Plaeng Pralaev, an indigenous Kreung woman from Cambodia’s northeastern Rattanakiri province, broke into a little smile while displaying the US$10 note she had just collected selling a hand-woven cotton scarf to a Western tourist visiting her village. The money was her first income in over a week.
“We very much depend on the mercy of visitors in trying to sell scarves to buy rice for the family,” the 25-year-old woman said.
Her village, Kreh, is one of grinding poverty. There, the 312 Kreung residents face chronic rice shortages typically between six and eight months each year. To generate additional income, men and women make scarf and rattan products - traditional handcrafts symbolizing their indigenous cultural identity. But slow sales and limited knowledge of how to market their products leave them struggling to survive.
In an effort to improve the lives of people like Plaeng Pralaev, four UN agencies - UNESCO, UNDP, ILO and FAO –are working together on a new initiative to tackle poverty in Cambodia. Employing trade, entrepreneurship and marketing tools, the project ultimately aims to contribute to poverty reduction and women’s empowerment - Cambodian Millennium Development Goals 1 and 3 - while helping preserve local cultural assets, including those of Cambodian indigenous people.
The four agencies launched the project by embarking on a four-day fact-finding mission to Rattanakiri province in February. They met with provincial officials to brief them about the project and held discussions with several non-governmental organizations and indigenous people to survey the marketing potential of local products.
“We are trying to identify good products that will match market demand, while balancing trade benefits and cultural preservation,” Natharoun Ngo, UNDP’s private sector programme analyst, said.
“We are also trying to ensure that market forces and appropriate regulations like intellectual property rights help to strengthen the fragile local systems,” he said.
Rattanakiri Deputy Provincial Governor Bou Lam expressed his support for the project during his meeting with the UN delegation. “I feel very encouraged. Our province is fortunate to have been chosen for this joint project by four UN agencies,” he said, adding that the provincial authority will offer full cooperation for the project to be successfully implemented.
The three-year project is funded by the Spanish government and targets indigenous communities in Rattanakiri, Mondul Kiri, Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear provinces. It brings together the specialized experiences of each of the agencies _ UNESCO in protection and promotion of Cambodia’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage, UNDP in trade and market access facilitation, ILO in enterprise development with special focus on women’s economic empowerment, and FAO in supporting producers groups and associations to produce and market their products together.
For its part, UNDP is currently supporting Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce in implementing a Trade Integration Strategy. The Strategy has already identified 19 products with strong export potentials. Among them are cultural products including silk, which is usually woven by women.
Under the Creative Industries project, the role of the ministry will be to improve legislation and export procedures to ensure good commercialization of identified cultural products.
Given different mandates of the four UN agencies, the project represents a unique task.
“The current set-up will, I think, be very useful in ensuring close cooperation on a daily basis,” said Michiel Ter Ellen, ILO’s enterprise development specialist.
He said the Rattanakiri trip allowed the agencies involved to better understand “the depth and complexity of the issues which indigenous peoples face, both relating to the potential of creative industries in Rattanakiri as well as the broader issues relating to the rapidly changing context in which they exist.”
Change has indeed come to the province, which until recently had remained distant from the rest of Cambodia, due mainly to poor roads. But local NGO representatives said improved road access has in recent years also spurred a lot of economic activity, most notably relating to land. Although land economic development has offered new opportunities for the local residents, it has also put economic benefits at odds with the traditions and livelihoods of the indigenous people. Land titling and rights are among the sensitive issues and very important to the indigenous people, who traditionally and collectively depend on non-timber forest products for a living, according to local NGOs.
“In this regards, it was even necessary to understand the fragile balance which is prevailing there and about which we might have to reflect before starting to implement anything,” Blaise Kilian, UNESCO’s international programme coordinator, said. “We hope to help the local population raise its standard of living while preserving their local culture.”
- Related topics: Poverty Reduction