Cambodia: A Minefield of Developmental Challenges

Story and Photo by Carla Belloch Arango, Co-op

When we think of global development issues, the first things that often come to mind are world hunger, access to safe drinking water and perhaps infrastructure. However, development is an impossibly broad term that envelops an even greater range of problems, many of which would never even cross the minds of those of us privileged enough to have been born and raised in developed nations. It is safe to say that a country’s level of development directly or indirectly influences practically every aspect of its society in ways that are both pervasive and intrinsically interconnected. During my six months on co-op at the Landmine Relief Fund in Cambodia, I began to understand how every small part of daily life can be affected by delayed development and how these problems feed into and exacerbate each other, forming a vicious cycle that is hard to break. I became particularly interested in the unique barriers to development that post-conflict societies face, from agriculture to politics to education. Every aspect of society can be thrown off balance even long after a conflict officially ends.

Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world after decades of conflict including a civil war, the brutal Khmer Rouge genocide, Vietnamese occupation and American bombings. The Landmine Relief Fund is an NGO whose mission is to fund landmine clearance and unexploded ordnance (UXO) disposal in Cambodia. They provide the monetary support necessary for the demining operations of Cambodian Self-Help Demining, the only non-governmental demining group in the country that is made up of and run entirely by Cambodians. As a co-op, I visited active minefields where deadly remnants of war still linger more than 20 years after the violence came to an end. The inability of locals to use the land for agriculture or new infrastructure has taken a major toll on development.

Landmines and UXOs also cause permanent injuries such as limb loss or blindness, which can make it difficult or impossible for individuals to perform many jobs. As a result, the streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s largest tourism hub, are filled with disabled beggars who depend on tourist dollars to feed themselves. Other times, cows or water buffalo step on landmines and die, leaving families who cannot afford more cattle without a valuable source of income or help on their farms. UXOs also present a barrier to education. Often, parents in rural areas do not send their children to school, afraid they will stumble across explosives on their walk there. 

However, landmines are hardly the only obstacles to development in post-conflict societies. The systematic execution of doctors, engineers, teachers and other educated individuals in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, the communist party of Cambodia, left a legacy of poor-quality medical care and education. Inadequate healthcare leads to lower life expectancy and higher mortality rates. I was surprised and saddened to learn that new parents in Cambodia do not name their babies right away to prevent themselves from getting too attached in case their newborns do not live long. A poor level of education, in turn, affects everything from literacy rates and employment prospects to less obvious matters like environmental preservation. Topics such as global warming and recycling are not emphasized in schools, and this lack of awareness about the importance of environmental preservation has left Cambodia with serious deforestation and plastic pollution problems. These issues can also partially be traced, respectively, to profits yielded by the logging industry and inadequate waste management services, which are faulty in cities and nonexistent in rural villages. As a result, many villagers burn their waste, including plastic, which pollutes the environment even further and endangers their health. To worsen matters, schools are often inaccessible due to flooding, distance, cost of uniforms and classroom materials and gender inequality, preventing children of all ages from accessing an education. These barriers to a good education act as negative feedback loops that keep communities trapped in poverty by lowering their opportunities for gainful employment and limiting their awareness of the importance of societal issues such as environmental preservation that have an impact on their quality of life.

Furthermore, as I listened to first-hand stories of hardship and resilience from survivors of genocide and war, I came to understand how collective societal trauma can shape mentalities and influence the way a society is run, from the governmental to the local level. Cambodia’s politicians embody a culture of paranoia and deep distrust after years of wartime betrayals, which holds the country back from realizing its full potential. Instead of allowing younger generations with fresh perspectives to hold office, government policies remain overly conservative, controlled by the same political leaders who have been in power for decades. It is no coincidence either that military generals are some of the most influential people in the country following generations of conflict. This influence is frequently leveraged for personal or political gain, redirecting funds that could be used to aid the development of communities into the pockets of the already wealthy and powerful. 

It is clear then that conflict can lead to a myriad of developmental challenges that are sometimes unexpected, yet all interrelated. A key takeaway is the fact that so many issues are specific to individual communities, or simply are not recognized and understood by people from wealthy countries that have never faced such challenges. Therefore, development efforts must focus on listening to the needs of local communities so that we can provide them with the tools and resources they need to help themselves. The colonial notion that we, as foreigners, know more about a country’s challenges than its population and should fix their problems for them, must be rejected. Cambodians have faced many hurdles in recent history. If there is one thing I have learned from their resilience and ingenuity, it is that applying local solutions to local problems is often the most effective way forward. For instance, monks have taken to fighting deforestation by blessing trees and then wrapping big swaths of orange fabric around their trunks to mark them as blessed, which gives the trees a sacred protected status that successfully prevents loggers from cutting them down. Additionally, I was shocked to see that many houses in a poor rural community in the northwestern province of Oddar Meanchey had solar panels on their roofs, as these devices are still not commonplace even in most developed nations. Since villagers could not afford the cost of electricity, which is 30 times higher in rural areas than in cities, they took advantage of the region’s sunny weather to produce their own instead. All the creativity and resourcefulness necessary to rebuild a country can already be found within its population. All we have to do is empower communities by giving them the support, funding and resources they need to get the job done.

Photo by Carla Belloch Arango
Photo by Carla Belloch Arango

The story is featured in VOL 5 ISSUE 1 SPRING 2020 (Print Edition)