Rice Farmers in Rural Cambodia

"It takes money to make money."

Nowhere is this old adage more true than in the rural rice-farming villages of Cambodia, where the standard paltry income goes hand-in-hand with the simple lifestyle. Here, there is no running water or electricity (other than 12-volt car batteries). Roads are unpaved—full of potholes during the dry season, muddy and unpassable during the wet season. Water pumped from groundwater sources is used for all purposes—cooking, drinking, bathing, washing—despite containing fecal coliforms (and even high levels of arsenic in some areas). And when I first visited my Cambodian wife’s village in December 2016, many villagers (including some of my own in-laws) were still bathing under the stars—too poor to afford the $500 USD for constructing a simple brick outhouse for showers and lavatory.

Even though the cost of food is very low—people can grow their own rice and vegetables and raise their own animals—year after year villagers still cannot save much money to eventually get ahead. They are always on the brink of falling below the surface. The average FAMILY earns no more than $1000 USD of net income per year from rice farming. With such a thin financial cushion, all it takes is one serious illness or one season of monsoon-destroyed crops to erase (or even reverse) any recent progress.

Probably the biggest challenge when treading financial water is the never-ending need to borrow money. The average family has to spend $2500 USD per year on certain essentials that make rice farming financially viable in the first place—fertilizer to ensures that a normal amount of rice will grow from the nutrient-depleted soil within a reasonable amount of time, pesticides to prevent a whole host of insects from destroying the crops, pumping water from a nearby water source so that the plants don’t die in the extreme heat, and gas for running farm machines.

The lenders—mostly banks, but also fertilizer/pesticide sellers—are ruthless here, charging interest rates of 30 to 40 percent. Why? Because they can. If a farmer does not pay for the essentials, there will not be a decent crop to harvest, yet the average farmer does not have an extra $2500 USD lying around that would give them the luxury of not having to borrow money. The lenders do not care about the farmers, especially banks, which even demand monthly installment payments knowing full well that rice farmers will not get any money from selling the rice until the end of the three- to four-month season when the rice is harvested. For the lenders, business is business.

You do the math. Just being able to avoid borrowing money would double the average family’s net annual income instantly. Twice the current income would also allow rice farmers to save some money for a rainy day or unexpected emergency. It really is a lifejacket that will keep their heads above water.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Donations to this page will go to help my wife’s family in Rokar Chuor Village, Prey Veng Province, Cambodia. Their village is one of the roughly 30 percent of Cambodian villages still without paved roads and electricity, probably because it is much more remote than many villages. Within this village, my in-laws were and are among the poorest despite their hard work and best efforts. Even though the situation has improved slightly such that now they are not starving and the current generation (my nephews, nieces, and young cousins) will all finish high school, this was not the case less than two decades ago, when my wife and sister-in-law were taken out of school around age 15 to help with the family’s rice farming. Even though my in-laws value family far above money, the reality is that they could have a much better quality of life with just the money saved from loan interest.

Unlike donating to an organization, where you cannot be sure how much actually makes it to the recipient, you do not have to worry that your donation will be misused or wasted, because my wife and I will deliver all of it to my in-laws personally. And they know the value of money and therefore are very responsible with it. I remember one time my wife told her mother that I had brought her to eat Korean food costing $10+ per person, and my mother-in-law yelled at her for wasting money (!) because money has always been so hard for them to earn.

If you choose to donate, this will truly be the gift that keeps on giving. Again, do the math: In Year 1, a $10 donation will save a Cambodian farmer at least 30 percent interest, or $3. In Year 2, the combined $13 will save another 30 percent, or $3.90. In Year 3, $16.90 will save yet another $5.07. And so on and so on. After ten years, the original $10 donation will have compounded exponentially to more than $137.

Thank you for taking the time to consider our request. This really is a situation where you can make a direct, substantial impact on many lives.


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Nathan Chan 
Washington D.C., DC

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