Posted by: chandnidhingra | October 30, 2014

Equitible Cambodia Internship Report – Chandni Dhingra

Living in Cambodia is an adventure that is almost impossible to describe to those who haven’t experienced it.  Cambodia is a strangely contradictory place; chaotic yet peaceful, colourful yet black-and-white, slow yet fast, complicated yet simple and misleading yet honest. It is a country that touches all of your senses every time you wake up, and in every way that it is intense, it is also cathartic. Living in Cambodia was a whirlwind experience, and I am continuing to learn from and cherish my time there.

Chandni

Of all of the places I was lucky enough to visit, my Cambodian home, Phnom Penh, was by far the most intricate and the most chaotic. Phnom Penh is an interesting mixture of cultures that exist almost in parallel; the traditional families, the more westernised youth, and the expat community all coexist quite happily. I spent time bicycling/motor-biking through this vibrant city surrounded by artists, monks, fish-mongers, passionate community representatives, controversial businessmen, hoards of children and of course the wonderful team at Equitable Cambodia (EC).

Working with the Development Watch team at EC was definitely a highlight of my time in Cambodia. EC is an advocacy-based NGO that is a leading defender of land and housing rights for communities across the country. It came into existence in 2012, when the international organisation ‘Bridges Across Boarders Cambodia’ (BABC) was localised. EC has a number of different programs, all which operate separately and collectively towards improving Cambodian access to and implementation of human rights.

I was primarily involved in two cases in my time at EC. The first is in relation to the sugar industry in Cambodia. This particular issue began with the European Union’s ‘Everything But Arms’ trade initiative (EBA). With this initiative, all imports from the least developed countries do not incur taxes in the EU, and are further sold at a guaranteed minimum price to ensure a certain profit margin. The aim of the initiative, as I understand it, was to ensure that the economies of the least-developed countries were receiving consistent economic stimulation. Unfortunately this backfired in Cambodia whereupon the government seized this opportunity to exploit one of their major resources…sugar.

Shortly after the EBA initiative was put in to place, the Cambodian government declared large areas as public land, allowing sugar companies access to it. However, this land was inhabited by thousands of villages and communities who then lost their land, crops, homes, schools and more to unannounced bulldozers. These families were offered little or no compensation. Some were relocated to areas with inadequate land to farm or allow livestock to graze, and no access to clean water or schools. Families suffered from loss of livelihoods, education opportunities, and often incurred large amounts of debt at inflated interest rates. Many community members were then forced to work on unsafe sugar plantations, that had replaced their homes. In order to earn money to feed the families they previously fed on their own home-grown food.

I was involved in many aspects of this case, including research into the child-labour taking place in the plantation, the worrying work conditions and the specific impact upon women. I was able to gain field experience by accompanying Monsieur Patrice Tirolien, member of the European Parliament from Guadeloupe, in to rural villages. This allowed a first hand insight in to the devastating impacts these land grabbings had on the communities. Furthermore, I was exposed to a rather cultural and linguistic hot pot, where by Khmer dialects were translated to Khmer, then to English for myself, which I translated in to French for Mr. Tirolien !

Of particular excitement was the exposure of ANZ’s involvement in supporting the activities of the Phnom Penh Sugar Company. This scandal surfaced in my first week at EC and I was thrown into meetings with banks, the EU, UN, government representatives, communities, and multitudes of NGOs I participated in, problem-solving think tanks and observed an attempted negotiation with the Phnom Penh Sugar Company to resolve the matter. All of these experiences taught me a great deal about people in general and the way different societies and groups of people tend to react and negotiate in instances of conflict.

The second case I was involved in concerned similar land-grabbing issues related to the rubber industry, but also concerned the more complex needs of the indigenous communities in north-eastern Cambodia. The rubber case was unrelated to the EBA, but concerned a number of foreign companies and banks in a complex chain of liability for the losses of the communities. I was able to assist in presentations at NGO forums, the compilation of research, innumerable meetings with the banks involved, and a submission to the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO): a conflict assessment and dispute resolution mechanism of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a branch of the World Bank.

I was also extremely fortunate to be able to accompany EC’s Development Watch team into some rural indigenous villages in the Ratanakiri province to do some field research for this case. After getting lost in forests and along dirt-roads to nowhere, I found myself observing women’s discussion groups, family interviews and community mapping activities. I bathed in moonlit rivers and slept on the floor of the village chief’s house with his litter of kittens whilst the radio blared propaganda supporting the Cambodian People’s Party to the village. It was certainly an unforgettable experience.

In my time at EC, I came to see the organisation like an orchestra. I had heard snippets of conversations from the Community Organisation team, and the Community Empowerment and Legal Awareness team, like rehearsals of the woodwind and brass instruments. It wasn’t until a meeting involving four languages (two indigenous dialects, Khmer and English), community representatives from around the country and representatives from each EC team, that this all came together in a beautiful symphony of change. It was incredible to see the flow-on impacts from each different team contributing to one fight being brought by a plethora of communities.

I would like to thank the Castan Centre and Equitable Cambodia for giving me the opportunity to work in such an interesting field, surrounded by so many passionate people. The experiences I had and shared with the many wonderful friends I made will stay with me and continue to teach me new things.

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