Kamlang Gnay Village's Bittersweet Economic Structure Transformation
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Kamlang Ngay is located along the Sesan River, also known as the Tonle San River (Khmer: ទន្លេសេសាន), within Ratanakiri Province of Cambodia. Reaching Kamlang Ngay requires an hour long van ride from Krong Banlung (ក្រុងបានលុង) and another 15-minute ferry across the Sesan. Due to its close proximity to the Cambodia-Lao border, the majority of those living in Kamlang Ngay identify as Lao, as their ancestors were once from Laos before establishment of official international borders.
In the not-so-distant past, under the soft glow of the full moon, the sky resounds with laughter from kids and adults - villagers from Kamlang Gnay gather in the paddy fields to harvest the fruits of their labour. Some families would grow crops of rice and vegetables, and others rear livestock. These goods would be shared and exchanged freely amongst the neighbours.
However, present-day Kamlang Gnay functions on the conventional economic structure: capitalism. To obtain certain goods, one must either produce it his/herself, or pay money to others that produce the good. This transition in livelihood away from the sharing-based to capitalist economy is what this story will explore.
IT'S ABOUT THE MONEY
Arguably the biggest factor that caused this shift away from the sharing economy would be the introduction of capitalism. To us, paying for goods is second-nature. To the villagers of Kamlang Gnay, they used to share their surplus harvest and catch among themselves. When probed about the changing sharing culture, most villagers attributed it to how “people have learnt how to use and earn money”. This led to rising needs to earn an income to support their livelihoods, which can come in the form of selling away excess produce. However, sales are limited to the small market consisting of their friends and neighbours who are geographically more accessible. In turn, this encourages villagers to look for potential markets outside Kamlang Gnay. However, the majority of villagers only have motorised ploughers acting as makeshift vehicles, which do not perform well on mainland roads. With only one ferry to transport a handful of vehicles per trip, the Sesan acts as an additional barrier-of-entry for villagers to break into the market.
Middlemen and Trade
When asked who their goods are generally sold to, mysterious middlemen from the Hakka village were always mentioned. These middlemen visit Kamlang Ngay to buy fish, crops, or products from willing villagers, subsequently selling them in the city for profit. Examples of such transactions include sale of cashew nuts to Chinese companies, and locally-manufactured furniture (e.g. stools, tables) made of wood from nearby forests to Vietnamese and Banlung residents.
The villagers’ lack of knowledge regarding market demands, as well as lack of access to required technology to increase the value of their goods, were seen as opportunities by these middlemen. Poor command of Khmer also further impedes villagers from setting up networks in cities. Moreover, these middlemen are the only ones who have the means to transport the goods out of Kamlang Ngay into the city (e.g. cars, vans).
Likewise, middlemen also transport goods from neighbouring villages and the city into Kamlang Ngay, to be sold at various provincial shops scattered around the village (Figure 1). According to Assistant Village Chief, Tan Som, these provincial shops mostly appeared in the last two years. These local businesses are commonly started by villagers with sufficient capital to invest in the sourcing for goods and furnishing of their shops. Oftentimes, this entails transforming part of their house into a storefront.
One of the provincial shops in the village, selling goods imported from neighbouring villages and locally-grown produce.
We believe that as villagers progressively become more accustomed to using money instead of bartering, there is a need to earn more income to support increased costs of living, leading to rise of these provincial shops. Successively, as more villagers depend on these shops to obtain their supplies, villagers are further discouraged from sharing, as many locally-grown produce are sold to these shops.
WHAT HAPPEN TO FISHING?
As the boat’s generator fizzled into the Sesan’s calming morning silence, fishermen lay out their nets in hope to catch some fish (Figure 2). Fishing has been a way of life for villagers for generations; however it is increasingly apparent that this no longer promises a viable income, due to rapidly dwindling fish populations. This decline is also reported throughout the larger Sesan basin.
A fisherman’s daily routine includes taking a motorboat out into the Sesan River to prepare his nets.
Interviews and research suggest the Yali Falls Dam and Lower Sesan 2 Dam to be the main culprits for this decline. Yali Falls Dam has been adversely affecting Ratanakiri and Stung Treng provinces’ riverbank agriculture for years, while the more recent controversial construction of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam itself is said to harm fish population because of its associated pollution, such as sediment trapping, altering the river flow, and chemical pollution. Clearly, these impacts are felt throughout the region, and are not exclusive to Kamlang Gnay.
Consequently, these impacts are pushing some to practice illegal electrofishing to increase their catch, but this unsustainable practice further aggravates the situation. Not only is this harmful to the fish’s health, electrofishing over spawning grounds can harm embryos and therefore aggravates decreasing fishing supplies.
To cope with declining fish catches, government-sanctioned fish releases were carried out along the Sesan. While some fishermen in Kamlang Gnay benefitted from this release program, the short-term increase in fish catch might not be sustainable. If unsuitable foreign species are introduced, fish population might not survive or reproduce effectively. In more severe cases, invasive species may also threaten ecosystem balance, resulting in further decline in population of other commercial or endangered fish species.
WHAT HAPPEN TO AGRICULTURE?
When asked about her agriculture products, Nang shared that harvests from her rice and cashew trees are insufficient to produce excess for sales. Largely due to poor land quality, this issue has been prevalent for generations. Those who continue engaging in agriculture like Nang shared that use of natural pesticides (e.g. ash) and/or organic fertilisers are common to increase the quantity and quality of crops. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to afford these supplements. Consequently, this dual dwindling of river and agricultural resources for sales and/or sustenance has pushed villagers to pursue alternative incomes, such as setting up small shops or crafting furniture and boats.
THE DEGRADATION OF THE SHARING ECONOMY AND LOCAL CULTURE
The combined impacts of encroaching capitalism, deteriorating fish catches and poor agricultural soil quality have pushed many residents of Kamlang Gnay to make drastic changes to their livelihoods. This reduces the sharing culture to an act of compassion, extended only when one desperately needs help. When asked about future aspirations, many parents expressed desires for their children to receive higher quality education, with little mention of passing on traditional practices and knowledge. Furthermore, many of their relatives have already begun seeking opportunities in cities such as Banlung and Phnom Penh. This leads to significant migration of the local population, and with that comes loss of continuity in traditional practices and knowledge.
However, while our observations are restricted to the local village scale, it is noteworthy that this phenomenon is not unique to Kamlang Gnay. With capitalism’s reach encroaching on rural communities globally, it raises the question of whether such changes should be allowed to continue. From a global perspective, capitalism and trade have helped many communities and nations attain higher standards of living. However, closer examination on local scales reveal villagers are commonly at the losing end, as simultaneous workings of capitalism and problems of declining natural resources leads to uneven social advancement, exemplified by economic power-relations between the Hakka village and Kamlang Gnay. Consequently, unsustainable practices, such as improper use of fertilizers and electrofishing, to generate extra income becomes attractive, inevitably causing environmental degradation. These are simply symptoms that arise from the inherently problematic nature of capitalism.
Thus, it is clear that much more research is required to gain deeper understandings of indigenous perspectives with regards to livelihoods and development. In the meantime, many smaller scale, but more immediate issues of poor fish catches and desire for higher quality of education in Kamlang Gnay is within the means of governments to address immediately.
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