the Tonle Sap Lake. Some pioneering studies, including one at Africa’s Lake Tanganyika, have linked some of the same problems the Tonle Sap is exhibiting – such as reduced fish yield – to climate change. But it’s not yet clear whether climate change or other factors are responsible here.

Whatever the cause, floating gas-station owner Sinan San has seen the effects firsthand. Her main customers – fishermen – are no longer able to make good catches, and her earnings have dried up since 2004.

“The number of fishermen has decreased because there are less fish, and they move to upland for their livelihood. They say fish are getting smaller and smaller,” she says. Scientists agree, saying overfishing, poor management, and unfair laws have led to a sharp decrease in the number and size of the lake’s fish.

“Small fish are more susceptible to climate fluctuations,” says Mr. Baran. “If the year is good, you have many [small fish]. If the year is bad, you have nothing. This will make the system more and more shaky.”

The declining fish are just one variable in a host of factors that threaten to affect the lake’s hydrology, further exposing it to the risks of climate change.

“Many factors will have impacts on the hydrological regime of the Mekong Basin and on the Tonle Sap Lake’s ecosystem,” Timo Menniken, an adviser to the Mekong River Commission Secretariat in Vientiane, Laos, writes in an e-mail. “These include general rapid economic development, the ongoing development of hydropower schemes along the upper reaches of the Lancang-Mekong, the proposed development of hydropower schemes on tributaries and the mainstream in the lower basin, the indications of groundwater depletion and water pollution caused … by the tourism industry, and plans for oil exploration in the Tonle Sap Basin.”

Another factor is accelerated glacier runoff. “The hydrology can be affected by the melting away of mountain snows in Tibet. You may see water levels rise, which would cause salinity levels to rise,” says Neou Bonheur, the project director of the Ministry of Environment’s Tonle Sap Environment Management Project. “We just don’t know. There are a wide range of areas that we need to set up and observe.”

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