Apologies to our seven faithful followers (Hi, Mom!), this post comes a little bit late. We’ve been in full on backpacker mode, hopping from town to town every few days, handcuffed to our Lonely Planet maps. I actually wrote this post last week but an error in the blog site app deleted it all and inspired a very strongly worded email (also still unwritten).
Way back before Christmas we had a chance to go with our good friend Togh Main, director of the VDCA school, to the village where he grew up. Anlong Pi is an idyllic lush green village about 25km outside of Siem Reap. His parents were rice farmers and raised Togh and his 10 siblings in a humble stilted bamboo hut. They still live here and farm the land.
But then, about two years ago, a chunk of land behind Togh’s childhood home was sold to a private company and soon roads were built and garbage trucks came rolling through, turning the sleepy town of Anlong Pi into the dump site for the entire city of Siem Reap.
The garbage pile soon grew so high that it looked like flat-as-a-pancake northern Cambodia had sprouted mountains. Now they burn the garbage every day to make it more compact. There’s no telling what kind of toxins these fumes are imparting on the local village (or atmosphere) and there’s concern that it may also effect the local water supply. Once the trash is completely burnt down into the soil, the company hauls the spoiled mud to market and sells it as landscape filler dirt.
It gets worse. The water quality in Cambodia is sketchy at best and plastic water bottles are ubiquitous among travelers and Cambodians who can afford them. Most places don’t offer refills, you just toss the bottle in the bin (or on the ground) and get a new one. They haul all of this waste to the dump and workers will scavenge for plastic and glass bottles to collect for reselling, a giant bag of which will yield a small return (about $3).
Due to its history, Cambodia is rich in unskilled laborers and people from nearby villages have flooded the dump looking for extra work. Nobody knew exactly how many, but Togh estimated over 100 families work there and at least 20 families have set up shanty accommodations and now live in the dump. I say families because parents (mostly mothers) have no choice but to drag their children with them into the garbage. Togh spends a lot of time with these women and says they all say the same thing “We didn’t know what else to do.”
If something like this were to happen where I grew up, my first thought would be to petition the local government and get the dump site relocated or at least monitored. But poor Cambodians have little hope of federal regulation, in fact, it seems to be an unconsidered concept that government intervention leads to protection. Most charitable organizations and NGO’s try to operate far, far away from the oversight of Hun Sen and his ministry. The small, local government seems to be reaping the benefit of a rich company renting their land, no matter the consequences. The dump is not going away anytime soon.
Togh Main’s only option was to go to the source and appeal to the victims of Anlong Pi, the workers. His first mission was to get the children out. In early 2012 he opened the Anlong Pi Free School which offers English lessons to the children of villagers and dump workers. Perhaps more important than the English, this program gives the kids a place to be so they don’t have to join their parents in the dump while they’re not in public school (Cambodian public school only runs about 3 hours a day unless you have the money for “extra school”. An expensive option none of these people can afford). More recently, Togh opened a nursery to watch after the smallest kids and has just started a feeding program so they don’t have to go into the dump to search for their lunch.
As if this wasn’t enough to take on, Togh is also working on two additional projects to offer the adults alternative work choices. He’s creating a fish farm (already stocked with 10,000 growing fish!) which will teach agricultural skills and create jobs for villagers to sell fish at the market. It’s a literal incarnation of the “give a man a fish…” fable. He’s also built 6 stilted wooden homes and is offering 3 year contracts to families that have moved into the dump. These families receive micro-loans to help them create their own agricultural business outside of garbage. Their children are cared for during the day and given an education.
As you can imagine, these projects take a lot of management and funds for sustainability but Togh has an excellent team that helps him organize, fundraise and plan for future development. Check out some of their plans and reports:
If you’re interested in learning more about Togh Main and his many philanthropies, don’t hesitate to friend him on facebook, that’s where you’ll find a majority of his news and updates (always punctuated with our favorite Togh-ism “Oh my Buddha!!”) Our Aussie friend Ryan also has a great informational post with video here.
When we first started volunteering in Siem Reap, we were a bit bewildered by his numerous projects, thinking that he probably had his hands full just with the Siem Reap branch of VDCA. But after visiting his true countryside home it all made sense. Watching the gentle and respectful way he would approach the working mothers and their babies, covered in fruit flies, laughing with them and commiserating over the late rain, the sadness that fell over his face as he stared into the smoking, smelly distance from his parent’s backyard. I can see why this passion project is so important to him. These are his people, his past and his future. It keeps him awake at night to see them suffer.
Togh Main and his amazing team are bringing hope to Anlong Pi. The gestures are small, a meal here and a job there, but there’s no doubt it will amount to something much bigger. He’s a small town hero and his infectious big heart is catching.