This is guest post by Kelly Upton, Interior Trading Company.
It’s hot. I’m tired and sweating. The tuk tuk bounces over endless pot holes leaving a dusty cloud in its wake. In transit, the rush of air brings welcome yet short lived relief.
We arrive at the canal known as ‘the port’ but there are no boats going today. Why? There’s no water.
I am on my way to Prek Toal – a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia – the largest lake in south east Asia. I come here to meet with the women who weave water hyacinth baskets for my business, The Interior Trading Company.
We continue along a dirt track as far as the tuk tuk can go. Passing makeshift shelters used by local traders along the port road, people sit, waiting. Waiting for the rain.
The monsoonal rains have not arrived. The lake has contracted leaving canals like ‘the port’ without water. Several floating villages are reportedly stranded in a mud desert, their bamboo pontoons sinking into the sun cracked expanse below.
Walking to the end of the track I see the lake. I clamber down the exposed bank and am helped into a waiting boat. The water here is shallow. With much effort the boatman and his helper gradually manoeuvre the boat out into the deeper water and we are away.
What lays before me is a sea. A green sea of water hyacinth. As the lake contracts this rampant floating weed smothers the remaining water surface impeding navigation. The boats rudder chops the plant up as it moves slowly through the mass, successfully propagating the weed further.
Water Hyacinth (Eichorrnia crassipes), is a serious environmental weed that thrives on sunlight and nutrient rich water. It literally surrounds the floating villages year round. The women cut the water hyacinth stems, dry them in the sun and then weave them into baskets and mats as part of a local social enterprise.
On arrival at the weaving platform I am greeted by the project coordinator and some of the weaving women. We sit with the women and share fruit and snacks that I bring from town as a treat. My interpreter facilitates. Times are tough. Fish stocks are down. Some villages have expanded their holdings on the lake banks while the waters are low. They use fire to clear the vegetation and due to the dry conditions the fires have burnt out of control. Fires are ravaging the flooded forests, an important habitat for migratory bird species and a valued source of ecotourism.
The women worry that there will not be enough work for their families to survive. Fishing is the basis of the local economy with the lake providing 75% of freshwater fish to Cambodia. Women work in the fishing industry cleaning and processing fish. With reduced water levels fish stocks will be low and subsequently there will be a reduction in income.
Ecotourism is another important source of income. An organisation from Siem Reap has trained groups of local people to become ecotourism guides. The guides provide tours on bird watching and the ecology of this important biosphere reserve. With much of the vegetation now burnt, migratory bird species will be impacted – to what degree is unknown at this stage. What is known is that tourist numbers will reduce and there will be less guiding work available, if any at all, this season.
The women explain how grateful they are to have received my recent product order. They show me their work for inspection and I am very pleased with the quality. These women have wonderful weaving skills and together we have developed a range of fair trade homewares for the label.
The project may have been inspired as a solution to an environmental weed problem but I realise how our business can provide far more benefit to this community. By implementing the values of fair trade like working together, placing regular small orders in advance and paying fair prices up front, we can provide a more stable, diversified income stream for these women and their families.
As communities like Prek Toal face the impacts of climate change, social enterprises like this weaving project, are more important than ever before.
Kelly Upton is a teacher of Conservation and Land Management in Sydney, Australia and founder of The Interior Trading Company – an endorsed Fair Trader of Australia. Kelly works with women’s groups and community based organisations in Cambodia to develop social enterprise and fair trade products.