The overall objective of our Survey project is to gather basic information of the rural natural resources base and sustainability of livelihoods in Cambodia and Laos. The project has reached a stage where first results are available. Ten Focus Group Discussions were organized around Cambodia, eight in rural villages and two in the capital Phnom Penh. The aim of the discussions was to hear people tell about changes that have taken place in their daily environment and livelihoods, and how they are dealing with possible negative impacts. The urban groups discussed about migration of some family members as a coping strategy for many rural families. They also discussed about differences between village and city life.
The overall picture that emerges from the discussions is quite gloomy. According to the respondents, life in the rural villages of Cambodia has become harder due to fast depletion of local natural resources and global economic recession. Forest degradation, unpredictable weathers and dramatically diminishing fish catches are causing pressure to the already poor households, living from hand to mouth. All respondents in the rural villages stated that acquiring firewood for cooking is becoming more and more difficult because forests around their village are getting smaller or are cleared completely for farming land. Weather conditions have become more unpredictable, and droughts as well as rain in the wrong time are making rice cultivation more difficult and increasing the risk of crop failure.
The global food crisis has been clearly seen in Cambodia in the price of rice, which has gone up by approximately 100% in one year. As rice is the most important staple food for Cambodians, decreasing rice production and rising rice prices are a serious concern for the food security situation in the country. In many of the Focus Group Discussion villages families are experiencing hunger during a month of two before rice harvesting. Also the prices of agricultural inputs, such as gasoline, fertilizers and pesticides have gone up significantly, decreasing the profit that farmers get from their products when they sell it at the market.
People have many kinds of coping strategies to overcome difficult times. All the respondents tell they have had to borrow money to cover unexpected costs caused for example by an illness or accident in the family. Families borrow rice during “hungry months” and some have to resort to selling their family assets, such as farming land, animals or even the house, leading to even deeper vicious circle of poverty.
One of the much used coping strategies is to send one family member to work in a city to earn income and support the family living in the village. Migration is often seasonal and people come back to their village to help in their family with farming work during agricultural peak seasons. In some of the villages most young women have moved to work in the garment factories of Phnom Penh. For those women moving to the city has brought a positive change. Although work in the factories is hard and hours long, the women are happy to be able to make their own money, support their family and live a more independent life. However, work in the urban factories is very sensitive to changes in the global economic situation. During the past year many garment factories have closed their doors and the women have returned to their villages.
The Survey project is now at its second phase, where field work teams of our local partner, Indochina Research Ltd., are going around Cambodia and interviewing 1250 households about livelihoods, food security, energy use and coping strategies. The results from the whole data can be expected in the end of the year.