First, let me share some facts about Cambodia. Cambodia is now a population of around 14.5 million. Around 25% of the population was killed during the civil war – genocide of horrific proportions. The people of Cambodia have been greatly impacted by the rule of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 who tortured and murdered many of their own people, as well as a long period of war around this time. The country is governed inadequately, with high levels of corruption, and increasingly closing civil society space.
During the week, we took a visit to the Kratie province, which is known for the fresh water dolphins (and where I was fortunate to see some!) but also for the Sambo dam that is being proposed.
There we visited with partner organisations, met with young people (delegates who are active at the site of the already built Stung Treng dam), and also women who are part of the community radio program. We joined the Deputy District governor at a community meeting expressing concerns about illegal fishing and the emerging concerns around the building of the dam, and also met with the Deputy Provincial Governor.
I had the opportunity to visit one of Oxfam’s legacy programs, which was very inspiring – Oxfam Australia worked in the Sambo region from the late 1990’s through to 2013 doing water and sanitation, rice and buffalo banks and other work.
The project was then taken on by a local civil society group called North East Regional Development (NRD) who continue advocacy and influencing work. This group now have a plan to become phased out by 2030 and are empowering Community Fishery groups to take on this work. It was an exciting opportunity to see Oxfam exiting an area, but leaving a sustainable legacy of infrastructure, work opportunity and a robust community of people who are in control of their lives.
One village listed 14 ways that Oxfam Australia had assisted that community!
I was equally inspired by our meeting with youth delegates. We spoke with four delegates from the Stung Treng area where the dam has been built, whose families refuse to move as they have a connection to ancestors and their country. They have been left to patrol the forests for protection and to continue to hold onto the land.
I was struck by some of the metaphors used at the community meeting in the Sambo province – the challenge for the communities being like “splashing water at a shadow”. The short term threat of illegal fishing and the longer term challenge of the building of dams results in major challenges for sustainable and equitable growth for those who rely on the Mekong for their lives.
Throughout the trip, I couldn’t help but be reminded how this work reinforces Oxfam’s way of working as being critical. We must work with partners rather than direct delivery of services, and we must support groups who are giving voice to community concerns. This concept of empowerment is fundamental to the human rights based approach.
– Helen Szoke, Oxfam Australia Chief Executive