Inter Press ServiceMichelle Tolson – Inter Press Service http://www.ipsnews.net News and Views from the Global South Tue, 16 Jan 2018 00:01:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.4 Learning, Dating and Hooking Up: Sex Education Goes Online in Cambodiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/learning-dating-and-hooking-up-sex-education-goes-online-in-cambodia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=learning-dating-and-hooking-up-sex-education-goes-online-in-cambodia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/learning-dating-and-hooking-up-sex-education-goes-online-in-cambodia/#respond Wed, 05 Nov 2014 18:15:41 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137604 The transition to puberty can be an awkward experience for youth to navigate. In Cambodia, sex education is moving increasingly into the virtual realm, with the Internet and mobile phones providing welcome spaces for young people to learn, seek help and stay safe. Cambodia is classified as one of the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), […]

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Srun Srorn, trainer for the E-learning project, shows teachers at Koh Kong High School how the sexual education curriculum works. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
KOH KONG PROVINCE, Cambodia, Nov 5 2014 (IPS)

The transition to puberty can be an awkward experience for youth to navigate. In Cambodia, sex education is moving increasingly into the virtual realm, with the Internet and mobile phones providing welcome spaces for young people to learn, seek help and stay safe.

Cambodia is classified as one of the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), with 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line, while another 20 percent are just 0.30 dollars a day above the poverty line, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

Illiteracy has been linked with poverty and only 74 percent of rural communities are literate. Cambodia has been heavily influenced by the NGO culture, which has helped bring about some improvements, yet when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), these organisations have tended to focus on addressing poor maternal health or at-risk groups, such as entertainment workers.

"This is the difficulty that we experience [in Cambodia: making people aware that counseling is a way of providing emotional support and empowerment as well as exploring options without judgment or assumption.” -- Sean Sok Phay, executive director of Child Helpline Cambodia
Youth, on the other hand, particularly those from poorer families and in rural areas, have not received much attention, particularly those who engage in romantic relationships outside of marriage.

Now, a wave of online learning is filling crucial gaps in the knowledge system.

One such initiative is a major E-learning platform being rolled out with support from the ministry of education, youth and sport (MoEYS), aimed at improving young people’s access to vital information.

“NGOs focus on the population in general, birth spacing, maternal health, but not sweetheart relationships that youth have,” Kuth Sovanno, administrative officer in the school health department of the MoEYS said recently to a roomful of teachers at Koh Kong High School during the launch of the E-learning initiative.

It is being piloted in 24 secondary schools in the provinces of Bantey Meanchey, Battambong, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang, Takeo, Kampot, Koh Kong and Sihanoukville (Kampong Som province) and Phnom Penh. At present, the plan is to expand the programme to reach 100 schools.

Sovanno tells IPS that tapping into social media is a way to get the information out to youth who flock to Facebook to socialise. Youth are beginning to see online access as an important source of information, so the MoEYS maintains an up-to-date website, which is not always the case with the other ministries.

Cambodia’s mobile phone sales have mushroomed, resulting in an estimated 134-percent mobile phone penetration, with cell phones being cheaper than land lines, while social media – accessed through Internet cafes and mobile devices – was believed to have played a major role in the 2013 elections.

In this same way, youth are breaking away from traditional restrictions on sexual and reproductive health education, says Srun Srorn, advisor to One World UK, partnering with the MoEYS to launch the E-learning programme.

Srorn is an activist who uses social media to reach marginalised youth, including the LGBT community, drug users, sex workers and migrant workers. His volunteer-led organisation, CamASEAN, reaches 2,000 members through social media.

Chheon Rachana, a 28-year-old female activist for LGBT issues who teaches about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression for Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK) and CamASEAN, tells IPS that many girls do not talk to their parents or female teachers for advice on seemingly basic topics like menstruation; instead, most reach out to friends.

While some schools make use of NGO support to supply poor rural students with feminine products at school, many girls continue to face challenges in acquiring the most essential products and services.

“Poor girls ask for money from their parents or from someone close to them in their family,” explains Rachana. She herself did not tell her parents when she started menstruating, but had a sympathetic relative help buy her monthly feminine products.

Things become even more challenging for teens learning about safer sex, abortions and sexual orientation.

“The traditional Cambodian style of reproductive and sexual health education means that most youth have to find out by themselves by book, [and] share [this information] with their friends because they don’t learn this at school,” Rachana says.

She thinkx the Internet is changing this, though she maintains the importance of accurate information – something that is not always possible given the very nature of the Web.

NGOs such as the Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC), which also supports the E-learning initiative, trains peer educators to provide accurate information and emotional support in several provinces but adolescents without access to this especially benefit from mobile, SMS and online counseling.

Sean Sok Phay, executive director of Child Helpline Cambodia, which, along with Inthanou, provides counselors for the new website www.youthchhlat.org, tells IPS, “Online and phone counseling is a new concept in Cambodia. Many people often refer [to] counseling as giving advice or instructing people to do certain thing. This is the difficulty that we experience: making people aware that counseling is a way of providing emotional support and empowerment as well as exploring options without judgment or assumption.”

He describes the service as “pro-poor” and especially helpful for youth in rural areas, as one-on-one counseling can be expensive, while this service is free. The use of mobile phones allows for privacy to talk about these topics either online, by calling or through SMS.

The MoEYS recently published a life skills book for youth that tackles changes in adolescents’ bodies, but also social issues such as drug use and learning about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which is paired with the E-learning project that has its own curriculum as well.

“Each student has time at the computer already so it will be easier because they are shy to learn [about sexual reproductive health],” Theary, a high school teacher who has taught grades 7-9 at Koh Kong High for the past seven years, tells IPS.

Computer labs, such as the one in Koh Kong High School, will introduce the website’s lessons to students offline first because of the school’s slow Internet connection but they can also access the lessons online at Internet cafes or through mobile phones.

The new website was launched in March of this year.

“Many youth have sex before marriage now, compared to traditional times,” adds Srorn of One World UK, who trains teachers on how to use the E-learning platform.

“Girls already learn by themselves and use porn videos for this. Internet cafes are not expensive, just 1000 riels [0.24 dollars] an hour so poor girls can learn this way. Males use karaoke bars, beer gardens, massage parlors.”

Koh Kong town, situated close to the Thai border, has many massage parlors and some casinos.

“Middle-class and [upper]-class girls can walk or take a moto bike along the riverside in cities [to meet potential sex partners], while high-class girls go to hip-hop clubs where they can meet a guy. But youth also use the Internet for this. They can use Skype, Facebook messenger and phone sex to hook up.”

Chheon agrees that meeting girlfriends and boyfriends online is common these days. But she says it is important that they meet in public places first and not away from other people for safety reasons.

According to a 2013 U.N. report, 20 percent of men in Cambodia said they had forced a woman to have sex, half of whom claimed to have done so as a teenager.

For those surviving an assault, phone and online counseling can be a lifesaver.

“A girl in a village [who has] been raped … will not only face discrimination, she will have a very difficult time in terms of trauma, stress, and feelings of suicide. Phone counseling, online and text message counseling is playing a role to create the means or opportunity for such a community,” points out Sok Phay from the Child Helpline.

But perhaps what is most urgently needed is information about practicing safer sex.

Monyl Loun, executive director of Inthanou, the other counseling service supporting the project, tells IPS that while love and relationships are “natural” at the age of puberty, the important thing is to learn about the “responsibilities of love, and information to prevent … unintended pregnancy, HIVs and STIs.”

Karaoke videos that play on televisions in buses and even the simplest cafes show romantic partners ending their lives over relationship problems.

“KTV songs and dances are about love, broken hearts and marriage,” explains Srun, adding that most music videos depict couples killing or hurting themselves as a solution to their problems.

But counselors working round the clock in Cambodia hope the new technology-savvy mode of sex education will remind youth that love does not have to end in tragedy.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Cambodian Migrant Workers Pay for Thai Documentation Scramblehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cambodian-migrant-workers-pay-for-thai-labour-scramble/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cambodian-migrant-workers-pay-for-thai-labour-scramble http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/cambodian-migrant-workers-pay-for-thai-labour-scramble/#respond Thu, 03 Jul 2014 13:00:28 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135353 Eight people, three women and five men, are crouched in the dirt in the center of a roundabout where the main road at Poipet –a major Cambodia border town– merges with the check point to Thailand. Dust swirls in the wind as they squint their eyes at the sun. Others playing the waiting game mill about […]

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Mr. Kong, left, is among thousands of Cambodia workers eager to find higher paying jobs in neighboring Thailand. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
Poipet, Cambodia, Jul 3 2014 (IPS)

Eight people, three women and five men, are crouched in the dirt in the center of a roundabout where the main road at Poipet –a major Cambodia border town– merges with the check point to Thailand. Dust swirls in the wind as they squint their eyes at the sun. Others playing the waiting game mill about on the road’s edges.

Last week a reported 220,000 Cambodian migrants hastily returned from Thailand in fear of a crackdown against undocumented workers, creating a migration crisis. The Cambodian government, United Nations and NGOs quickly mobilized to feed and transport them to their home towns.

This week Poipet is quiet, but a growing number or migrants have come back to the border since Thailand announced last Friday it opened a fast-track visa processing center at the border for undocumented workers. Their Thai construction employer, DC Company, is supposed to help them obtain official work permits for as little as 37 dollars.

I am here waiting for my employer to tell me he has the documents I need to cross,” Mr. Lin, a 36-year-old man from a village near Battambang, tells IPS.

“But I don’t know how much it is for a new document,” he adds.

Expensive documents

The Cambodian government, for its part, is trying to help the estimated quarter million repatriated undocumented migrant workers return to work and has introduced its own 4-dollar passport fee for students studying abroad and migrants, down from the previous 135 dollars charged.

Cambodia, as a least developed country (LCD), has one of the most expensive passports in the ASEAN region, contributing to the high rate of undocumented workers. Vietnamese passports cost just 12 dollars, while Laos and Thai ones go for 35 dollars and 30 dollars, respectively.

“Factories in Cambodia don’t pay you for two months sometimes. They smell bad, have fumes and are big and cold.” - Cambodian migrant worker Ms. Hun
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) estimates that 50 to 55 percent of the 440,000 Cambodians that work in Thailand are undocumented.

In addition to passports, there are fees for foreign work permits.

“It costs 50 to 100 dollars to work in Thailand for two to four months, and 500 dollars for two years,” Mr. Kong, a young 19-year-old construction worker from Sisophon, tells IPS.

Like Lin and others interviewed for this story, Kong was only conformable providing part of his name, as policemen were closely watching the crowd and listening in on their statements.

According to Chaan Sokunthaea, Head of Women and Children Section and Alternative Dispute Resolution Sectionwith ADHOC, “the price for the work permit depends on the situation and the broker.” The Cambodian government is allowing brokers to help Cambodians get passports, enforcing a 49-dollar broker-fee limit, but the new scheme will take several weeks.

Speaking to IPS, Chaan said it was too early to comment on the process.

“Good money”

Kong was able to save money in Thailand as an undocumented worker because he didn’t owe a debt to a broker, he says. He made “good money” working in construction in Bangkok for a year, sending it home to his family by electronic wire.

“Because I was good at my job, sometimes I made 320 baht (about 10 dollars) a day,” he says. He managed to save 3,000 to 4,000 baht (92 to 120 dollars) a month.

All the families lingering by the border have tales of supporting elderly parents, aunts and uncles in the countryside, or they have children their grandparents are raising for them.

“There are no jobs in my village and we don’t have enough land to grow rice,” Mali, the 33-year-old wife of Lin, tells IPS.  The couple recounts leaving their 13-year-old daughter back home with their parents, where their foreign income puts her through school – a parent’s sacrifice to allow her to have a better life.

Like her husband, Mali works in construction. Mali earns 250 baht (approximately 7.70 dollars) a day. It’s 50 baht less than the men make, but she thinks this is “fair” because she is not as strong as they are. Still, she prefers it to working in garment factories in Cambodia.

“Factories in Cambodia don’t pay you for two months sometimes,” Ms. Hun, who works with Mali, tells IPS . “They smell bad, have fumes and are big and cold.”

With an average salary of just 100 dollars a month, making ends meet with factory work is near impossible for many.

As a result, “Most workers we talked to complained they have debt in [Cambodia]”, Tola Moeun, Head of Labor at Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), tells IPS. “They need the Cambodian government to set up a minimum wage to allow them enough to live on.”

They avoid garment factory work in Thailand “because they check documents,” a tour guide going by “Jim”, who is translating for the women, says.

Other migrants work as farmers or fisher folk, another industry known for undocumented workers.

Mr. Gumroun, 41, is sitting on a bench with his family waiting for work papers from his Thai boss. They had worked together on a Thai farm harvesting sugar cane, mangos and corn. His 16-year-old son sits next to him and his older daughter sits nearby.

“I don’t want to leave my son at home because he has no mother. We have no family in our village so it is safer working with me,” Gumroun tells IPS. He earns 300 baht (about 9.20 dollars) a day, while his children earn 200 baht (about 6.16 dollars). In Cambodia, in comparison, they might only bring home 3 dollars a day.

Rumours

ADHOC’s Chaan says workers fled Thailand because of a rumour they would be killed if found without documents. “According to our research, brokers told workers this to get money from them for documents.”

A quarter million workers needing papers represents a lot of cash.

Workers who fled back to Cambodia said they were cheated by taxi drivers and police to pay bribes, according to CLEC.

Several died in traffic accidents from the panic. Military fired guns at workers’ vans and trucks, further increasing the hysteria, ADHOC reported.

The Thai government claims it was merely addressing the sudden downgrade by the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report to tier three, which resulted from reports that migrant workers were enslaved on Thai fishing boats.

While various migrants told IPS they are “very afraid” of the new Thai junta, the realization that they can’t survive in Cambodia continues to drive them across the border.

And so, as the Cambodian government scrambles to meet the needs of returnees by starting the untried 4-dollar passport system, migrants are trickling back to the border.

They put their faith in their bosses to help them navigate the new Thai document system they think will be faster.

“Our bosses are good to us,” 29-year-old Mr. Ta from Battambang tells IPS. “They like Cambodians more than Thai workers because we work all day — 12 hours, only stopping to eat lunch.”

 

 

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Working Cambodian Women ‘Too Poor’ to Have Childrenhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/working-cambodian-women-too-poor-to-have-children/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=working-cambodian-women-too-poor-to-have-children http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/working-cambodian-women-too-poor-to-have-children/#respond Sat, 31 May 2014 08:10:50 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=134679 The movement for reproductive justice sees women’s decision to have – or not have – children as a fundamental right. Should they choose to bear a child, women should have the right to care and provide for them; if they opt not to give birth, family planning services should be made available to enable women […]

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Women in Cambodia’s garments sector work 10-12 hours a day. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, May 31 2014 (IPS)

The movement for reproductive justice sees women’s decision to have – or not have – children as a fundamental right. Should they choose to bear a child, women should have the right to care and provide for them; if they opt not to give birth, family planning services should be made available to enable women to space or prevent pregnancies.

In Cambodia, where women make up 60 percent of the population of 14 million people, this fundamental right is being trampled by insecure labour contracts, toxic working conditions and a near-total absence of maternity benefits for working mothers.

Take Cambodia’s garments industry, a massive sector that accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports. A full 90 percent of the workforce is female, but labour rights have not accompanied employment opportunities.

"[The] lack of labour rights for women [is] a worrying trend that is completely changing the culture of Cambodia.” -- Tola Moeun, head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre
Ever since the country entered into a liberalising agreement with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2005, long-term contracts have been edged out in favour of short term or fixed duration contracts (FDCs), the latter being far more popular among East Asian factory owners and western clothing brands like Gap, Walmart and H&M.

These informal arrangements “abuse garment workers’ reproductive rights,” Sophea Chrek, a former garment worker and technical assistant to the Workers Information Center (WIC) – which recently staged a fashion show to highlight the issue – told IPS.

“Women employed under FDCs for three to six months, or sometimes even one month, will not risk their job by having a baby. Usually, they choose to have an abortion…before the contract ends to ensure that the line leaders or supervisors are not aware of their pregnancy,” Chrek added.

According to Cambodian labour law, factories are supposed to provide maternity leave, but most get around this requirement with short contracts, which leave the estimated 600,000 workers vulnerable to employers’ whims.

Melissa Cockroft, a technical advisor on sexual and reproductive health, tells IPS that women without access to family planning services resort to unsafe and unregulated measures, such as using over-the-counter Chinese products to induce abortions.

These methods can be fatal, but women seem hesitant to avail themselves of NGO-provided free or discounted service at on-site infirmaries, which are less confidential.

Sometimes their grueling schedules, which include 10 to 12-hour workdays with only a short lunch break in between, keep them from making appointments. Many of these women, Cockroft says, are just too busy to even think of starting families.

Garment workers’ reticence to use reproductive services can be cultural too, as talking about sexual health is considered ‘shameful’ in traditional Cambodian society.

Cambodian law also stipulates that factories provide working mothers with childcare, but Cockroft says she has only seen one operational childcare facility during all her years as an advocate in the field.

For some women, the decision to leave their children at home emerges from a desire to spare them the grueling commute – many factory workers travel shoulder-to-shoulder in trucks or on compact wagons pulled by tuk tuks, ubiquitous motorcycle taxis, down Cambodia’s notoriously unsafe roads.

Very often, babies remain at home with their grandmothers in the countryside while their mothers go off to work in the city, where they earn roughly 100 dollars per month. Union leaders are trying to raise this minimum wage to 160 dollars.

In general, though, both Cockroft and Chrek say garment workers consider themselves “too poor” to have children.

Entertainers and street workers

Meanwhile, in Cambodia’s popular entertainment sector, women face a unique set of challenges, their access to reproductive health services hindered by the informal and unpredictable nature of their work.

Independent researcher Dr. Ian Lubek tells IPS that entertainment workers are likely to experience a much higher risk of foetal alcoholic syndrome due to the number of beverages they are forced to consume every night in order to get tips from their customers. Research from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggests that a female beer seller or hostess consumes up to 11 drinks a night.

Years of advocacy efforts have at least enabled entertainers working for international beer companies to secure better wages, with women employed by the Cambrew brewery now drawing a salary of close to 160 dollars a month.

Higher wages, according to Phal Sophea, former beer seller and representative for the Siem Reap division of the Cambodia Food and Service Workers Federation (CFSWF), amounts to less economic pressure to have transactional sex.

“I think better pay will reduce sex work because the [women] generally go out with customers when the pay is too low,” she told IPS.

Of all the groups of working women struggling to raise children, street-based sex workers are among the most marginalised and are often subject to police violence, arrests and forced detention in anti-trafficking ‘reeducation centres’.

While unions for entertainment workers can negotiate contracts, sex workers are left completely vulnerable to the laws of the streets.

Civil Society Steps Up

In 2006 the sex worker-led collective Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) set up informal schools in drop-in centres where sex workers lived, for children between the ages of five and 16 to learn Khmer, English, mathematics and the arts.

Operating in collaboration with the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, the initiative has successfully reinstated 184 children into the public school system.

WNU Board Member Socheata Sim says the collective does not limit its services to children of sex workers, but extends support to people living with HIV/AIDS, and residents of slum communities who are not only living in abject poverty but are constantly threatened with eviction from their humble dwellings.
Pen Sothary, a former sex worker and secretary of the sex-worker led collective Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), told IPS that many women are so poor they take whatever work they can get.

Labour research indicates that Cambodians living in urban areas require, at the very least, 150 dollars a month in order to survive; most salaries are set below 100 a month, making it very difficult for the average working Cambodian to make ends meet, and feed their families. As it is, 40 percent of Cambodian children are chronically malnourished.

WNU Board Member Socheata Sim explained that sex work might be the only option for the many women without a formal education; according to a report on education levels among women in Cambodia, only one-third of school-aged girls are enrolled at the lower secondary school level, and one in ten at the upper secondary school level.

Many sex workers want a better life for their children, but few can afford the high fees, bribes and related costs of formal schooling.

Furthermore, sex workers living in slum dwellings face a constant threat of eviction. Tola Moeun, head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre, told IPS that high rates of evictions are now forcing many women to migrate abroad in search of employment.

“Yet once abroad, if undocumented, migrant workers find they do not have the rights citizens have,” he lamented.

In Thailand, for instance, where tens of thousands of Cambodian women now live and work, undocumented workers are fired from their jobs if they become pregnant, are denied maternity leave and earn half the 300-baht (nine-dollar) daily minimum wage.

Tola sees the “lack of labour rights for women as a worrying trend that is completely changing the culture of Cambodia.”

(END)

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Healing the Dark Legacy of Native American Familieshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/healing-dark-legacy-native-american-families/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=healing-dark-legacy-native-american-families http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/healing-dark-legacy-native-american-families/#comments Tue, 29 Apr 2014 18:02:03 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133985 As a child, 78-year-old Yakama Nation elder Russell Jim was forced to go to a boarding school in Washington State and was beaten for speaking his language. After returning home at the close of the school year, his aunt vowed to protect him, even if that meant “taking me to the hills,” he tells IPS. […]

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An annual pow wow in honour of the old fishing village of Neerchokikoo. Photo courtesy of NAYA Family Centre.

By Michelle Tolson
PORTLAND, Oregon, U.S., Apr 29 2014 (IPS)

As a child, 78-year-old Yakama Nation elder Russell Jim was forced to go to a boarding school in Washington State and was beaten for speaking his language.

After returning home at the close of the school year, his aunt vowed to protect him, even if that meant “taking me to the hills,” he tells IPS. His father brought him to their local, all-white school and threatened to sue if they did not enroll him."When asking tribal people their definition of poverty, it is usually ‘having no culture.’ It is not defined by money." -- Janeen Comenote

While he retains his language today, he’s well aware that the ways Native American communities have been torn apart by displacement from government efforts to force integration into mainstream society.

“I notice when asking tribal people their definition of poverty, it is usually ‘having no culture.’ It is not defined by money,” Janeen Comenote, director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC), tells IPS.

She says this is an important distinction in a demographic experiencing some of the highest rates inequality in the U.S. There is a perception that leaving reservations changes this.

“Disparity is disparity and both populations face it,” says Comenote of urban and rural tribal populations.

A report by NUIFC shows 20 percent of urban Indians live in economic poverty. However, compared to the general population they also face 38 percent higher rates of accidental death, 54 percent more diabetes cases, 126 percent more disease of the liver and cirrhosis, and 178 percent higher death rates related to alcohol use.

Yakama Elder Russell Jim. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

Yakama Elder Russell Jim. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

Native American children have the highest rates of foster care placement of all minority groups according to another report. Kings County and Multnomah County in Washington and Oregon States are among the highest in the U.S. at seven to five times disproportionate to Native populations.

Matt Morton, executive director of Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, Oregon, tells IPS over 20 percent of native children are in foster care in Multnomah County.

“Our families experience a much higher rate of removal compared to white families in similar situations. We know this is due to biases and expectations of how Native Americans should act when living in severe conditions of poverty. This has not changed [since the Indian Child Welfare Act].”

Before its creation in 1978, the rate was 25 percent.

How do indigenous people live in poverty? According to NUIFC, urban native people are 1.8 times more likely have no plumbing, twice as likely to have no kitchen, three times as likely to have no phone and three times more likely to be homeless than the general population.

On reservations they might live in large, extended families. Yakama fisherwoman Caroline Looney Hunt, age 54, tells IPS her mother adopted children informally despite having 11 of her own.

“My mom used to say ‘watch out for the White Man.’ I asked ‘which one?’ She said ‘DSHS [Department of Social and Health Services] – they steal your kids.’

“They would try to go back to their families after they turned 18. But after being away from their culture, they would see how we lived and wouldn’t want to stay. Our culture is not about material things, it is about family.”

Today according to the law, native children are supposed to stay within their community for foster care services, but sometimes children are placed into general population services because they are not enrolled in the tribe.

Families struggling with alcoholism might forget to enroll their children. “They told me children who are not enrolled are recorded as white,” says Looney Hunt, who had to intercede when her granddaughter was placed in foster care outside her community.

Russell Jim says the introduction of alcohol to the Yakama has been devastating, while the loss of their traditional hunting and gathering places to hydroelectric dams and the Hanford nuclear reservation has further impacted their health.

“We are not genetically adapted to the foods or alcohol of the settlers,” he says. He thinks this is why diabetes and alcoholism plague the tribe.

Members of the NAYA community in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of NAYA Family Centre.

Members of the NAYA community in Portland, Oregon. Photo courtesy of NAYA Family Centre.

While reservation community members like Russell Jim and Looney Hunt work to preserve their cultural traditions, urban tribal organisations like NAYA focus on reintroducing cultural value systems.

Morton thinks regaining the traditional diet will be a “pivotal point” for Native communities in the Pacific Northwest, both urban and rural. They are working to restore a section of land forcibly ceded to the European settlers in north Portland.

The last indigenous person was removed in 1906 from the ancient fishing village of “Neerchokikoo,” which morphed into an industrial area. NAYA centre, now located in the area, has worked with Verde organisation to restore a former waste dump into a neighbourhood park.

“What we are doing is creating livable neighbourhoods and regaining cultural connections through the restoration of natural areas and reintroducing native plants and building open spaces for our community to gather,” says Morton of Cully Park.

NAYA uses the Relational Worldview Model created by the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA). The Eurocentric linear worldview is “rooted in the logic that says cause has to come before effect.”

In contrast, “the relational worldview sees life as harmonious relationships where health is achieved by maintaining balance between the many interrelating factors in one’s circle of life,” says NICWA’s website.

“I’ve noticed,” says Comenote, “a difference between Eurocentric and tribal institutions. Eurocentric institutions ask ‘do they have enough money?’ Tribal institutions ask ‘does the child have a culture?’ They also ask, how do they help each other?”

Many tribal people were forced out of their reservations during the 1950s and 1960s federal relocation period and sent to live in cities, creating a Native American diaspora. Morton explains “there were many relocation spots around the country and Portland was but one.”

The American Indian Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s fought to reverse the policy but many tribes lost federal recognition and sovereign status, according to NUIFC. Relocated tribe members also intermarried with other races after their forced removal. However, tribe members have also relocated to cities to pursue opportunities not available on reservations.

Comenote says urban tribal organizations function as “multi tribal embassies.” NAYA’s members come from 380 different tribes and Portland has the ninth largest urban Indian population in the U.S.

“NAYA is in the process of creating an intergenerational community, Generations, by partnering with the City of Portland and the Portland Public Schools system,” Oscar Arana, director of strategic development and communications, tells IPS.

The project will create affordable housing for foster parents seeking to adopt foster youth and Elders who want to be part of the community and volunteer their time to support the families.

“There are many positive outcomes that occur when three generations come together to support each other including improved health, education, and sense of purpose and meaning. The project earned an enthusiastic endorsement by Governor John Kitzhaber.”

Only four out of 10 indigenous youth graduate from high school in Portland public schools.

“When first assuring the safety of kids, then we can help the parents get housing, help with education and offer assistance,” Morton explains.

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Yakama Nation Tells DOE to Clean Up Nuclear Wastehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/yakama-nation-tells-doe-clean-nuclear-waste/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=yakama-nation-tells-doe-clean-nuclear-waste http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/yakama-nation-tells-doe-clean-nuclear-waste/#comments Mon, 14 Apr 2014 18:21:39 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133655 The Department of Energy (DOE), politicians and CEOs were discussing how to warn generations 125,000 years in the future about the radioactive waste at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, considered the most polluted site in the U.S., when Native American anti-nuclear activist Russell Jim interrupted their musings: “We’ll tell them.” He tells IPS “they looked around and […]

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At the perimetre of Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
YAKAMA NATION, Washington State, U.S. , Apr 14 2014 (IPS)

The Department of Energy (DOE), politicians and CEOs were discussing how to warn generations 125,000 years in the future about the radioactive waste at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, considered the most polluted site in the U.S., when Native American anti-nuclear activist Russell Jim interrupted their musings: “We’ll tell them.”

He tells IPS “they looked around and saw me. I said, ‘We’ve been here since the beginning of time, so we will be here then.’ That was when they knew they’d have a fight on their hands.”“Helen Caldicott told us in 1997 that if we eat fish from the Columbia, we’ll die." -- Yakama Elder Russell Jim

With his long braids, the 78-year-old director of the Environmental Restoration & Waste Management Programme (ERWM) for the Yakama tribes cuts a striking figure, sitting calmly in his office located on the arid lands of his sovereign nation.

The Yakama Reservation in southeast Washington has 1.2 million acres with 10,000 federally recognised tribal members and an estimated 12,000 feral horses roaming the desert steppe. Down from the 12 million acres ceded by force to the U.S. government in 1855, it is just 20 miles west from the Hanford nuclear site.

Though the nuclear arms race ended in 1989, radioactive waste is the legacy of the various sites of the former Manhattan Project spread across the U.S.

While the Yakama have successfully protected their sacred fishing grounds from becoming a repository for nuclear waste from other project sites by invoking the treaty of 1855 which promises access to their “usual and accustomed places,” Hanford is far from clean, though the DOE promised to restore the land.

“The DOE is trying to reclassify the waste as ‘low activity.’ They are trying to leave it here and bury it in shallow pits. Scientists are saying that it needs to be buried deep under the ground,” Jim explains.

Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge watchdog group tells IPS “it is a battle for Washington State and the tribes to get the feds to keep their promise to remove the waste. There are 42 miles of trenches that are 15 feet wide and 20 feet deep full of boxes, crates and vials of waste in unlined trenches.”

There are a further 177 underground tanks of radioactive waste and six are leaking. Waste is supposed to be moved within 24 hours from leak detection or whenever is “practicable” but the contractors say there is not enough space.

Three whistleblowers working on the cleanup raised concerns and were fired. Closely followed by a local news station, it is an issue that is largely neglected by mainstream media and the Yakama’s fight seems all but ignored.

“We used to have a media person on staff but the DOE says there is no need as ‘everything is going fine,” says Russell Jim. His department lost 80 percent of its funding in 2012 after cutbacks. His tribe doesn’t fund ERWM, the DOE does. “The DOE crapped it up, so they should pay for it.”

Russell Jim, Yakama Elder and Director of Environmental Restoration & Waste Management Program (ERWM) for the Yakama Nation. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

Russell Jim, Yakama Elder and Director of Environmental Restoration & Waste Management Program (ERWM) for the Yakama Nation. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

But everything is not fine. With radioactive groundwater plumes making their way toward the river, the Yakama and watchdog groups says it is an emergency. Some plumes are just 400 yards from the river where the tribe accesses Hanford Reach monument, according to treaty rights.

Hanford Reach nature reserve, a buffer zone for the site, is the Columbia’s largest spawning grounds for wild fall Chinook salmon

Washington State reports highly toxic radioactive contamination from uranium, strontium 90 and chromium in the ground water has already entered the Columbia River.

“There are about 150 groundwater ‘upwellings’ in the gravel of the Columbia River coming from Hanford that young salmon swim around,” explains Russell Jim.

“Helen Caldicott [founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility] told us in 1997 that if we eat fish from the Columbia, we’ll die,” he adds.

Callie Ridolfi, environmental consultant to the Yakama, tells IPS their diet of 150 to 519 grammes of fish a day, nearly double regional tribal averages and far greater than the mainstream population, puts them at greater risk, with as much as a one in 50 chance of getting cancer from eating resident fish.

Migratory fish like salmon that live in the ocean most of their lives are less affected, unlike resident fish.

According to a 2002 EPA study on fish contaminants, resident sturgeon and white fish from Hanford Reach had some of the highest levels of PCBs.

Last year, Washington and Oregon states released an advisory for the 150-mile heavily dammed stretch of the Columbia from Bonneville to McNary Dam to limit eating resident fish to once a week due to PCB toxins.

Fisheries manager at Mike Matylewich at Columbia River Inter Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), says, “Lubricants containing PCBs were used for years, particularly in transformers, at hydroelectric dams because of the ability to withstand high temperatures.

“The ability to withstand high temperatures contributes to their persistence in the environment as a legacy contaminant,” he tells IPS.

While the advisory does not include the Hanford Reach, the longest undammed stretch of the Columbia, Russell Jim doubts it’s safe.

“The DOE tells congress the river corridor is clean. It’s not clean but they are afraid of damages being filed against them.” A cancer survivor, Jim’s tribe received no compensation for damages from radioactive releases from 1944 to 1971 into the Columbia as high as 6,300,000 curies of Neptunium-239.

Steven G. Gilbert, a toxicologist with Physicians for Social Responsbility, tells IPS there is a lack transparency and data on the Hanford cleanup. “It is a huge problem,” he says, adding that contaminated groundwater at Hanford still interacts with the Columbia River, based on water levels.

Though eight of the nine nuclear reactors next to the river were decommissioned, the 1,175-megawatt Energy Northwest Energy power plant is still functioning

“Many people don’t know there is a live nuclear reactor on the Columbia. It’s the same style as Fukushima,” Gilbert explains.

In the middle of the fight are the tribes, which are sovereign nations. Russell Jim says they are often erroneously described as “stakeholders” when they are separate governments.

“We were the only tribe to take on the nuclear issue and testify at the 1980 Senate subcommittee. In 1982 we immediately filed for affected tribe status. The Umatilla and the Nez Perce tribes later joined.”

Yucca Mountain was earmarked by congress as a nuclear storage repository for Hanford and other sites’ waste but the plan was struck down by the president. Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone in the region filed for affected status.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico was slated to take waste from Hanford but after a fire in February, the site is taking no more waste. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has expressed concern about the lack of storage options.

The U.S. has the largest stockpile of spent nuclear fuel globally – five times that of Russia.

“The best material to store waste in is granite and the northeast U.S. has a lot of granite. An ideal site was just 30 miles from the capital, but that is out,” says Russell Jim with a wry smile, considering its proximity to the White House.

He does not plan to give up. “We are the only people here who can’t pick up and move on.”

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Fight Brews over Wild vs. Hatchery Salmon in U.S. Northwesthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/fight-brews-wild-vs-farmed-salmon-u-s-northwest/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fight-brews-wild-vs-farmed-salmon-u-s-northwest http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/fight-brews-wild-vs-farmed-salmon-u-s-northwest/#respond Tue, 18 Mar 2014 18:23:20 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133047 Built in 1909, Bonneville Fish Hatchery is one of the oldest and largest in the Columbia River Basin, located in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The hatchery annually produces over 11 million young fall Chinook salmon, three million coho eggs and 500,000 young steelhead for a number of rivers in the basin as part of an […]

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Bonneville Dam’s fish ladders allow Chinook salmon to migrate freely. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
PORTLAND, Oregon, Mar 18 2014 (IPS)

Built in 1909, Bonneville Fish Hatchery is one of the oldest and largest in the Columbia River Basin, located in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

The hatchery annually produces over 11 million young fall Chinook salmon, three million coho eggs and 500,000 young steelhead for a number of rivers in the basin as part of an agreement under the 1938 Mitchell Act.“It’s amazing. We have a healthy population of wild and ‘natural origin’ fish." -- Paul Hoffarth

This was designed to mitigate the loss of habitat from the numerous hydropower projects built along the Columbia Basin in the 1930s to provide cheap power and aid in river navigation.

Development came at a severe cost to the previously prolific wild salmon and steelhead runs, estimated at 16 million, that sustained regional Native American tribes as the fish returned from the ocean.

After over a century of steadily declining migrations, resulting in 13 threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead species with returns averaging 600,000, things might be looking up. An estimated 1.2 million of the Chinook salmon species alone crossed the Bonneville Dam fish ladders during the fall 2013 migration.

Caroline Looney-Hunt of the Yakama Nation tells IPS she has been a tribal fisherwoman for over 40 years, since age 12.

“I was the only girl fishing with my three younger brothers and my cousin and stepdad, who was also my uncle,” she said.  According to tradition, when a brother dies, the surviving brother will raise his children.

When her father died at age 35, her mother and 10 siblings faced a crisis but survived through fishing the Columbia. A tribal treaty with the U.S. government allows the Yakama, Warm Springs, Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes special fishing rights on the Columbia.

The tribes have been an important part of the recent restoration of salmon migrations, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission (CRITFC). All four tribes in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon have implemented, with the help of hired biologists, successful hatchery programmes that have restored low and previously extinct salmon and steelhead runs.

Stuart Ellis, a biologist at CRITFC, tells IPS there are three types of hatcheries under the Mitchell Act.

Production hatcheries tend to be the largest, like Bonneville, and are designed to mitigate the loss of salmon for commercial and sports fisheries and tribes, while restoration ones aim to repopulate extinct and threatened runs with wild salmon.

The third method combines restoration with production, which is what the tribes prefer.

Yet some critics believe that hatcheries represent yet another threat to wild salmon. Lawsuits have been filed over hatcheries on Washington’s Elwha River, where dams were recently decommissioned, and hatcheries on Oregon’s McKenzie River and Sandy River in the Columbia Basin.

The lawsuits cite the Endangered Species Act to access the courts to change how hatcheries are utilised.

In 2007, the century-old 22-megawatt Bull Run Hydropower project was decommissioned to support restoration of the Sandy River, but the Native Fish Society says Sandy River hatchery salmon supplied by the Bonneville site out-compete wild fish.

Bill Bakke, director of science and conservation for the Native Fish Society, tells IPS the NOAA government fisheries “don’t have a conservation mission. They are producing a huge amount of fish.”

According to the Mar. 14 ruling, the lawsuit has resulted in reducing Sandy hatchery releases from one million down to almost 500,000 fish, short of the target but a partial victory.

Mike Matylewich, fisheries manager for CRITFC, tells IPS “that project is a fisheries mitigation project which has the concrete to concrete hatchery structure.”

“The Native Fish Society would like to see the fish spawning in the river… [and their] remedy would be to shut down the programme,” he said. “The tribes would also like to see fish spawning in the river. [They] have advocated for integrated hatchery programmes that utilise wild fish in the brood stock so that the characteristics of the hatchery fish are as similar to the wild fish as possible.”

“The Nez Perce tribe has had a lot of success with their Snake River [Columbia tributary] fall Chinook program,” Sara Thompson, Public Information Officer for CRITC tells IPS. “That is a supplementation programme designed to put spawning fish on the spawning grounds. They had 56,000 adult fall Chinook go over the granite dam.”

While expensive, these programmes have a proven success rate of restoration.

“[These are] emergency cases and necessary,” explains Bakke, of restoration hatcheries for extinct salmon runs. “You will suffer a lower reproduction success but you don’t have a choice.” He contrasts this with larger hatcheries from state run projects. “What are their financial returns?”

For instance, state-run Entiat Hatchery in Washington had famously low returns for spring Chinook, with a harvest cost per fish at 68,000 dollars, according to a 2002 IEAB audit.

In 1990, only one spring Chinook was harvested, bringing costs for that fish to 800,000 dollars – the yearly cost of the programme. It was eventually phased out due to low returns and perceived risks to wild populations.

Ellis and Matylewich say things have improved since that report. Hanford Reach, former nuclear facility turned wildlife reserve, has become the largest spawning ground for wild fall Chinook in the entire basin and some hatchery-reared fish successfully spawn there as well.

Located east of Bonneville, the reserve has the longest stretch of undammed habitat along the Columbia.

Paul Hoffarth of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the area, tells IPS “It’s amazing. We have a healthy population of wild and ‘natural origin’ fish. We tend to refer to fish now as ‘natural origin’ as this may be more accurate.

“A natural origin fish spawns in the wild and has strong physical characteristics, referred to as ‘fitness.’ Our fall Chinook are 80-90 percentage natural origin.”

He concedes a minority of naturally spawning fish were initially raised at nearby restoration hatcheries which don’t mark the fins, meaning commercial fishers will release them as if they were wild.

Starting in mid-March, juveniles have been emerging from the spawning gravel. They will stay at the site for 90 days until their ocean migration in the summer.

Back on the Yakama Reservation, Looney-Hunt says fishing is her only livelihood. Though she has experienced a lot of hardship, she says, “The last three years have been pretty good.” She processed 40 crates of fish one day.

Ellis and Matylewich are also keen to point out that hatcheries also provide much needed work to the region.

In her 54 years on the Yakama Reservation, the tribal fisherwoman has faced early deaths in her family due to accidents and alcoholism and is justifiably proud of her 15 years of sobriety.

“If I’m going to die, it’s probably going to be in the Columbia. We say ‘if you take from the river, it will take from you.’ The community has lost several fishermen to the Columbia but it has also been their lifeline. The next fishing season, which starts in May for the tribes, is predicted to be even better.”

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Labour Anger Simmers in Cambodiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/labour-anger-simmers-cambodia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=labour-anger-simmers-cambodia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/labour-anger-simmers-cambodia/#respond Tue, 04 Mar 2014 08:50:00 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132397 An uneasy calm prevails in Cambodia after the government crackdown on protests by garment workers in January. With public gatherings banned and charges framed against 23 union leaders and activists, labour discontent may not be spilling on to the streets, but it is simmering. Prime Minister Hun Sen has now called for removal of the ban on […]

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Workers at a lunch break in front of factories supplying H&M in Phnom Penh. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS.

By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, Mar 4 2014 (IPS)

An uneasy calm prevails in Cambodia after the government crackdown on protests by garment workers in January. With public gatherings banned and charges framed against 23 union leaders and activists, labour discontent may not be spilling on to the streets, but it is simmering.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has now called for removal of the ban on public assembly.“This is a critical juncture for garment workers and trade unions to use their leverage as a voting bloc to pressure both parties for better wages."

“The government should not be suppressing the demonstrators if they want to prove that Cambodia is a democratic country,” Phorn Sreywin, a 26-year-old garment worker, told IPS.

She has the support of the Workers Information Centre (WIC), which supports women in the garment industry, but voices asking for higher minimum wages in this impoverished Southeast Asian country appear to have been muffled for the time being.

“There should never have been a ban as this contradicts the Constitution and treaties ratified by Cambodia,” Naly Pilorge, Director of the human rights NGO LICADHO, told IPS by e-mail.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), 93 percent of which comprises foreign business owners, mostly from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, has cited the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention number 87 to claim that workers have no “right to strike”.

“Freedom of association cannot be used as an excuse to get away with illegal behaviour and undermine a government’s ability to govern,” said a statement on GMAC’s website, alluding to the protests of Jan. 2-3 by garment workers, which led to military action.

GMAC claims that the strike by garment workers was violent.

“A multiplicity of unions in the workplace continues to create challenges, including but not limited to an increasing mass of unrepresentative unions, infighting amongst unions on the factory floor to gain popularity, misrepresentation of membership numbers due to double counting, and inability to engage with the unions constructively,” it said.

Activists, however, say that this amounts to intimidation by GMAC.

International trade unions around the world have protested in front of Cambodian consulates in support of the country’s garment workers.

Trade unions have also condemned GMAC for stating that it condoned the military action on striking garment workers Jan. 3 that killed four of them, left one missing and seriously injured over 30.

“The response from the Cambodian government is very oppressive,” said Pranom Somwong, a labour activist and consultant for the Clean Clothes Campaign who helped organise a protest in Bangkok in front of the Cambodian consulate.

She also told IPS that factory owners were “confrontational” vis-a-vis the unions. “Denying workers the right to freedom of assembly and the right to a living wage is unacceptable,” she said.

In the days leading up to the protest, the Labour Ministry had approved an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers, from 80 to 95 dollars a month. But trade unions and workers protested, saying it was not enough to live on, and demanded a monthly minimum wage of 160 dollars.

Labour activists are now being threatened with loss of job or with lawsuits, Sophea Chrek, interim coordinator for WIC, told IPS.

Tola Moeun, head of the advocacy organisation, Community Legal Education Centre, explained that factory owners have threatened labour leaders with lawsuits. “Yang Sophorn (president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions) was sued by suppliers (factory owners) for mobilising workers to strike,” he pointed out.

He highlighted another problem.

Despite 90 percent of garment workers being women, men tend to lead the labour unions, partly owing to the combative environment. “Women do not feel confident in their positions or are not provided enough opportunities to grow, especially due to their poor wages and short term contracts,” he told IPS.

Thida Khus, Executive Director of SILAKA, an organisation that trains women, believes women workers hold the key to shaping their work environment.

“Women workers need to lead and use their natural leadership quality to deal with the environment, using better negotiation skills with the thugs in factories, with the government and with the elites who are looking after their bosses’ interests,” Khus told IPS.

Labour researcher Dennis Arnold has written a report detailing how the bargaining power of workers in Cambodia weakened under the 2005 WTO free trade agreement (FTA).

He found that, prior to the agreement, most workers in registered factories had long-term contracts with holiday pay benefits, including sick and maternity leave. But afterwards the contracts became short-term, covering just three to six months, and with no benefits. Factory owners said western brands preferred flexibility in their contracts but the shift also made factory workers easier to manage.

There are an estimated 400,000 workers in registered factories, but if those in unregistered factories, and workers who are part of the supply chain were to be included, the number would be around 600,000, he says.

Arnold told IPS that the elite siphon off money through “bribes, bureaucracy and corruption”, contributing to the already high cost of production, and this is used by factory owners as a reason for not raising wages.

“This is a critical juncture for garment workers and trade unions to use their leverage as a voting bloc to pressure both parties for better wages,” Arnold said. “This is part of broader efforts to redistribute wealth and power in favour of workers – and you see very clearly the deep resistance to this by GMAC and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).”

The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is completely on board.

Mu Sochua, CNRP’s elected lawmaker and Director General of Public Affairs, told IPS, “Strong trade unions, strict implementation of the labour law (against short-term contracts) and ILO conventions must be upheld and the government and global brands should be allowed no excuses to delay negotiations for living wage.”

A spokesperson for H&M, one of the largest brands sourcing from Cambodia, told IPS on e-mail that the company plans to work towards a living wage “by 2018”.

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Impoverished Cambodians For Salehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/impoverished-cambodians-sale/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=impoverished-cambodians-sale http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/impoverished-cambodians-sale/#respond Fri, 24 Jan 2014 03:25:17 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130642 Many Cambodian women arrive in South Korea or China for marriage, only to find themselves being chosen as mistresses, say labour rights activists. While young Cambodian men, who travel to Thailand to work on fishing boats, often fall prey to drug abuse. Loss of land, debt, poor pay and high prices of petrol and electricity […]

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Many Cambodians see dubious hope across the Poipet border crossing to Thailand. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS.

By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, Jan 24 2014 (IPS)

Many Cambodian women arrive in South Korea or China for marriage, only to find themselves being chosen as mistresses, say labour rights activists. While young Cambodian men, who travel to Thailand to work on fishing boats, often fall prey to drug abuse.

Loss of land, debt, poor pay and high prices of petrol and electricity are pushing youths from poverty-stricken Cambodia to foreign lands – sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Miserable working conditions in the garment sector have only worsened the labour trafficking scenario.Despite these problems, repatriated workers often leave Cambodia again.

Tola Moeun, head of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), said rural farmers comprise 80 percent of Cambodia’s population, but they are increasingly in debt due to high-interest loans. As a result, youth leave home in search of work.

He also cited the example of Cambodia’s garment industry, saying the prospect of being a garment worker is so terrible that often women will do anything to escape this fate.

“Women garment workers often choose to go to South Korea to escape the situation,” Tola told IPS.

CLEC has received several calls from families whose daughters were experiencing troubled “marriages” to Chinese and South Korean men that turned out to be sham marriages.

Tola said families accept money from marriage brokers without understanding the situation. The truth emerges when the women arrive in South Korea, only to be lined up in a room for the “husband” to choose from.

“I went to South Korea in 2011. It was explained to me that South Korean wives are not worried about sex workers because the husband takes a mistress. So he chooses a Cambodian girl to ‘marry’,” he said.

“In China, there is a shortage of women in the countryside. The man wants a wife to work for him without pay, so she becomes not only a labour slave but also a sex slave,” Tola said.

He concedes, however, that all international marriages are not shams.

A 24-year-old woman in Phnom Penh told IPS she knew of many successful relationships through marriage brokers. But she contacted IPS when a 30-year-old woman was being aggressively pursued by a marriage broker after she changed her mind about an offer. The broker backed off when CLEC was mentioned.

“A lot of Cambodian girls marry South Korean men. These are real relationships. Really poor people do this. Sometimes the girls come back and are able to build a house for the family and improve their lives.”

Young Cambodian men travel to Thailand to work in the construction sector, on fishing boats or in fish processing factories. This takes place either formally, using a broker for visas, or illegally.

“In case of illegal offers, the recruiter will call and say, ‘Do you want a job?’ The person will then cross the border at night, not using checkpoints, hiding in the back of a truck, lying head to toe with other people and covered with supplies that are being transported,” said Tola.

Brahm Press of the Raks Thai Foundation, an organisation that assists migrant workers, said most problems occur due to work contracts at the Cambodian end.

“As of July 2013, around 8,000 Cambodians were registered in Bangkok – 5,000 men and the rest women – and they were probably all in construction. I have heard that after deductions for recruitment agencies and housing, they come away with less than the 300 baht [10 dollars] a day minimum wage,” Press told IPS.

He said problems usually occur due to misunderstandings about work arrangements and fees or when passports are withheld to ensure that workers pay their recruitment debt.

Recently 13 young Cambodians – 11 men and two women aged between 15 and 23 – entered Thailand with the help of brokers to whom they paid 500 dollars each, said Si Ngoun, the father of one of the youths.

“They were promised a good job with a good salary of 300 baht per day.”

For two months they worked at a rubber band factory, a metal smith factory and, lastly, in the construction sector, which is where their troubles began.

“We were paid very little, about 120 baht [four dollars] per day. We didn’t want to work any more because we were too hungry,” 20-year-old Si Pesith, one of the workers, told IPS.

Tola said the workers asked for food and protested but the employer had them jailed as illegal workers. Usually detention lasts six to nine months, but Cambodian Ambassador You Ay intervened and they were sent home within a week.

IPS spoke with Pesith after he was repatriated. “If we compare work in Thailand with that in Cambodia, it is not much different,” he said.

Thai fishing boats have been flagged by the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report as potential labour trafficking scams for Cambodian migrants.

Press said conditions on fishing boats are notoriously difficult to monitor. Work there has been linked to drug use as labourers try to get through work shifts that can last up to 20 hours.

“When migrants, first Burmese and then Cambodians, were prominently replacing Thais on the boats, amphetamines were becoming the rage,” he said.

“First there was Ya-Ma (horse drug), which was milder than the current Ya-Ba, but no less addictive. During the last decade there were anecdotal reports, first of migrants on fishing boats voluntarily taking Ya-Ma, then stories of captains putting Ya-Ba in the drinking water.” Press, however, said such stories had become less frequent.

Eliot Albers, executive director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD), said criminalisation of drug use makes it harder to assist users, especially migrants.

“Poverty and labour abuse worsen people’s relationship with drugs. They suffer from labour abuse and drugs help them get through the day,” Albers told IPS.

Migrant workers lack union representation, making them especially vulnerable to abuse. If they are formal workers, the process of migration is expensive (up to 700 dollars each), requiring a recruiter and debt. If they are informal, it is cheaper. But they risk detention and deportation by Thai police if they complain about the working conditions.

Despite these problems, repatriated workers often leave Cambodia again.

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Fashion Backward: Cambodian Government Silences Garment Workershttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/fashion-backward-cambodian-government-silences-garment-workers/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fashion-backward-cambodian-government-silences-garment-workers http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/fashion-backward-cambodian-government-silences-garment-workers/#comments Thu, 09 Jan 2014 04:48:29 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=130009 “Cambodian garment workers have two handcuffs and one weapon [against them]. One handcuff is a short-term contract [10 hours a day, six days a week]. Even if they get sick, if they get pregnant they feel they have to get an abortion so they don’t lose their jobs. “The second handcuff is the low wage,” […]

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Police raiding Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh on Jan. 3, 2014. Credit: Courtesy LICADHO

By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, Jan 9 2014 (IPS)

“Cambodian garment workers have two handcuffs and one weapon [against them]. One handcuff is a short-term contract [10 hours a day, six days a week]. Even if they get sick, if they get pregnant they feel they have to get an abortion so they don’t lose their jobs.

“The second handcuff is the low wage,” Tola Moeun, head of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), which advocates for workers rights, told IPS from the organisation’s headquarters on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. “The weapon used against them is violence, both mental and physical.”

About 90 percent of garment workers are young women, mostly in their teens and twenties.

His words, which came just days before mass protests broke out in the Cambodian capital, proved prophetic as garment workers took to the streets Dec. 24 until their demonstrations were brutally quashed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s private military the first weekend in January, resulting in five fatalities and over 30 serious injuries.

In the days leading up to the protest, the Labour Ministry had approved an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers, from 80 to 95 dollars a month. But trade unions and workers protested, saying it was not enough to live on, and demanded a monthly minimum wage of 160 dollars.

Chrek Sophea, interim coordinator of the Workers’ Information Centre (WIC), which helps factory workers organise, told IPS workers cannot survive on the government’s proposed wage, and that it is in violation of Cambodia’s labour laws.

According to a 1997 law, “The minimum wage must ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity.”

Tola agreed. “The minimum is for eight hours, so most work 10 hours to get a higher income to have just enough to sleep in a shared room. Most workers are in debt, borrowing about 50 dollars each month, and can only pay 10 dollars interest on the loan each month.” Workers struggle to send money home to their families in the countryside.

The Messenger Band (MB), made up of six former garment workers who write songs in the traditional Cambodian folk style, also supported the protest. Sothary Kun, a singer known as “Ty Ty”, told IPS “problems of debt and migration and the difficulty of workers to earn money and repay debt for their families reach into the hearts of audiences very quickly because they have experienced it all themselves.”

Launched a decade ago, MB works with WIC as part of the United Sisterhood Alliance, a collaborative of grassroots groups serving farmers, factory workers and sex workers.

“MB and WIC discussed the strategy of supporting peaceful protests by garment workers demanding a minimum wage of 160 dollars a month, so it is very important for us to be there together with the workers,” Kun said.

MB’s songs are the oral histories of the working poor. “We sang a number of songs to encourage and keep workers together while they were protesting in front of the Labour Ministry. We also distributed lyrics of songs related to workers, so that they could sing along,” Kun explained.

The peaceful events took a dark turn last Thursday. Chrek said “I witnessed the workers’ peaceful strike at around 9:30AM on Jan. 2, when my colleagues and I travelled around the factory compounds located on the outskirts, including the place where the clash happened.

“I stopped by and saw them gathering in front of the Canadia Special Economic Zone near the local market. Workers who joined the strike were singing and dancing and chanting their message.”

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), protesting the results of the July elections, which they say were rigged, joined the garment worker protest with chants of “Hun Sen Must Go”, and as the crowds swelled to tens of thousands, international media attention was drawn.

The military stepped in the night of Jan. 2, brutally beating and arresting labour leaders and protesting monks. Pictures of the bloodied trade unionists were widely shared on social media, which seems to be the point when the protests veered out of control.

By the early hours of Friday Jan. 3, young men allegedly armed with Molotov cocktails and machetes had replaced the women protesters. Hun Sen’s private military stormed the scene with live ammunition, shooting over 30 people, killing five and seriously injuring the rest.

Srun Srorn with the CamASEAN youth group told IPS “It is possible people in the crowds were hired or ordered to create violence, and those people were not shot, or just created violence and then escaped.”

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) calls the opposition “extremist”. But activists speculate that agitators, termed Hun Sen’s ‘Third Hand’, may have caused the violence.

Thida Khus, director of SILAKA, which supports women’s organising, told IPS “Some of our men noticed this strategy in the first [CNRP] demonstration last September. These agitators have been used in all the previous events, including the [Jan. 4] crackdown at Democracy Park, trying to justify the shooting at unarmed protesters.”

CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua mentioned Hun Sen’s Third Hand on her Facebook page. She told IPS “Throughout the three-month protest, CNRP has appealed for non-violence. CNRP, including its top leadership, went through non-violence training and took to Democracy Square where thousands of people came regularly to express their opinions. Our rallies have never been violent.”

By Monday Jan. 6, it was discovered that the five young men killed were in fact garment workers and another 35 in the hospitals were also factory workers.

During the crackdown, a number of protesters were also arrested, including labour leaders. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO) reports that 23 detainees are being held in an unknown location.

The government has sinced banned public gatherings of 10 or more people.

WIC, which is careful to not take political sides, became concerned when the garment protesters joined with the CNRP. As a non-partisan women’s organiser, Chrek believes both sides need to focus on working together, not blaming each other.

“It creates an environment of instability, fear, tension and anger. Our country has been through a lot of painful experiences resulting from violent responses.

“The current political chaos showed that political parties, both ruling and opposition, do not have a real commitment to solving problems, and often innocent and ordinary citizens and the powerless are affected. I call on all parties, including union leaders, the opposition party and the ruling party to act together in a mature manner addressing the current situation by setting problems aside.”

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Dam the Fishhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/let-fish-dammed/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=let-fish-dammed http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/12/let-fish-dammed/#respond Tue, 17 Dec 2013 09:26:15 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=129589 “I prefer the dam to the fish,” says middle-aged farmer Ton Noun, when asked his opinion on a proposed 400 megawatt dam on Sesan river near his home in northeastern Cambodia. Then he chuckles and asks, “What fish?” That’s because there are few fish in the brown, murky waters of the river, and he can […]

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A ferry boat on the Sesan River. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS.

By Michelle Tolson
RATANAKIRI PROVINCE, Cambodia, Dec 17 2013 (IPS)

“I prefer the dam to the fish,” says middle-aged farmer Ton Noun, when asked his opinion on a proposed 400 megawatt dam on Sesan river near his home in northeastern Cambodia. Then he chuckles and asks, “What fish?”

That’s because there are few fish in the brown, murky waters of the river, and he can buy them cheap from bordering Vietnam. On the other hand, electricity – which the dam promises – is costly.

“Electricity is expensive because the village doesn’t have it,” Ton tells IPS.

Cambodia, among the least developed countries in Asia, lacks an electrical grid. Only 26 percent of the population has access to government-supplied electricity. The rest use private operators, generators, or have no electricity at all. Private operators charge consumers as much as 75 cents per kilowatt per hour.“Since the Vietnam dam was built, there have been less and less fish."

Ton pays 15 dollars per month for electricity, using a battery and a generator – costly by the standards of a country where 49 percent of the 15 million population lives on two dollars a day or less.

Villagers like him, therefore, think the hydropower project will end their power woes.

But what Ton doesn’t know is that once the dam comes, the fish could become even more scarce, depriving Cambodians like him of their staple food and one of the most important sources of protein, say several NGOs.

“No one consults with the local community. They just say, ‘We are going to bring electricity to you’,” Ame Trandem of the International Rivers NGO tells IPS.

The government believes rural electrification is important “to reduce poverty, improve the standard of living and foster economic development,” as stated in a report earlier this year titled Rural Electrification Policies in Cambodia.

Its two-step target is: “(1) All the villages in the Kingdom of Cambodia have access to electricity of any type by the year 2020; and (2) At least 70 percent of all households have access to grid-quality electricity by the year 2030.”

The dam near Ton’s home is to be built at the junction of the Sesan and Srepok rivers.  The two rivers converge about 25 km upstream from Stung Treng city and are joined by the Sesong river before merging with the Mekong, in what is called the 3S River Basin.

Hydroelectric dams have been suggested as a resource for the electricity-hungry nation, and the declining fish catch has only helped support the cause of dams.

But fisheries expert Ian Baird finds this argument shortsighted. “Fish can rebound with management, but not if there are structures. After the Khmer Rouge banned commercial fishing in 1976, in Laos they reported record catches that season.”

During the famine in the 1970s, Cambodians did not have access to their staple protein – fish – due to government policies that forbade commercial fishing. This policy was also seen as contributing to the starvation and death of about two million people.

It serves as an example for how dependent the country is on fish as a source of protein. With malnutrition rates in children in Laos and Cambodia as high as 40 percent, Baird thinks putting pressure on the limited resources is a dangerous option.

Meach Mean, coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, says most tribal people living in the watershed don’t have access to information. The indigenous Tampuan people have historically not had a written language.

A Laos-Tampuan himself, he experienced the consequences of dams after Vietnam built a hydropower dam upstream on Sesan at Yali Falls in 1996. Officials released water without notifying the communities downstream, causing numerous deaths and crop and livestock loss.

“Since the Vietnam dam was built, there have been less and less fish. Now there are almost none because the level of the river goes up and down so much,” says a Lao man in his 30s from Kalan village. “You can almost walk across the river in the dry season.”

Speaking with IPS from his small, wooden home, with an unused fish net hanging from the ceiling, he says, “We don’t want the dam because it causes floods, which kill crops and animals. We are afraid of the water.”

The three other Lao men with him agree, though they all decline to give their name for fear of repercussions from the government.

“We live in a remote area and people don’t know about us. Only 30 percent of the people here know about the dam. I hear about it from people further down the river,” he says.

They doubt that the project will bring cheap power.

Laos too is planning to build the Don Sahong dam on the Mekong river, just two kilometres from Cambodia’s border. The Mekong flows through a series of channels that become waterfalls before reaching Cambodia.

While the Lao government seeks to harness energy from just one channel and sell it to either Cambodia or Thailand, the dam will rest on one of the only year-round transit points for fish migration that could jeopardise the food security of Lower Mekong.

Despite this, a Lao tourism operator on an island adjacent to the dam site cheerfully tells IPS, “Most people want the dam.”

Baird says the government could jail villagers who speak against it.

After a recent site visit to speak with engineers of the Lao project, Cambodian officials came away uneasy about the environmental impact and insisted the project be halted, according to Trandem.

“The idea behind the Sesan dam was that Cambodia could benefit from its own dams,” says Trandem.

Vietnam was to invest in the venture as a kind of payback for the suffering inflicted on them earlier, and buy electricity from Cambodia. But after an outcry from Cambodians, who thought Vietnam would benefit yet again at their expense, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that all the power generated would go to Cambodia.

“The problem is Cambodia has no way of using that electricity as it has no grid to transport it to the cities,” says Trandem.

Laos has the advantage of having a basic electrical grid in place, as does Vietnam, in contrast with Cambodia.

Trandem says, “The World Bank and Asian Development Bank proposed that the countries share electricity. But the trouble is there is no master plan for it – which is not good for countries that are dependent on rivers for everything.”

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Mongolia’s Wild Asses Cornered From All Sideshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/mongolias-wild-asses-cornered-from-all-sides/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=mongolias-wild-asses-cornered-from-all-sides http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/mongolias-wild-asses-cornered-from-all-sides/#comments Thu, 24 Oct 2013 08:07:26 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128261 Decades of international and local collaboration have brought the Tahki or Asian Wild Horse back from the brink of extinction and reintroduced herds to Mongolia’s Gobi desert and grasslands. However, the country’s other wild equine – the Mongolian Wild Ass or Khulan – is fast disappearing. It was put on the IUCN red list of […]

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The remains of an illegally hunted khulan. Credit: Courtesy Goviin Khulan

By Michelle Tolson
SOUTHERN GOBI REGION, Mongolia , Oct 24 2013 (IPS)

Decades of international and local collaboration have brought the Tahki or Asian Wild Horse back from the brink of extinction and reintroduced herds to Mongolia’s Gobi desert and grasslands. However, the country’s other wild equine – the Mongolian Wild Ass or Khulan – is fast disappearing.

It was put on the IUCN red list of endangered species in 2008.

“The Khulan (Equus hemionus hemionus) get less attention compared to the Tahki, which is nationally cherished,” says Mongolia-based French ethologist Anne-Camille Souris, who has worked on wild equine projects such as the International Tahki Group since 2003.

“There is research,” she tells IPS, “but little action.” According to her, there are 2,000 Tahki worldwide and 14,000 Khulan. But while the former’s population is growing, the numbers of this subspecies of the Asiatic Wild Ass are falling steadily.

In 2007, Souris co-founded the not-for-profit organisation Goviin Khulan. “We cooperate with local scientists and specialists, authorities, rangers, governors of each administrative subdivision, schools, Buddhist monasteries and the local population in our study area,” she says.

The organisation’s research area falls in the Southern Gobi Region (SGR), home to the largest population of Khulan. Two smaller and more remote populations are found in the Dzungarian Gobi and Transaltai Gobi to the west, but are cut off from the SGR population.

Most of the country’s mining activity takes place in the SGR, a mineral-rich region. But while the Mongolian government has designated special protected areas in the southwestern Dornogovi province and the southeastern Omnigobi province, the Khulan range extends far beyond them.

The Mongolian Wild Ass or Khulan is fast disappearing. Credit: Harlequeen/CC BY 2.0

The Mongolian Wild Ass or Khulan is fast disappearing. Credit: Harlequeen/CC BY 2.0

The Khulan are also facing competition from domestic livestock, which are depleting foraging and water resources.

Climate change has affected Mongolia’s ecosystem significantly in the past two decades. The Mongolia: Assessment Report on Climate Change 2009 showed a 19 percent loss of surface water, a seven percent loss of grassland and 26 percent loss of forest, with “barren land” tripling from 52,000 sq km to 149,000 sq km. Of the 1,800 dug wells in the Dornogovi province, only about 1,000 still have water.

As a result, Khulan are now perceived as a threat by herders, who might often assist poachers who sell their meat. According to a national survey, the market-based economy spurred the rise of poachers – from 25,000 during the socialist days to 245,000 by 2008.

Souris, however, says that rather than a threat, Khulan are beneficial to domestic livestock as they are able to dig under the soil to find groundwater. Her organisation has documented domestic animals drinking from watering holes created by the Khulan.

Livestock population in the region increased considerably after the collapse of socialism in 1990 – from 762,000 to over five million currently.

The Gobi is the centre of Mongolia’s cashmere industry, which proved a lifeline after the switch to a market-based economy. Disadvantaged by China’s subsidised cashmere industry in Inner Mongolia, herders increased the number of goats to hedge against loss.

A 2010 World Bank report counts these among the factors contributing to an alarming decline in Khulan numbers, from 40,000 in the 1990s to 14,000 in the last count in 2009. Recent figures suggest a decline of 10 percent each year.

Another report, by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Convention on Migratory Species and the WWF Mongolia Programme Office, studied the impact of roads and train tracks on Khulan and other migratory species in Mongolia.

Titled Barriers to Migration; Case Study in Mongolia, the 2011 case study said how train tracks running north to south, from the Russian border to China, bisect the Gobi, thereby shrinking the Khulan’s range.

Herds on the eastern side of the tracks vanished after the railways were built. And with eight large mines in the region producing and transporting coal, one road to the border had a reported traffic of 500 coal trucks daily. The report concluded that the Khulan needed underpasses to travel safely.

The Oyu Tolgoi copper mine, one of the largest extraction projects in the country that is run jointly by the Mongolian government with private interests, plans to build a few such underpasses. However, its principal water adviser Mark Newby maintains that their current impact is small compared to coal transport.

Copper concentrate shipments, he tells IPS, “occur in convoys of 16 trucks, with up to three convoys currently going to the border per day.” That makes up about 50 trucks currently, with an increase of “up to six convoys” in the future.

Newby also says that paving what used to be a dirt road has not only improved the dust situation for herder families living alongside, but Khulan crossings too have been recorded. Twenty Khulan were collared for the project to track their movements.

Oyu Tolgoi also conducted an aerial survey from May to July. “In 2008, academics, researchers and world experts on ungulate species suggested [doing an aerial survey],” Dennis Hosack, principal adviser in the Biodiversity Offsets at the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, which has a controlling stake in the mining project, tells IPS.

Currently in the data analysis stage, its progress can be followed on a blog on the subject.

By contrast, the largely government-owned Tavan Tolgoi coal mine has yet to collaborate on Khulan preservation, although Souris says she hopes it will.

To raise awareness on Khulan vulnerabilities, the Goviin Khulan association has also been partnering with the monks of Ulgii Hiid in Dornovobi province since 2008, as well as with the monks at Khamariin Khiid near the Dornogovi provincial capital Sainshand, and the Tributary Fund and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, using Buddhist principles to preserve natural resources.

It also dedicated a day in September – Sep. 18 – to “bring in Mongolian artists and act as a bridge to Mongolian culture and natural protection,” says Souris. “There are very few paintings of wild species; mostly they show nomadic, domestic life,” she adds.
Choimjants, a monk at Ulgii Hiid, donated a work of art featuring camels, Khulan and two famous monks. “These monks have worked on their own initiative, but it shows the important impact our work to protect the Khulan has locally,” Souris adds.

Local artist S. Tugs-Oyun, celebrated for her paintings of Mongolia, is excited about the initiative. “People want money these days, but we have to take care of nature,” she tells IPS.

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Sometimes, Sex Work is the Least Badhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/sometimes-sex-work-is-the-least-bad/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sometimes-sex-work-is-the-least-bad http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/sometimes-sex-work-is-the-least-bad/#comments Thu, 24 Oct 2013 08:05:56 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128343 “We are not saying that all people become sex workers, but you make more money,” Virak Horn, a 32-year-old gay sex worker who works freelance in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, tells IPS. He earns enough to support his family and pay for his college degree. It is an observation Melissa Hope Ditmore, a New York-based […]

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Energy Hits New Rocks in Mongoliahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/energy-hits-new-rocks-in-mongolia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=energy-hits-new-rocks-in-mongolia http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/energy-hits-new-rocks-in-mongolia/#comments Thu, 10 Oct 2013 07:06:29 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=128048 Mongolia, 90 percent dependent on fuel imports from Russia and vulnerable to price hikes, is seeking to develop its oil shale deposits of at least 800 billion tons. The country recently signed a five-year agreement with U.S. company Genie Energy to explore oil shale “in situ”. Oil shale is essentially oil trapped in solid form […]

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The steppes of central Mongolia, the part of the country where exploration for oil shale is taking place. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
TOV PROVINCE, Mongolia , Oct 10 2013 (IPS)

Mongolia, 90 percent dependent on fuel imports from Russia and vulnerable to price hikes, is seeking to develop its oil shale deposits of at least 800 billion tons.

The country recently signed a five-year agreement with U.S. company Genie Energy to explore oil shale “in situ”.

Oil shale is essentially oil trapped in solid form within rock. Shale oil, also known as kerogen, is produced by pyrolysis, hydrogenation, or thermal dissolution, by contrast with shale gas, which is extracted by hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Jason Bane, communications director of Western Resources Advocates, an environmental group based in the U.S. state of Colorado, explained that while the United States has some of the largest shale oil reserves in the world, they are not commercially viable yet.

“In Estonia they burn oil shale for energy like you would burn coal, which is not overly complicated. But squeezing kerogen [a fossilised material in shale that yields oil upon heating] out of a rock is a different idea entirely. Small amounts of fuel have been produced at various points, but a commercial process is only theoretical,” he told IPS.

“If it were possible, oil shale production would be incredibly harmful to the environment, through air pollution and intensive water use,” he added.

Experts say Mongolia is especially vulnerable to climate change. This landlocked Central Asian country is already experiencing water shortages in the Gobi desert, shrinking rivers and lakes, and desertification.

Richard Heinberg, senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, told IPS that “Most efforts to turn this type of resource into a liquid fuel have failed financially. It has a lower energy density than coal and worse environmental impacts. This would be a disaster for Mongolia.”

However, Jeremy Boak, director of the Centre for Oil Shale Technology and Research (COSTAR) at the Colorado School of Mines, challenges this. According to him, the technology is being rapidly developed and holds commercial promise. “The opposition is citing data that is decades old,” he told IPS.

“[Environmental groups] commonly cite a [U.S.] Government Accountability Office report that simply reviewed all historic data, and concluded that the average [water] use would be five barrels of water per barrel of oil, with the possibility of numbers up to 12.”

Boak said while experimental, the technology is not untested. “Shell has experience in Colorado. Water use is now about one barrel of water for one barrel produced,” referring to unconventional energy expert Harold Vinegar, a chief scientist at Genie Energy, who previously worked with Shell.

Vinegar had conducted pilot testing on oil shale technology but retired after Shell stopped the research. Then he joined Genie.

“One cannot equate potential environmental impacts with certain environmental catastrophe, as some groups have tended to do,” Boak said.

Geoscientist David Hughes with the Post Carbon Institute is aware of Vinegar’s work in Shell.

“The heating of shale underground to extract the oil lasts up to three or four years,” he told IPS. “The freeze wall [developed while Vinegar was signed on with Shell] is to prevent groundwater from invading the heating process. Shell shut down the process but declared the freeze wall to be a success. There will have to be a lot of pilot testing—we’re talking years and years.”

Perhaps because the process is still being tested, transparency has been lacking. Sukhgerel Dugersuren, director of Oyu Tolgoi Watch, a Mongolian environmental NGO, didn’t know about the agreement with Genie until Canadian anti-tar sands and shale activist Macdonald Stainsby contacted her shortly after the announcement.

Sukhgerel set a meeting for local environmental groups to get some oversight started. “Only one person I contacted personally came,” she told IPS. “But that was still useful as she represents the professionals who do the EIAs [environmental impact assessments]. I am very hopeful that she will spread the news to evaluation companies.”

Sukhgerel and Stainsby also learned another company, MAK from Mongolia, is working on oil shale projects near the Gobi desert.

Stainsby told IPS “I was not able, nor was Sukhgerel, to determine where the Genie plant would be located; this was not advertised – the government did not list either site [MAK or Genie] nor did it give coordinates.”

They eventually learned Genie was exploring in the Tov province near Ulaanbaatar after parliament released the information in late spring. Only one foreign media outlet reported Genie had licenses in the Tov province, near the Tuul River

Pastoralists upstream from the Tuul in the next province, close to where it merges with the Orkhon River, told IPS about Genie’s presence. Dashdavaa, a herder in her sixties, said “Four or five new families came here because they had to move from Genie’s work. There is not enough grass now and water for all these families here.”

Her neighbour Tsetseghkorol, a woman who has lived 40 years along the river, said they don’t know much about Genie’s project, just that they are looking for oil and possibly want to build a plant.

IPS contacted the Ministry of Environment and Green Development several times to obtain more information, but received no reply.

Mongolia is part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which publishes information on licenses, taxes and royalties paid to governments. When contacted, a spokesperson said they did not have information on the Mongolia-Genie agreement yet.

IPS also contacted Genie’s headquarters in the U.S. several times by phone and email, but did not receive an official reply.

Mongolia is keen on investment. Although it is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, foreign direct investment this year is 42 percent down from last year. Minister of Mining D. Gankhuyag has said he looks to oil shale as a welcome new investment opportunity.

“The Mongolian government has always tried to find a balance between economic development, and conservation of the environment and culture of which they are justifiably proud,” said Rebecca Watters, director of the Mongolian Wolverine Project, which studies the impact climate change has had on the shrinking habitat of the endangered species.

“The timelines involved in thinking about climate impacts are much longer than the timelines involved in a 50-year mine development, but I hope that they give consideration to these issues all the same,” she told IPS.

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Some Rice, Served With Rainwaterhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/some-rice-served-with-rainwater/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=some-rice-served-with-rainwater http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/10/some-rice-served-with-rainwater/#comments Sat, 05 Oct 2013 07:30:30 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=127960 The quiet Cambodian village of Chouk, set in the beautiful forests of the Cardamom Mountains near the Thai border, seems peaceful. But things are difficult in this largely empty village of simple wooden houses, populated mainly by children and the elderly. The 270 families in Chouk, which means Lotus, own houses but not enough land […]

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Eb Mon welcomes CamASEAN volunteers who hand out food, water and educational materials to the village children he teaches in a one-room school in the Cambodian village of Chouk. Credit Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
KOH KONG PROVINCE, Cambodia , Oct 5 2013 (IPS)

The quiet Cambodian village of Chouk, set in the beautiful forests of the Cardamom Mountains near the Thai border, seems peaceful. But things are difficult in this largely empty village of simple wooden houses, populated mainly by children and the elderly.

The 270 families in Chouk, which means Lotus, own houses but not enough land for subsistence farming, which was their decades-long occupation here in Koh Kong province in southwest Cambodia.

The problem is that they lost their fields to a 20,000-hectare land concession for a sugarcane plantation in 2006, to business tycoon and Senator Ly Yong Phat

The families used to grow rice, vegetables and watermelons on plots averaging 2.5 to 5.0 hectares, but were left just 0.5 hectare each after the company destroyed their crops and took over the land.

Families in the village were offered just 50 dollars per hectare, though rights groups say the market rate was 500-1,000 dollars per hectare.

During the Khmer Rouge years (1975-1979), land titles were abolished, leaving little evidence of land ownership. This paved the way for the current wave of land grabs.

Now heavily in debt to about three microfinance organisations each, the parents travel to nearby Thailand to work as agricultural day labourers every week, or they stay there for months, Noun Sidara of CamASEAN, a volunteer-led youth group from Phnom Penh helping them find a solution, told IPS.

And in some cases, the parents don’t come back.

One 72-year-old grandmother in the village has been caring for her three grandchildren since the parents left and “never returned,” Srun Srorn, a founding member of CamASEAN, told IPS. The grandmother was hired by the sugarcane plantation but only earned 6000 riels (1.5 dollars) working all day.

Labour rates are 100 riel (2 cents) to harvest 20 canes of sugar. “A strong person can earn 2.50 dollars a day, but others make as little as one dollar,” Srun added. In 2010, the sugarcane plantation basically stopped hiring people from this village, complaining that they “were always demonstrating against the plantation”; it now hires from other towns instead.

A sugarcane factory built to process the harvest polluted the local river with industrial runoff, and the villagers’ cows became sick. Some of the families, having no alternative water source, got diarrhea. Their only option was to collect rainwater in containers or, if they could afford it, buy water from a truck. They used to fish from the river but say the pollution killed off the fish.

The villagers survive mainly on rice. Because of the remote location, there is little food to buy in the village market as the nearest town is a four-hour walk away, or an hour-and-a-half drive by car.

For protein, they “sometimes eat eggs or fish sauce” made from fish caught upstream of the factory’s pollution, Srun said. Eggs, costing 400-500 riel (8 to 10 cents) each in Phnom Penh, are double here at 800 riel (16 cents).

They also lack vegetables in their diet, said Noun, who is researching alternative farming methods. He hopes to help them find ways to maximise the capacity of their small plots.

Srun, who has 13 siblings, grew up in the 1980s during the famine in Cambodia. “I experienced a lot of hunger and I wished to change that. So I decided to work more on human rights.”

The World Food Programme (WFP) found that 40 percent of Cambodia’s children are chronically malnourished, despite recent economic gains.

Children of the rural poor, either landless or without enough to subsist on (0.5 hectare or less), are vulnerable to malnutrition, making it harder for them to succeed in school, and putting them at risk of dropping out.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) reports that poverty causes hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, which in turn affect cognitive and physical development, limiting productivity as “inter-related phenomena”.

The impact on education is illustrated in the village of Chouk. The nearest public school is five kilometres away and the children have dropped out since their families lost their land. Their parents can’t afford to contribute to their education any more. Public school teachers earn as little as 40-50 dollars a month and rely on gifts from families.

Srun traveled to the village a year ago and met 77-year-old Eb Mon, who has been teaching the children, coping with about 67 students in a small one-room building. The elderly villager volunteered under the ministry of education in the 1980s for a small stipend, so he knows about hard times.

He asked the ministry to help by building a school, providing him with a table and chair, hiring more teachers, and paying him a small salary. But the ministry never replied.

CamASEAN decided to help him, bringing donated educational materials, clothing, rice noodles and bread – their most recent trip being their fifth. According to the indomitable Eb Mon, who lost his right leg to a land mine and wears a prosthetic, they have been the only group to come regularly.

They have also used the growing popularity of social media in Cambodia to connect the remote village with donors. A French NGO, SIPAR, is building a school for the children – when IPS visited in early September the cement foundations were being laid.

SIPAR also provides Eb Mon and his wife a stipend of 30 dollars a month. And a private Malaysian individual built a water pump for the village in June, the first and only for the nearly 300 families.

“Yet it is not enough,” said a volunteer, Ny Vichet.

Food insecurity remains a problem. Villagers forage in the nearby forest but face risks. Eb Mon’s daughter died from eating poisonous mushrooms several months ago and he and his wife now care for their three grandchildren. The children’s father still forages for food or works in the sugar cane fields. Foraging is a common coping strategy for food-insecure families, according to the FAO.

Eb Mon said he has taught students in grades 3-5 how to read and write by having them study together. Most of the children just come to see him instead of going to the public school because they learn more, he said.

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Cambodian Youth Look for Changehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/07/cambodian-youth-look-for-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cambodian-youth-look-for-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/07/cambodian-youth-look-for-change/#respond Sat, 27 Jul 2013 12:30:50 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=126069 As Cambodia readies for general elections Sunday Jul. 28, the youth, who make up 36 percent of the country have signaled they are eager for ‘change.’ ‘Change’ is their main slogan as they campaign for the opposition party on the streets of the capital every day. They are hoping to make a dent in the […]

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Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters walk in support of opposition leader Sam Rainsy [left, holding flag] in Angkor Wa. Credit: Erika Pineros/IPS.

By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, Jul 27 2013 (IPS)

As Cambodia readies for general elections Sunday Jul. 28, the youth, who make up 36 percent of the country have signaled they are eager for ‘change.’

‘Change’ is their main slogan as they campaign for the opposition party on the streets of the capital every day. They are hoping to make a dent in the dominance of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which currently holds 90 out of 123 seats in parliament. The CPP government has been led by Premier Hun Sen for 28 years.

“Supporters for the [opposition] Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) totally outnumber the Cambodian People’s Party,” 23-year-old activist Sek Sokunroth told IPS in the capital Phnom Penh.

“They are more enthusiastic, louder and they are paying for their own gas and food. I saw a guy with CPP campaign stickers on his bike. I said something to my friend about it, like ‘there goes the CPP,’ and he heard me. He said ‘No, my friend, they are paying me five dollars a day to do this but I am not with them.’”

Half the country lives on two dollars a day, making five dollars a tidy sum of money to ‘work’ the campaign trail.

Srun Srorn, civil society election observer for the CAM ASEAN Youth Advocacy group, said times have been hard for youth, particularly for those who migrate from the countryside to the cities to work for monthly wages as low as 60 dollars. From this income many try to send remittances to parents who have lost out due to land grabs from dubious foreign investment.

The growing wave of evictions has left an estimated 20 percent of Cambodians landless. It is this disenfranchised group that is keen on change.

The rising discontent got an unexpected boost when opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned to the country Jul. 19. He was greeted in Phnom Penh by about 100,000 supporters and a royal pardon from the King. Self-exiled in France since 2009 to avoid charges levelled by the ruling party, Rainsy told supporters the country was at a “turning point” and that he was ready to risk his life to bring change.

“This is the biggest campaign that I have ever seen in my life. Rainsy’s presence has made a big difference. The town was packed,” said Sokunroth. “My parents called me three or four times a day asking me to quit, but I told them I can’t.”

Young CNRP supporters did not experience the Khmer Rouge years 1975 to 1979, but they saw the impact it had on their parents. “People that lived during that time have bad dreams and nightmares every night,” said Sokunroth.

Bill Herod, a retired NGO worker, said most Cambodians outside the capital are content with the way things are because they remember how bad it can get. “Things may change in time, but at this point the ‘average’ Cambodian is virtually basking in the best quality of life in the whole history of the Khmer people and is unlikely to want to rock the boat.”

The young and excitable population have faced unrest already as they struggle for a free and fair election. CNRP supporters were attacked with rocks in a spate of incidents this week, said Tola Moeun, head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre. “From what we see, the CPP group is trying to provoke violence from the youth, as they know they are very sensitive.”

“Compared to the last elections, this year is more exciting with many more supporters  prepared to stand up and say the things they want to say,” said Srun. He looks to the government, NGOs and international bodies to collaborate to reduce unrest.

The secretary general of the CNRP in North America, Pretty Ma, said they are working for a contingency plan in case of strife.

“We do not think that violence is the way to solve problems. We plan to appeal to the government [of Cambodia]. It is their responsibility to address that.” North American party representatives are also looking for support from U.S. congressional representatives.

Cambodians abroad like Pretty Ma, many of who migrated in the Khmer Rouge years, have been instrumental in garnering some international support for their homeland. Sam Rainsy grew up in France after fleeing Cambodia’s war with his family as a child.

Researcher Gea Wijers of the Netherlands has studied Khmer living abroad looking to return to help build their homeland.  She told IPS they struggle to reconcile their experiences of democracies with those of Khmer living in the homeland who have yet to know it.

The Failed State Index for 2012 declared the country at ‘warning’ level, ranked at 41 out of 178 countries, just five spaces below Congo (Republic) at 36. Cambodia earned particularly poor marks in the “rise of factionalised elite” and “legitimacy of the state”.

With these structural flaws, the country faces many obstacles that might be greater than its current youthful desire to transform the system. How Rainsy guides his supporters through the election outcome will be watched keenly.

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/CORRECTED REPEAT*/River Diversion Project Spells Disasterhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/07/river-diversion-project-spells-disaster/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=river-diversion-project-spells-disaster http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/07/river-diversion-project-spells-disaster/#comments Fri, 19 Jul 2013 23:00:28 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=125875 Tsetseghkorol, a Mongolian herder, stares out nostalgically at the Orkhon River, the longest in the country. “In 1992, the river used to be wide, deep and clean,” she says. “Now it is very polluted and small.” Sitting with her neighbour Dashdavaa in a ‘ger’, a traditional Mongolian yurt used by herders across this vast Central […]

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A major diversion project threatens to choke Mongolia's Orkhon River, the longest in the country. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
SELENGE PROVINCE, Mongolia, Jul 19 2013 (IPS)

Tsetseghkorol, a Mongolian herder, stares out nostalgically at the Orkhon River, the longest in the country.

“In 1992, the river used to be wide, deep and clean,” she says. “Now it is very polluted and small.”

Sitting with her neighbour Dashdavaa in a ‘ger’, a traditional Mongolian yurt used by herders across this vast Central Asian country, Tsetseghkorol tells IPS she has lived alongside the 1,124-km-long Orkhon for 40 years, raising five children and a herd of livestock with little more than the natural bounty of the river basin.

Dashdavaa, also a herder, is in her 60s, with nine grown children. She moved closer to a tributary of the Orkhon River in 1992 after the collapse of socialism in Mongolia, when she lost her job as a kindergarten teacher.

Like many Mongolians at the time, she returned to her pastoralist roots to support her large family, and now views this river as a critical lifeline.

Though shrinking from climate change, the Selenge river basin, comprised in part by the Orkhon River, is still lush compared to the 72 percent of the country facing desertification.

Covering 343,000 square km, the basin provides a livelihood to 55 percent of Mongolia’s population of 2.9 million people.

As idyllic as this valley seems, a threat lurks not too far away: the potential destruction of this ancient way of life by the proposed Orkhon River Diversion Project, which, according to the NGO Rivers Without Boundaries, is funded by the World Bank.

Currently in its feasibility-study phase, the project is a government scheme to build a dam several kilometres upstream from Tsetseghkorol and Dashdavaa, 35 km southwest of the northern city of Bulgan, in order to pump water through a 900-km-long underground pipeline into the parched Southern Gobi Region, which could run out of groundwater in the next 10 years unless additional water sources are promptly located.

A website detailing the Orkhon project revealed there is a possibility of building a reservoir with a capacity of 700 to 800 million cubic metres, as well as a 25-to-30-megwatt (MW) hydropower station on the river.

While this project intends to draw just five percent of the Orkhon River’s total supply, experts say the percentage volume will vary depending on the time of year: the river is always much thinner during the dry season, while most of the surface water is frozen throughout the winter months (November through April); so the river will face a particularly heavy assault during those periods of scarcity.

“Given that the Orkhon, including Tuul [its tributary] is already the most exploited river basin in Mongolia, even an additional five-percent withdrawal may cause serious problems,” Eugene Simonov, a conservation science specialist at Pacific Environment and coordinator of the Rivers without Boundaries coalition, told IPS.

According to a report from Mongolia’s Water Centre, the water will travel south through eight population centres, with the final destinations being the massive government-owned Tavan Tolgoi coal mine and Oyu Tolgoi copper mine.

The latter, located 350 km from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is expected to increase the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 30 percent and is currently valued at 6.6 billion dollars.

Mining is taking a heavy toll on the region, with herders in the Gobi desert reporting that dug wells, their traditional water sources, are drying up as a result of the mines, which guzzle an estimated 191,230 cubic metres of water every day, far surpassing the combined consumption of livestock herds (31,600 cubic metres) and residents (just 10,000 cubic meters), according to the 2010 World Bank water assessment for the Southern Gobi Region.

Enkhat, director of the ministry of environment and green development, told IPS that the water shortage is a crucial issue that needs to be addressed “immediately”, citing the diversion project as a step in the right direction.

While the ministry has identified herders and locals in the Gobi desert as the main beneficiaries of the project, feasibility reports show the mining industry is expected to swill no less than 50 percent of the water, while 30 percent will go to crop irrigation and only 20 percent to livestock, household use and environmental purposes.

Thousands of herders rely on rivers to water their livestock herds. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

Thousands of herders rely on rivers to water their livestock herds. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

This ratio bodes badly for an agricultural region that supplies 40 percent of the country’s wheat needs and where 100,000 residents are dependent on the river to water their crops and their roughly 1.3 million head of cattle.

Furthermore, the project will solidify the region’s relationship with miners by soliciting funds and contracts from extraction companies in order to meet the project’s exorbitant costs.

Initially the cost of conveyance was found to be too high compared to the cost of accessing existing groundwater sources, making the project “unfeasible”, but rising prices of groundwater over the last few years have made surface water projects much more attractive.

From about eight cents per cubic metre, the cost of groundwater has risen to 1.07 to 6.74 dollars for a single cubic metre, depending on the quality of the water source.

The price increase, implemented to prevent industrial overuse of the scarce resource, represents a major setback for the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine, jointly owned by the Canadian corporation Rio Tinto and the Mongolian government, at 66 percent and 34 percent respectively.

The original mining contract stipulated that Rio Tinto would draw its water needs from a saline aquifer that the project’s researchers located 35 km from the construction site in 2003.

The mining ministry confirmed to IPS that Rio Tinto had been granted the use of 20 percent of this aquifer for a 40-year period.

But according to Oyu Tolgoi’s water resources principal advisor, Mark Newby, the price hike has resulted in the company footing a water bill that is “40 times higher than previously agreed.”

Higher prices have also made alternative sources, such as water drawn from alluvial deposits, cost ineffective. Classified as ‘groundwater’ because it resides under the Orkhon riverbed, water extracted from alluvium would cost three times as much as surface water.

According to Simonov, this encourages reservoir construction, which obstructs the natural flow of the river and harms the fragile ecosystem.

The Taishir Dam, for instance, constructed against the wishes of the community in western Mongolia in 2008, has negatively affected indigenous nomads, endangered species like the Pallas’s Fish Eagle, and led to the untimely deaths of livestock by drying out the Zavkhan River.

“Giant infrastructure projects for which international finance institutions are providing soft loans are the best option for corporations or contractors and lazy development organisations that derive a benefit from them. They [the projects] usually serve the interests of large businesses, not the local population,” Simonov said, adding, “Prestige Group [the Mongolian engineering firm in charge of the project] has always favoured in-stream reservoir construction, the most costly and environmentally destructive option.”

Dashdavaa and Tsetseghkorol looked stricken when asked for their opinion on the proposed project. Sitting in their gers without a television, they have been unaware of the broadcast advertisements proclaiming that water will be brought to the Gobi from the Orkhon.

These humble subsistence herders thought the project, already on the table for a few years, had been cancelled in response to the local outcry.

Though they understand that people need water in the Gobi, they said that if the project goes through, “We will become like the Gobi ourselves.”

*The story moved on Jul. 19, 2013, incorrectly stated that the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine plans to take advantage of the Orkhon River Diversion Project. Mark Newby, water resources principal advisor for the mine, informed IPS that Oyu Tolgoi will not utilise water from the river diversion project for its operations.

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Cambodia’s Opposition Fights Backhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/06/cambodias-opposition-fights-back/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cambodias-opposition-fights-back http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/06/cambodias-opposition-fights-back/#comments Thu, 20 Jun 2013 13:12:10 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=125039 The violence that defined Cambodia during the years of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) may have been relegated to the realm of history, but the actions of the ruling party ahead of the Jul. 28 election smack of the dirty politics that once ruled this Southeast Asian country. Observers and analysts predict that the ruling coalition […]

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Sochua Mu at a CNRP demonstration in Phnom Penh. Credit: Charlotte Pert/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
PHNOM PENH, Jun 20 2013 (IPS)

The violence that defined Cambodia during the years of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) may have been relegated to the realm of history, but the actions of the ruling party ahead of the Jul. 28 election smack of the dirty politics that once ruled this Southeast Asian country.

Observers and analysts predict that the ruling coalition of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the FUNCINPEC Party will win, thereby adding another five-year term to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 28-year reign.

But that has not stopped an ugly face-off between the CPP and its main competitors, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP), which last year consolidated their power under the umbrella of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and now hold 27 out of 123 parliamentary seats.

In response, the 12-member permanent committee of the National Assembly, whose members all hail from the ruling CPP, decided on Jun. 5 to strip 29 legislators, 27 of whom belong to the opposition, of their political power, citing a constitutional clause that bans lawmakers from “party hopping” in order to form mergers.

Within days the ruling coalition had also launched a smear campaign against Kem Sokha, current acting president of the CNRP, claiming that he had denied the existence of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison where over 20,000 Cambodians were executed during the Khmer Rouge years.

CPP politicians claim to have a digital recording of Sokha calling the prison, which doubled up as a torture chamber, a hoax cooked up by the Vietnamese.

Local media outlets quickly ran with the story, but the CNRP vehemently denies the allegation.

“Kem Sokha, more than anybody else, knows about the reality of the Khmer Rouge as both his parents were killed by them,” Mu Sochua, president of SRP Women’s Wing and CNRP’s public relations executive, told IPS.

According to Sochua, the recording is a fabrication, designed to frame Sokha and weaken the growing strength of the opposition coalition, which has been drawing scores of supporters to its rallies, including most recently a 2,000-strong demonstration in the capital, Phnom Penh, and a 3,000-strong march in the northwestern city of Battambang.

Initial reactions to the allegation suggested that the attempt to discredit the opposition was working: on Jun. 9 the ruling coalition amassed 6,000 people at a protest in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park against Sokha’s so-called “denial” of Khmer Rouge rights abuses.

But Tola Moeun, head of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) who witnessed the event first-hand, said he talked to demonstrators who had been offered five dollars each to attend, a small fortune in a country where 49 percent of the population of 14 million people live on two dollars a day or less, and 26 percent lack adequate food and nutrition.

Moeun told IPS that other so-called demonstrators admitted to joining the protest simply because they had been promised a tour of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital, and not due to any loyalty towards the CPP.

Election observers say it will take more than a smear campaign to derail the opposition, whose strong human rights platform and support of labour and land struggles parallels burgeoning nationwide grassroots movements.

Land has become a pivotal issue in a county where 80 percent of the population is involved in subsistence farming but 20 percent of agricultural families are landless, due in part to the government’s scheme of leasing millions of hectares of agricultural land to mammoth multinational corporations.

Land rights activism is on the rise: the Cambodian Grassroots People’s Assembly (CGPA) that emerged in response to lack of civil society representation at the 2012 ASEAN Summit has collaborated with the internationally renowned Boeung Kak lake activists to mobilise thousands.

The civil society group Licadho noted that 2012 was a particularly bad year for human rights. Labour violations topped the list after a provincial governor shot three factory workers during a strike in the town of Bavet, all of them members of the growing Free Trade Union.

While activist networks are careful to avoid political affiliations in order not to be seen as “anti-government”, the strength of people’s movements has not been lost on the ruling coalition, whose decision to disempower the opposition came just a few days after a major demonstration by 3,500 workers at a Nike factory in the southeastern province of Kampong Speu.

Besides their obvious popularity among activists, the CNRP has also attracted a growing number of youth, as a quick look at social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter indicates.

According to Thida Khus, executive director of SILAKA and representative of the Cambodia Women’s Caucus, youth now comprise 36 percent of the population, representing a sizeable demographic and a crucial vote bank.

The opposition has also made good use of social media to circumvent a virtual monopoly over the dissemination of information, said Sochua.

According to Freedom House, “All television and most radio stations, the main sources of information for the two-thirds of the population who are functionally illiterate, are owned or controlled by either the CPP or Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and associates. Opposition outlets are often denied radio and television frequencies.”

But SRP has capitalised on this media blackout: as of Jun. 18, Sam Rainsy, currently in exile due to pending prison charges that human rights groups say are fabricated, was leading the social media race with 80,000 “likes” on Facebook, compared to the premier’s 68,465.

While social media has not previously been seen as a strong indicator of public opinion, Internet penetration has grown tremendously since the last National Assembly election held in 2008, and now represents a reported 2.7 million Cambodians, according to the ministry of posts and telecommunication.

Still, Khus is concerned for the safety of CNRP members, particularly since there are “no international observers for the election,” she told IPS.

Being stripped of their status as members of parliament means the opposition lawmakers have not only lost their salaries but also their parliamentary immunity, which could impact their ability to safely speak to international press against the ruling party.

On Jun. 10, a coalition of 15 civil society groups representing labour and land rights issued a joint statement condemning the ruling party’s actions, just as the U.S. Department of State made a statement calling the move a “threat to democracy.”

The CNRP meanwhile filed a complaint on Jun. 17 with the Constitutional Council that the ruling party’s actions violate Cambodia’s constitution, adding that the CNRP is considering boycotting the election if the matter is not resolved.

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Building an Agricultural Empirehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/05/building-an-agricultural-empire/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=building-an-agricultural-empire http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/05/building-an-agricultural-empire/#respond Mon, 06 May 2013 12:01:58 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=118511 Genghis Khan knew about hard times. The founder of the Mongol Empire, which spanned most of Eurasia until roughly 1227, Genghis and his clan had to survive on their wits and natural surroundings, often resorting to meals of “green leafy things” when food was scarce. Today that history seems to have been lost, with most […]

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A camel outside a traditional Mongolian felt tent (yurt). Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia, May 6 2013 (IPS)

Genghis Khan knew about hard times. The founder of the Mongol Empire, which spanned most of Eurasia until roughly 1227, Genghis and his clan had to survive on their wits and natural surroundings, often resorting to meals of “green leafy things” when food was scarce.

Today that history seems to have been lost, with most Mongolians dismissing fruits, vegetables and cultivation as “unmanly”, according to Marissa Markowitz, a food security consultant with the ministry of industry and agriculture (MoIA).

Less than one percent of the country’s land is used for crop production. Instead, following the instincts of their ancestors who were primarily nomadic herders, Mongolians rely on livestock for their food needs, guiding massive herds across the vast grasslands of the Central Asian Steppes.

The Soviet-era meat and dairy industries that flourished here between 1921 and 1990 collapsed along with the Soviet Union, robbing Mongolians not only of the centralised economic structure that had regulated production and distribution for years, but also of major markets for their products, tipping the country towards food insecurity.

One third of households in urban provincial centres and the capital, Ulaanbaatar, were found to be food insecure in 2009, according to a seminal study by Mercy Corps.

The standard diet here is comprised of wheat, meat and rice, said Markowitz, citing reports by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Research released by the ministry of health in 2008 and 2010 revealed that a full third of the country’s population of three million eat no fruits or vegetables at all.

Curbing Imports

In an attempt to curb imports and boost agricultural production, the government has imposed tariffs on Russian wheat, which previously sold for less than locally produced wheat.

A grain importer named Erdenetsetseg, who operates at the Bars wholesale market in Ulaanbaatar, told IPS, “Russian flour has become almost impossible to sell because of the taxation” that has taken the price of imported flour to 24 dollars per 25-kilo bag, against 18 dollars for local produce.

Though the new rule imposed by the Mongolian government has been hurting importers, who brought in 70 percent of the nation’s wheat supply until 2008, according to the MoIA, it has given local farmers the breathing room they need to compete with imported produce.

Between 1999 and 2005, small farmers struggled to stay afloat as potato imports from China surged from nine tonnes to 41,000 tonnes, according to a report by the FAO. Today, Mongolia’s wheat cultivation provides 150 percent of the country’s needs and potato cultivation provides 140 percent, according to Markowitz.

The northern Selenge province now “resembles the Midwest of the United States”, with kilometre after kilometre of potato fields stretching outward as far as the eye can see, Markowitz said.

Mongolia also grows amaranth and barley.
Little knowledge of vegetable use stemming from a lack of access to nutritional information, doctors and health specialists contributes to this imbalanced diet, which particularly affects the one in five families living on 1.25 dollars a day.

Vegetables and fruits are expensive compared to the monthly minimum wage of about 100 dollars. Spring is a particularly difficult period, when national food stores are depleted and prices skyrocket – during this time, local sea buckthorn berries sell for about three to four dollars a kilo; carrots for roughly two dollars a kilo and tomatoes for nearly four dollars a kilo.

A severe lack of storage capacity in rural areas and informal settlements known as “ger districts” — shantytowns comprised of traditional Mongolian felt tents, or yurts — exacerbates the problem, with transportation costs adding to the price.

The poverty index is 23.4 percent in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with 60 percent of the city’s one million residents living in informal settlements or shantytowns.

A fifth of Mongolian children under the age of five are stunted, according to the MoIA’s statistics on malnutrition.

Experts on food security are also concerned about extreme desertification brought on by the introduction of a market-based food system, which saw herds increase by 20 million heads between 1999 and 2007.

Bringing back gardens

In light of these alarming trends, the country has recently embarked on the slow process of rebuilding its agricultural sector.

In the northwestern Songino Khairkhan district in Ulaanbaatar, in a neighbourhood crowded with gers surrounded by wooden fences, a two-acre farm flanked by snow-capped mountains is thriving. Warm greenhouses nurture vegetable seedlings and, outside, the hardy sea buckthorn bush saplings are preparing to explode into ripe orange fruit.

This is the headquarters of the Mongolian Women Farmers Association (MWFA), a volunteer-led NGO that works in all 21 of Mongolia’s provinces to promote vegetable and fruit cultivation among poor families.

The climate here – cold and dry with a short growing season from May until September – is ideal for potatoes, beets, cabbage, carrots, onions and radishes, which can be stored during the long winter months when temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius.

But a survey published by the Mercy Corps showed that despite 40 percent of the urban poor having access to land, only six percent grew their own vegetables – and even these families cultivated the produce for their own personal use rather than additional income.

Markowitz, coordinator of the project, says the NGO has already worked with 4,500 families on “enhanced nutrition and resource conservation”, and supported vegetable gardens as a “viable way to generate household income”. MWFA also teaches families how to cook and preserve vegetables by canning.

The organisation hopes this will reduce dependence on Russian and Chinese imports that typically flood the local market during the cold season that lasts from October through April.

A volunteer named Tuya told IPS the farm is very popular among locals, particularly for their cultivation of sea buckthorn, which thrives in Mongolia’s harsh weather and helps to stem desertification.

Over 30 grafted varieties of the plant grow in the central and northeastern parts of the country. The yellow berry, known as a “super plant,” is high in vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids and can remove toxins in the body. Families freeze harvested berries in the winter, and often turn them into juice for a quick meal.

In 2007, the far-western Uvs province, considered the birthplace of wild buckthorn domestication in the 1940s, attained the coveted geographic indicator status, comparable to the Champagne region in France, which ensures a higher price for specialised produce. Today, Uvs supplies the nation with 60,000 saplings yearly, according to a FAO case study.

In addition to helping spread sea buckthorn plants, MWFA has published two books and 30 texts on agriculture, using their greenhouses as teaching aids. They also provide free classes to the local community in the surrounding ger districts.

One of the teachers, Bayraa, told IPS classes span twenty days and instruct individuals interested in subsistence agriculture or entrepreneurs aiming to start a business.

Some teachers travel to the countryside to impart knowledge of vegetable cultivation to populations in more remote provinces.

It remains to be seen if sea buckthorn berries or vegetables can stand alongside meat or dairy as a traditional Mongolian meal, even though agricultural production was practiced on the steppes as far back as 2,000 years ago.

Today, Ulaanbaatar boasts over 20 vegetarian restaurants, helping to fuel a demand for local greens and reduce the impact of herding on the country.

If the expansion of agriculture here is successful, Mongolia could build a different kind of empire to Genghis Khan’s – one with nutrition and food security at its core.

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From Herders to Cultivatorshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/05/from-herders-to-cultivators/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=from-herders-to-cultivators http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/05/from-herders-to-cultivators/#respond Sun, 05 May 2013 11:08:41 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=118518 When the food-strapped Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) appealed to the Mongolian government for food last month, it signaled a major turning point in the public image of this Central Asian country, which has long struggled to feed its own population of three million. Transformed from a nation of nomads into an industrial agricultural […]

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By Michelle Tolson
ULAANBAATAAR, Mongolia, May 5 2013 (IPS)

When the food-strapped Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) appealed to the Mongolian government for food last month, it signaled a major turning point in the public image of this Central Asian country, which has long struggled to feed its own population of three million.

Transformed from a nation of nomads into an industrial agricultural exporter during its time as a Soviet satellite state between 1921 and 1990, the country’s food production systems suffered a sudden crash after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Families went back to subsistence agriculture, but herding under a privatised market economy created unsustainable livestock populations and overgrazing, as a result of which Mongolia now has an estimated 78 percent desertification rate.

As recently as 2008, the country imported two-thirds of its wheat, one third of its potatoes and most of its milk products in urban areas, according to a United States Department of Agriculture report.

But new initiatives by the government and private sector to revive food production here have taken Mongolians back to their roots as small-scale cultivators, utilising the short growing season on the Central Asian Steppes to plan trees and the nutritious sea buckthorn bushes to protect the topsoil.

Tuya, a member of the Mongolian Women Farmers Association (MWFA) told IPS that imported vegetables are too expensive for the rural and urban poor living in informal “tent cities” across the country. So the new cultivation initiatives offer a way out of malnutrition and food insecurity.

According to government studies, a full third (33 percent) of Mongolians eat no vegetables at all.  The poor suffer from heart disease, stunting in children, high blood pressure, obesity, malnutrition and alcoholism. The MWFA, a volunteer-led civil society organisation, has been teaching ger-district and rural residents how to grow and cook vegetables to improve both their income and health.


 

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Sugar Playing Catch-Up With Spicehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2013/03/sugar-playing-catch-up-with-spice-2/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=sugar-playing-catch-up-with-spice-2 http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/03/sugar-playing-catch-up-with-spice-2/#respond Fri, 15 Mar 2013 07:44:53 +0000 Michelle Tolson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=117167 Dotted with rice fields flanked by palm trees, Cambodia’s southeastern province of Kampong Speu is nothing short of picturesque. But behind the idyllic exterior is an on-going struggle to turn this region’s natural beauty into a global attraction and improve the lot of poor local farmers, as the neighbouring beachside Kampot province did just three […]

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A Cambodian woman dries Kampot peppercorns in the sun. Credit: IPS

By Michelle Tolson
KAMPOT, Cambodia, Mar 15 2013 (IPS)

Dotted with rice fields flanked by palm trees, Cambodia’s southeastern province of Kampong Speu is nothing short of picturesque.

But behind the idyllic exterior is an on-going struggle to turn this region’s natural beauty into a global attraction and improve the lot of poor local farmers, as the neighbouring beachside Kampot province did just three years ago.

Back in 2009, Kampot became to Cambodia what Champagne is to France – a region bestowed with the prestigious Geographical Indication (GI) status, which ensures a higher market value for specialty produce.

According to a report from Cambodia’s Commerce Ministry, “A GI product must have a specific quality…linked to the characteristics of its geographic production zone, and must have a well-established reputation among consumers in connection with this origin.”

GI registration also requires farmers to use natural manure in place of chemical fertilisers, bio-pesticides instead of poisonous chemicals, and to test their water source for arsenic contamination.

Here in Kampot, farmers supplying European gourmets with what is lauded as the best pepper in the world enjoy a higher daily wage than their counterparts in this Southeast Asian nation of 14 million people, 30 percent of whom live on less than a dollar a day.

Kampong Speu, whose sandy soil is unique in the region, was also awarded GI status for its palm sugar, but the region has been dogged since 2009 by the presence of mass-produced sugar cane, which has stolen the limelight from its eco-friendly cousin.

Pictures of stricken families torn from their land to make way for large sugar cane plantations became associated with the province when the European Union’s Everything but Arms (EBA) trade agreement with Cambodia spurred a surge in sugar cane exports.

As a result, the GI label has had very different results in the two neighbouring provinces. Experts believe the discrepancy is a result of how each remote region presents itself to the outside world.

Kampot instantly brings to mind tourism, with its nearby beaches, quaint French colonial buildings and farms supplying French kitchens with the “black gold of pepper”, according to the Cambodian Organic Agricultural Association (COrAA). 

The province also boasts a healthy tourism industry with 46 guesthouses of roughly 549 rooms and six hotels with 353 rooms, according to government sources.

Kampot has also innovated schemes to combine tourism with sales of pepper: for instance, motorbike taxi drivers function as a link between the farmer and consumer. Rany, a moto driver and guide told IPS he has a list of return customers who purchase pepper direct from the farmers to sell overseas.

In contrast, Kampong Speu province is recognised for agriculture and industry, and has not developed the charm capable of attracting large numbers of tourists. As a result, its star product has not gained international attention.

Sun Somnang of the export company Starling Farm and a member of both the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association (KPPA) and the Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association (KPSA) believes there is an urgent need to publicise palm sugar and attract tourists.

Experts like Somnang and government officials seek to improve farmers’ lives in Kampong Speu, where the average gross annual income is 500 to 1,000 dollars.

Most palm sugar farmers own just one hectare of land and typically exploit an average of 16 palm trees each, according to the KPSA.

The ministries of commerce and agriculture collaborated with marketing firms by initiating the GI process to help preserve palm sugar farming.

Promoting palm

Cambodians view the palm tree as a national icon: its leaves and wood are used for housing material, while the sap is used for sugar and wine.

But producing the sugar is labour intensive, as farmers must climb trees to harvest the sap and then cook it over a fire before it turns to wine.

Unprotected palm trees have been felled in the past decade as the capital expands and the sugar cane industry seeps into the region. Since 2009, sugar cane plantations have claimed more trees according to researchers, though the numbers are not monitored.

A map published by the “clean sugar campaign” illustrates sugar cane land concessions surround palm sugar production districts in Kampong Speu.

In an effort to save the slow-growing palm trees, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has banned them from being cut down, according to local media.  Somnang told IPS that this law has been in effect for about six months.

David Pred from Bridges Across Borders, an NGO advocating on behalf of land grab victims, said poor palm sugar farmers sometimes lose their land to concessions but they also sell it as the value of land is high owing to a massive influx of foreign direct investment (FDI).

Advocates for the estimated 20,000 families dependent on palm sugar say there is an urgent need for higher wages.

While the price of Kampot pepper has shot up from just four dollars to 16 dollars per kilo for some pepper varieties under GI status, palm sugar continues to sell at just over a dollar per kilo in upscale supermarkets.

NGOs have been assisting palm tree producers from rural Takeo, Kampong Speu and Kampong Chhnang provinces to help them increase their profits.

One national NGO concluded better marketing was needed to raise profits, using the GI status to connect farmers with wealthy international markets.

The FAO reports that farmers’ earnings per kilo rose during GI registration, from a low of 1,200 riels (0.30 dollars) to a high of 2,000 riels (0.50 dollars) for sugar paste bought by marketing organisations.

Still, a government evaluation noted Kampot pepper had better marketing than palm sugar from outside parties and a stronger international media presence.

Though it had considerable success promoting Kampot pepper, Confirel, a major Cambodian marketing firm has yet to launch a fruitful campaign for palm sugar in Europe; instead, the firm is making in-roads into Taiwan and Japan, according to COrAA.

Tom Gordon of the Pepper Project, a non-profit that has had success introducing Kampot pepper to U.S. consumers, told IPS they are initiating the import of palm sugar starting this month.

(END)

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