Article and video by Chris Kenning, World Ark contributor

Bung Kriel, CAMBODIA—The son of subsistence rice farmers, Chom Thoun grew up in a thatched-roof home on stilts, in a childhood marked by war with the Khmer Rouge, illnesses from poor sanitation and months of hunger each year when the family’s small harvest ran out.

“Our family was very poor, sometimes we didn’t have rice to eat,” said Chom, speaking recently on a shaded bamboo bed under this home, tucked among the rice paddies of Svay Rieng, one of the country’s poorest provinces located near the Vietnamese border.

The fighting had ended by the time he entered his 30s, and he had started a family with five children. But as he hand-plowed the same rice paddies, life was still a daily struggle. Relying on rain-fed rice grown in poor soil on small plot, he did not having enough to feed his family through the year. He was often forced to leave his wife, Toeu, and children to work as a laborer in the city.

While the now 40-year-old farmer still lives in a home without electricity, running water or plumbing, his fortunes have improved significantly in recent years with the help of a Heifer International’s self-help group program that he entered in 2007.

Speaking through an interpreter a few weeks ago on a World Ark visit, Chom said Heifer provided a cow, vegetable seeds, fruit tree saplings and training on how to keep animals and crops healthier by adopting changes such as adding mosquito netting to an animal shelter.

He also joined Heifer’s self-help savings group made up of villagers contributing small amounts for low-interest loans. That allowed Chom to start new vegetables and sugar cane, which they sell at market. In addition to passing on the cow’s offspring to another family in need, Chom also earns money by treating sick animals in the village, a skill he learned through Heifer.

“My life before was hard,” he said. “My living conditions improved; I could buy a bike so my daughter could get to school.”

He said their annual income has more than doubled from $200 a year to $500 a year, allowing them build a new home out of wood with a tin roof. There’s now enough food all year round, because they were able to buy more land for rice. And, fish, eggs or fowl—once a rare treat—are now a nearly daily part of their diet. They even have a small TV powered by a car battery.

They’re just some of more than 8,800 vulnerable Cambodian families that Heifer has helped since 1999 in a country long battered by war and extreme poverty.

Heifer’s programs currently operate in 188 poor rural communities, where they aim to increase food security, incomes and well-being by providing help such as animals and seeds, farmer education, microfinance and a more recent effort to boost basic literacy and math skills.

In Bung Kriel village, home to about 86 families and located in a province known for its low-quality farmland, child malnutrition, illiteracy, distance to markets and health care, and legacy of heavy U.S. bombing in the 1970s, it’s been a huge help, village leaders said.

“It has helped (bring) change for many families,” said Sek Ouk, Bung Kriel’s 69-year-old village chief.

Look for more about Heifer Cambodia projects in upcoming issues of World Ark magazine.

Author

Donna Stokes

Donna Stokes is the managing editor of World Ark magazine. She has worked for Heifer International since September 2008 when she leaped over to the nonprofit world from a two-decade career in newspaper journalism.