From Pol Pot to Kampot Pepper

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Cambodia is one of the poorest countries of the world, with the average unskilled worker earning from $50 to $80 per month. From 1975 to 1978 the Khmer Rouge, led by the notorious Pol Pot, committed genocide against his own people, killing two million Cambodians. One out of every four were killed, as Pol Pot emptied the cities and forced the country to become an agrarian society. If one had any education, position of authority, even if one just wore glasses, torture and death ensued in the Killing Fields. All suspected of being an enemy of the revolution were brutally eliminated.

I write this blog from Kep, Cambodia, working with The Pepper Project. The Pepper Project is a small not for profit business that imports a variety of Cambodian goods, including Kampot Pepper, spa products and apparel, reselling the goods primarily in the US. This results in creating sustainable jobs for some of the most disadvantaged Cambodians. Some of the suppliers employ 100 percent disabled people, many who have lost a limb in land mines accidents. Some estimate there are currently 4 – 6 million buried landmines and unexploded ordnance in this country of 15 million people, making it the third most mined country in the world.

But there is hope. The economy of the country is growing rapidly as GDP expands significantly faster than the US, having expanded at an average of 7.7 percent for the last 10 years. There is clear evidence of economic activity everywhere we go – infrastructure projects, construction, and the hustle and bustle of city life. There are more cell phones in country than people, TV satellite dishes pop up on many roof tops, and SUVs and scooters now clog the city streets.

Yesterday I toured the farm where the Pepper Project’s Kampot Pepper is produced. Strangely enough, the land used for farming these gourmet Kampot Peppercorns previously was the headquarters of the Khmer Rouge after they were pushed from the capital. The Khmer Rouge occupied this particular area as recently as 1997. The owner of the land removed the landmines and unexploded ordinance, and now has a beautiful farm producing top quality, unique Kampot pepper and provides jobs for 30 locals Cambodians.

I also met Hayley, who’s with the Peace Corps here in Cambodia.  She is doing great work helping educate those who visit the local health care facility in Kampot Province. She teaches the importance of washing hands to prevent illness, the importance of sanitation, of pre-natal care, and of prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. In a country where access to clean water and sanitation is limited, one realizes there is much work to be done. I spoke to two people yesterday who have had cholera, which is easily prevented by proper sanitation and hygiene. On multiple occasions today we saw people bathing in tiny ponds next to the road, where cattle were graving and feral dogs roaming, which is also where the locals draw their drinking, cooking and cleaning water. Water borne illness for the impoverished is a harsh reality here.

Seeing the conditions clearly reinforces the need for the passage of the Water for the World Act, scheduled to be reintroduced to Congress on World Water Day, March 22. By helping provide access to clean water and sanitation, we can make a life changing difference for millions across the globe. Please contact your local Congressman to support this critical legislation, the 800 million people who do not have access to clean water need your help.

Don Girskis

Don Girskis is the Former Head of Boost Mobile and serves on The Borgen Project’s Board of Directors.
Photo: Flickr

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