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Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Innovators: Coco Rocha's Jewelry for Senhoa

We were already excited about supermodel Coco Rocha's gorgeous new jewelry collection -- chains! studs! Swarovski crystals! -- but when we learned that each piece was hand-crafted by a survivor of exploitation in Cambodia, we were even more intrigued.

Made in collaboration with Senhoa -- a charitable organization that provides practical skills and education to survivors of human trafficking -- each of the seven pieces in Rocha's capsule collection is designed to empower both wearer and jewelry-maker. A true innovator of the fashion world, we asked Rocha to tell us about the process of designing her first jewelry pieces, and how she and Senhoa are making a tangible difference in the lives of Cambodian women.

How did the Senhoa project come about initially? I first found out about Senhoa at my wedding in France last summer. Lisa, the founder of Senhoa, was on hand as the girlfriend of one of my videographers and she gifted me a beautiful Senhoa bracelet, which I wore the first day of my wedding.

Lisa told me the story behind the making of the jewelry and Senhoa. From ages 4 to 19, these girls are rescued from brothels and human trafficking in Cambodia. Most of them do not have a family to return to, as it was their families who actually sold them into slavery in the first place. The girls receive a full education and rehabilitation in the Senhoa program and, when they turn 15, they are offered a job in jewelry-making where they are paid better than school teachers. ... Following my meeting with Lisa, I tried to wear Senhoa pieces and mention them whenever I could, at events or on the red carpet. Earlier this year, we decided that a jewelry collaboration was probably the best way I could lend my voice to the cause, and really the whole project was a natural fit.

Just to provide some context for the collection, can you tell us a bit more about the human trafficking problem in Cambodia?

When you hear some of the facts and figures, you realize the extent of the problem in Cambodia is staggering. Thirty-five percent of all prostitutes in Cambodia are under the age of 18, some as young as four years old. Of them, 40 to 50 percent are HIV positive. These girls endure the most miserable living conditions you can imagine -- abuse, beatings, inadequate food and sleep and little to no protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

Did you collaborate with the Cambodian jewelry-makers to come up with designs that would be relevant for a fashion audience?

Well, I was familiar with what the girls were already making because I had been wearing Senhoa pieces at red carpet events for a year. They make very pretty pieces and are amazing at bead work ... After sending a lot of sketches back and forth over email, I flew out to L.A. to put the jewelry pieces together myself. I'm glad I did, because I got to experience firsthand the intricate and painstaking work the girls put into this jewelry -- I spent a whole day beading just one piece! We used high-quality materials in the jewelry, like Swarovski crystals, which not only add to the beauty of the product but help instill a feeling of self-worth in these girls who are now associating themselves with materials of high value. 

Once my design prototypes were finished, they were flown to Cambodia along with Jenny, Senhoa's creative director, who teaches the girls how to construct these pieces. I think one of the great things about this jewelry line is that every hand that worked on it, from design to production, is deeply invested in its success.

How will the girls benefit from acquiring jewelry-making skills?Jewelry-making provides these young women with a safe and secure job so that they can gain economic independence. In a way, it's also a medium of art therapy. The girls are trained to produce these high-quality, semi-precious Senhoa pieces as well as design and make their own costume jewelry, exercising freedom within creativity. What's more fulfilling than seeing something so beautiful bloom from your own two hands?

The Senhoa program also provides a comprehensive life-skills curriculum to supplement their vocational training ... [including] Khmer and English language lessons, math, life-skills, science and physical education. The classes are carefully catered to the girls’ abilities, to rebuild the foundations for learning ... Often times, it is very hard for us to deal with the realities and atrocities of sexual exploitation -- who hasn't seen grainy, black-and-white photos of young children being sexual abused in Southeast Asia and felt helpless? It can get so depressing that people just want to "switch off." That's why Senhoa's goal is to engage people on the issue of human trafficking in a different way.

What was the most satisfying thing about the project for you personally?Definitely the most satisfying part of this project was hearing personal messages back from the girls in Cambodia. They were so excited about my designs and happy to see pieces they made around the neck of a famous icon like Iman. I would love to go visit the girls myself soon!

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Cambodia: forestry and development, it's not always clear cut

Is helping indigenous people develop community forestry good for development, or is it better to let foreign companies log the native forest and replace it with rubber plantations?

      Hea Samoeun is chief of the resin collectors in his village in Cambodia. Photograph: Duncan Green

Last week in Cambodia, some questions on forestry and development came into sharp relief. I visited a region where Oxfam's local partner is helping indigenous people develop community forestry and resist the encroachment of foreign companies (as well as Cambodian ones, and the odd party or army boss) intent on logging the native forest and replacing it with rubber plantations.

I expected a black-and-white case but, as so often happens, found a much more complex picture. First, the community forestry: the village of O Preah in Kratie province (north-east Cambodia) is home to 67 families of the Phnong indigenous group, who have set up a rather successful community resin association. They tap resin from three species of trees and sell it to varnish and paint producers in Cambodia and neighbouring countries – and since they formed a producer association to market collectively, things have been going well. Until now.

The Vietnamese company Dong Nai/Dong Pu has been granted the land under the Cambodian government's new economic land concessions law – large parcels of land are sold off to investors, usually foreign, for logging and industrial agriculture.

Hea Samoeun, chief of the resin collectors, said members are not happy. They spoke to the commune council, but were told to get jobs on the plantations. "We don't want to work for the company – resin collecting is what we have done for years. The company tried to negotiate by offering us $3 a tree, but if we agree they will cut down everything – so the community said no. They came back and offered us $200 per family and some land for two years for seven families, but we still said no. Why? Because in one day we can earn maybe $12 from collecting resin and still have time for fishing. The company pays you $3.50 and you work from morning to night."

The problem is the economic land concessions law overlaps with the law protecting resin trees in the community forest. Land titles have only been introduced in Cambodia in the last decade (previously all land belonged to the government), so the land rights of Hea Samoeun (as with most Cambodian farmers) are legally murky.

And here's where the politics and power kick in. The law is only part of the story, and sometimes it seems a fairly minor part (although Hea Samoeun shows us his carefully filed legal complaint, adorned by 67 red ink thumbprints from the largely illiterate villagers).

"It is illegal under the land law to log resin trees – the forestry administration tells us it should be up to five years in jail for cutting down a single tree," said Hea Samoeun. "The government claims the community agreed to give up the land, but has never shown us any document – and the law says it should be published."

The two sides are at a stand-off. So far, so black and white. But wait. On a car journey, we pass dozens of neat rows of worker housing and a clinic, all built by Dong Nai/Dong Pu. The rubber plantation will provide jobs for 20 times (maybe more) as many people as currently make a living from resin collecting – poor Cambodians migrating into the forest from the lowlands. After all, rubber tapping is just a form of organised resin collection. Provided wages and conditions are acceptable, isn't that development too?

The compensation that Dong Nai/Dong Pu offered was better than in many similar situations elsewhere in Cambodia, and the company stopped logging at the first protest – that's not what we've seen in far bloodier land grabs in Uganda and elsewhere. One local NGO even holds them out as a model of good practice.

Cambodian activists counter that the plantation jobs are badly paid, and will go to incomers (so what?), that the loss of biodiversity and other "environmental services" is an issue, and that indigenous people do badly when they migrate from their home village. Apples and pears – culture and economics; economic rights v indigenous rights v human rights (all supposedly indivisible). If the process was fair and transparent, it might be possible to argue out the pros and cons, but politics and power obscure and skew every decision.

As for Hea Samoeun and his people, it's incredibly hard to see a successful outcome. The companies don't want to engage and formal laws and politics are often a shadow play, while the decisions come from informal and unaccountable power and money.

Can we make a convincing business case for a different approach, and would investors even listen? Could a pro-poor investor make a decent profit and pay decent wages (eg for rubber), or buy their products from smallholders (with government or NGO support)? And would the government support such an effort?

Our outgoing country director thinks this is one way forward. NGOs have made some progress on other value chains, eg pharmaceuticals, garments and supermarkets, by being propositional and working with progressive businesses to develop the business case. Might it work for forests too?

Like I said, a much more complicated picture than I was expecting – what have I missed?
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Cambodia attracts $476 M investments from ASEAN in 9 months

PHNOM PENH (Xinhua) - Cambodia had received the fixed asset investment of $476 million from its ASEAN member countries in the first nine months of this year, an increase of 66 percent versus the same period last year of $287 million, according to the government's reports on Thursday.

From January to September this year, the country had granted licenses to Vietnam's investment projects worth $246 million and to Malaysia's projects of $230 million, showed the reports from the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC).

During the first 9 months last year, the country received the fixed asset investment of $287 million, of which, $152 million from Malaysia, $114 million from Vietnam and $19 million and $2 million from Singapore and Thailand respectively.

The reports recorded that the ASEAN countries investing in Cambodia are only Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.

From 1994 to September 2011, among ASEAN, Malaysia is the largest investor in Cambodia with the accumulative investment of $2.6 billion, followed by Vietnam at $812, said the CDC's data.

Thailand and Singapore are the third and fourth with $746 million and $636 million respectively.

They invested in various sectors of businesses here including agriculture, especially rice mill and rubber plantation; industries, garments and construction materials; mineral resources; tourism; aviation; telecommunications; and banking and finance.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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2,000 Schools Remain Closed

Many schools in Pursat Province remained closed
 Some 2,000 schools in Cambodia remain closed as the worst floods in more than a decade continue to wreak havoc in Southeast Asia, where the death toll has risen to 1,000, officials and reports say.

Most of the affected schools are along the lower Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, said Nhim Vannda, the first vice-president of the National Committee for Disaster Management.

Only 2,000 of 4,000 schools nationwide have reopened since the floods hit 18 provinces and cities in early October, officials said.

Nearly 250 people have perished in the floods in Cambodia so far, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest flood bulletin.

“We are very concerned about the students' education. I am afraid that they can’t finish their curriculum on time,” said Yoeung Rithy, chief of a village in Kompong Thom province on the banks of the Stung Sen river.

Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Rong Chhun said even while some schools remain open, their classes are delayed due to logistical problems.

School equipment has been damaged and documents destroyed due to the disaster, he said.

“The Ministry of Education must establish a supplementary curriculum for the students to make sure that they can finish their academic year as usual,” Rong Chhun said.

Ministry of Education Director Ung Ngohok said additional classes would be held to prevent affected students from falling behind in their studies.

"The government has also instructed the Ministry of Education to make sure that the students have enough time to prepare for their examinations," he said.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has provided U.S $300,000 to help subsidize educational materials in flood-affected areas.

A Ministry of Education report obtained by RFA showed that there are still 900 schools in 15 provinces under flood waters.

Some of the schools where the floods have receded may not have resumed classes because the damage has not been rectified.

Climate change
At least 1,000 people have died in the region's floods, according to an Agence France-Presse tally on Thursday. Millions of homes and livelihoods have also been destroyed by the disaster.

The World Bank warned that climate change will bring more floods and extreme weather to Southeast Asia.

"What we are seeing is there are more floods, more extreme weather events, higher temperature, more variable rainfalls, and we believe that is caused by climate change," Andrew Steer, the World Bank's special envoy for climate change, said in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.

"And we should expect this to increase, sadly," Steer said.

The death toll in Thailand, grappling with its worst floods in half a century, has reached 533, the government said, and the slowly advancing waters are now threatening the heart of Bangkok, a city of 12 million people.

Vietnam's government has reported at least 100 deaths, including many children, in southern and central parts of the country while a fresh deluge in central provinces prompted the evacuation of some 30,000 people.

At least 106 people have died in flash floods caused by heavy storms in central Burma in late October.

In Laos, 30 people lost their lives in the floods, OCHA said in a statement.

The U.N. body, which does not include Burma in its flood updates, also reported 98 deaths in the Philippines.

Vast swathes of rice paddy fields have been damaged or destroyed in Southeast Asia as a result of the inundations triggered by unusually heavy monsoon rains that began some three months ago.

"To date, nearly nine million people have been affected by torrential rains and overflowing rivers," OCHA said.

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