BUSINESS - NOT AS USUAL
It is hard to conceive that a few years ago, this little commune (Bourei Cholsa, Takeo Province) was an isolated spot in the middle of the water during the rainy season. As we enter the village, we see a large dike being build to dock barges and boats – they will take the rice and other goods to Vietnam. This small port is being renovated and all around it, is a flurry of activity. After another hundred meters, we arrive at a junction – where the road splits into two large and newly build roads. It is not clear which road is the biggest. Yet one leads to the national road, the other brings you nearby villages in the commune. Kosal Sar, the National LoCAL Specialist proudly shows the road going to the villages: ‘this our road! It is is 2km long and it starts just here.’
We park there, at a little shop, with a large wooden table for visitors. There is a coffee shop on the left. The business is run by the family of Mrs Seng Sareth a well known person in the area: she works in the local government and is the first deputy in the commune council. She is very charismatic. She speaks with confidence and her logic immediately inspires trust. She has pushed for the planning and making of a high road in her village. As a result, her ‘new town’ is ready to face the level of highest floods in two decades.
She greets Kosal with anticipation – they have met many times in the past, to coordinate the climate change planning process in the local government. Kosal, and Phal the provincial LGCC officer invite me to the table as we wait for coffee. ‘You can ask her anything you want - she knows everything about the road project’ says Kosal’s colleague Phum Phal who has been tracking all the projects in this province.
But I don’t really need to ask much, Mrs Seng Sareth starts to explain: ‘The road was made a half-meter higher than all the other roads because we do not want to be flooded again. We noticed that the flooding was getting worse so we had to find a way. When we had this chance with the project, we decided it was the priority for us’. She points to the neighbor’s boat: ‘when it floods, that is the only way in or out of here. Kids could not go to school, women could not go to the hospital, farmers could not even sell what they have to the market so everything was ruined…’
She rapidly demonstrates that this project is not about business as usual - there are many more side effects than meets the eye. This climate resilient road is a perfect case-study on the dynamics of economic development.
As it often happens with new roads, many people in the vicinity moved their house next to the road. Here it was not really a matter of convenience, given the risk of floods. For the locals, relocation was clearly required - their houses are now safe from the floods, while they keep their fields for agriculture – at a distance. But this relocation also prompted villagers to grab new opportunities in the short term: most started small businesses and set up shops on the roadside.
With the rapid growth of this ‘village’, the price of land has also sharply risen. Just in the last few months, land prices have doubled and a square meter now can fetch up to 2usd. ‘In the past, nobody was even interested to buy any of the land around here as it was at risk of flooding – but this time, I have bought land myself’. Says Mrs Seng Sareth smiling in connivance.
It is not just the price of land that is rising. In the past, the farmers were at the mercy of the middlemen who would come to buy the harvest from them. There was no other chance to sell the proceeds of their farm. Today, the road gives farmers an added bargaining power. What used to be a four-hour boat ride now only takes 20 minutes by motorbike. This makes a huge difference in petrol consumption – and ultimately, the benefit margin that farmers can make has sharply risen.
Mrs Seng Sareth does not take these various developments for granted. She has just delivered a small child – sleeping in a hammock next to the table. There are many other women around the house. Her husband is there as well, looking over the child. But Mrs Seng Sareth is clearly the house leader, so I ask her about her role as a woman in the community. There is a spark in her eye: ‘I am the first on the list of the commune board. There are three other men and I am the only woman.’
She explains that women have an active role in the social organization of the commune. There is a women group (led by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs) – where women can better raise their needs. Because she can understand them well, she can better help them. ‘For women, the road was crucial. It was hard to deliver babies because of access: we had to go to the hospital by boat – it was risky. And also for the children, floods made it impossible for them to study like the others. Now we do not lose sleep over this anymore and we have much better access to services when we need them.‘
Mr Prak Son, another commune member sitting with us, intervenes: ‘During the 9th month of the year – it was the worse. There is one week when there is so much wind that you can not even think of going outside. Night and Day for seven days…Every year we worried the flood would destroy the road even more and make it even harder for the rest of the year. He pauses and repeats: ‘A scorching wind for seven days and seven nights’…
We finish our coffee and Kosal invites me to see the other side of the road. There are houses all along the side of the road, until we reach the end of the high section. We stop for a photo shoot and Kosal explains: ‘Our road is higher than the road build without climate in mind: look how it goes down from here. This road will be flooded after that point.’
For those who live in the next villages, the road becomes a refuge during the floods – temporary houses are already in place as it is the start of the monsoon season. Naturally, the idea of a high road traveled to the next commune. This other commune is not in the LGCC project. But they want to be connected too. It is a strong indication that the project has made a huge influence on local planning processes in Bourei Cholsa Commune.
We drive back to the junction – and we turn off onto the provincial road – it is at the same level as the project road – and it connects to the national road. This junction has become a hub - there is a new town in the making, a climate resilient town!’