The reason I came to be in Cambodia in the first place was an organisation called United World Schools (UWS).
This growing British charity was formed in 2009 by its founder, Chris Howarth. A lifelong teacher and former ISI inspector from the UK, Chris originally came to Cambodia as part of a two-year placement with VSO. Motivated by the situation he found during his time there, and won over by the people and the country, after his VSO placement Chris initially set out simply to establish a couple of primary schools in the rural areas he had come to know.
Despite these small initial targets, and following an intense period of hard work, UWS was able to raise more than was required for two schools, leading them to establish six in different villages. As momentum built around the project and further funds were secured at key times this number advanced, firstly to ten, currently to fourteen, with a further six to be built by the end of 2014.
UWS have specifically targeted remote indigenous villages in this region. In these areas there is no existing educational provision and so UWS seeks to provide children in these communities with the opportunity of going to school, as well as preparing the villages for the arrival of modern society which is increasingly influencing their normal way of lives.
The pace and scale of this change is hard to exaggerate. Whilst the roads to these villages were terrible by any western comparisons – and apparently only got worse (often being un-passable) during the wet season, by all accounts many of these had in fact drastically improved in recent years making the nearby towns that more accessible to these previously isolated communities. In addition, there has also been a massive change to the nearby landscape with millions of acres of natural jungle and forest – often the main source of income for a village – having been cut down to house rubber tree plantations.
This large-scale sale of the natural forest is a topic that divides opinion in Cambodia. The extra money that is brought in by the large Vietnamese companies who purchase the land understandably pleases many in the towns, providing jobs to help the poor local economy. By contrast, many are very critical of the practice; indicating that the majority of jobs actually go to Vietnamese people bussed in from the nearby border and that much of the land, inhabited by the indigenous communities, was sold off by the government with no consultation or remuneration for these groups. In addition, this decimation of the natural habitat has brought challenges to other local industries. This area of Cambodia is a burgeoning region for eco-tourism, with small companies keen to attract western tourists to explore the native jungle, which, if receding, only limits their ability to develop this opportunity.
So UWS are trying to build and establish schools in an area and at a time when massive societal and environmental changes are taking place, as if building schools in remote areas was not challenging enough already. This is very apparent from speaking to the UWS staff. Until relatively recently these indigenous villages were a number of hours away through thick, dense jungle whereas now, despite being some distance away, this might now be a little longer than an hour, past lines and lines of symmetrical rubber trees…
If anything, these changes – both societal and environmental, only raised the importance and relevance of the work of UWS in this region. Previously these villages would have remained remote from the developing society, maintaining their indigenous customs and habits with most of the adults working mainly in nearby farms and the neighbouring forest.
Greater access to other places and a massive reduction in the available forest though brings two pressing issues to the fore: firstly, how and where do the adults work if there is no available forest and secondly, how do the villagers communicate with citizens in nearby towns? The majority of the villages speak their own languages, unique to their small, localised areas. With only a tiny minority able to speak the national dialect of Khmer, this has huge implications for their ability to trade and converse with other people now that such access is even more feasible.
You can follow the work of UWS here.