Working harder, eating less

By Katie Taft
Yan Savan sells fish from the Tonle Sap. She believes they sell better than farm-raised fish.

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It is almost 6 a.m. in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as the light of day seeps through the windows of Yan Savan's house. She has already been up for an hour cleaning and making her kids' breakfast. She says she will skip breakfast and save her portion for herkids so they will have enough to eat before school. Her commute to O'Russey Market in the city center where she owns a fish stall takes nearly 45 minutes so she needs to get moving soon if she wants to greet the morning fish delivery.

"There is not as much fish coming from the lake like there used to be," she says as she wraps her head with a kroma, a traditional Cambodian scarf. "Buyers are the same. Not as many."

At the same time, 88 miles away on a small fishing boat at the southern tip of Tonle Sap Lake—Cambodia's largest lake—Hem Von is taking a break from his work to eat some rice that his wife prepared for him. Even though it is only 6 a.m., he has been fishing non-stop for the past two hours. His next break will come at 11 a.m. when he goes to sell his fish. After that, he will continue to fish until 8 p.m.

"It is one way or another," Von says with an exasperated sigh. "Sure my fish have gone up in price, but so has everything like the fuel for my boat. I can't catch enough fish to buy food for my family, and so we don't eat as much. It is a miserable way to live."

Earnings spent on food

Like the rest of the world, Cambodia has seen the cost of living increase in the last few months. In the past year, the country's staple food, rice, has increased in price 100 percent. A recent survey conducted by an Oxfam partner shows that for the poorest people in both rural and urban areas, getting adequate food is a daily struggle, with 20 percent of the population living hand-to-mouth on about $2 a day. The survey also showed that fisherman like Von will have a tough time coping with the rise in prices, since fish prices have only gone up 20 percent, while the stocks in the lakes and rivers continues to dwindle.

The hardest hit by this imbalance will be people like Savan and Von. Like most Cambodians, they spend about 70 percent of their income on food. By comparison people in the US spend about 10 percent. To cope with the soaring food prices, people are buying and eating less food—adding to existing malnutrition rates and the poor economic outlook of Cambodia.

Fishing and frustration

Back at the southern tip of Tonle Sap Lake, in the village of Chnock Tru it is 11 a.m. and fish buyer Lor Bun, 40, is setting out scales and money on a straw mat under a make-shift shelter. In front of him several young men spill out of the back of la arge truck, preparing crates and baskets with ice to transport fish to Phnom Penh. Bun, the main fish buyer in the village for the past seven years, says he has seen prices continue to rise as buyers in the market decrease. He says that the price of rice is the highest he has ever seen it.

"We are increasingly concerned about the prices of fuel, food and there are fewer fish, but I have not seen a big drop in profits yet," he says.

Von, the fisherman, who is standing nearby waiting for his baskets of fish to be weighed, says that Bun has coached the local fisherman on how to raise their prices.But even with that he isn't making enough from selling his fish to cover the extra costs.

"We want to cry. We want to shout. But we don't know at who," he says.

Solutions for small-scale producers

Brian Lund, Oxfam America's East Asia regional director, says there are a number of people that need to get involved.

"To solve this issue we can not look to the Cambodian government alone," Lund says. "Donor countries should support the country's effort to support small scale food producers in their agricultural input, resource management, and sustainable production techniques."

In addition, Lund says that providing people living in poverty with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to effectively manage their resources and assisting them to effectively engage and interact with the markets, can ensure they will benefit from selling their products in the market. Nearly 80 percent of people in Cambodia make a living from agriculture, so higher prices offer the possibility of a better livelihood. However, with the agriculture sector accounting for a quarter of the gross national product, strong efforts must be made to ensure that benefits reach small-scale producers in remote markets, not just large-scale commercial operations and agribusinesses.

"And it is important that as investments and aid is given to Cambodia to help with rising costs, that it be a transparent and accountable process," Lund says.

At the same time agriculture investments need to better incorporate poverty reduction elements to create a better environment for small farmers to produce and sell their agricultural products so that they can invest in their family's future.

Working harder for less

Von Siphou, 42, dices pineapples in the mid-day heat in Kandal, a Phnom Penh neighborhood. 3 p.m. is the hottest time of day in the city, where the heat comes off streets and buildings in waves. And it is the best time for selling juicy, ready-cut pineapples. For about eight cents more per pineapple, Siphou takes off the rind, cuts it into bite-sized pieces and provides customers with a plastic carrying bag and toothpicks to make the fruit easier to eat—fast food, Cambodian style. Several months ago Siphou saw profits of $7 on a good day. Now she says she is lucky if she breaks even. If she raises her prices—even by a few cents—no one will be able to afford the service, she says.

"I am working as hard as I can and it is not good enough," she says, chopping up a mango. "The only thing left to do is to not eat."

Across the street, Phi Thoeng, 27, is also at his peak time for selling spicy papaya salad out of his street-vendor cart. In the mornings he sells fried noodles while his wife cuts up and prepares the papaya for him to sell starting at noon.

"This is a new business for us, and it is hard work," he says. "My wife and I are doing OK, but we are eating less.You have to manage somehow."

One good day

It is now 7 p.m.. Darkness is falling and the heat of the day is receding. As she cleans bits of left-over fish from her counter, Savan, the mother who rose early to fix her children breakfast ,says her family also is coping by consuming less food.. The traffic outside of O'Russey Market is still at a regular hum. Savan won't get home for another hour, but today she doesn't mind.

"I sold all of the small catfish," she says. "It is unpredictable, so we will still only eat a little for dinner. But it is a good day."