Tag Archives: development

C.A.R.E. International Short from Guatemala

A little while ago I was commissioned by the Dutch creative agency Makemende Media to direct and shoot a short film for a global series about female entrepreneurs for the international aid organization C.A.R.E. International . I travelled to Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala with a small crew and spent multiple days with Sandra Xiquín and her family, learning about the challenges facing women and incredible journey she has taken in overcoming these hurdles.

Once dismissed as an ‘incapable girl’ Sandra now oversees a female farming co-operative with over 40 members. An example to all women, it was a great pleasure to get to know her over the course of the shoot.

 

Posted in Blog, Guatemala, Latin America, Video Also tagged , , , |

Phnom Penh’s Vanishing Lakes

 

A bulldozer flattens sand that has filled in Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake, once the largest freshwater lake in the city.

A bulldozer flattens sand that has filled in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake, once the largest freshwater lake in the city.

Through a tiny slit between his hat and the handkerchief that protected his mouth and nose from the sandstorms swirling around him, the bulldozer driver glared at us with thinly veiled hostility. He clearly wanted us to stop photographing his rumbling yellow machine as it worked to terraform the flat sandpit that was once the largest lake in Phnom Penh, but seemed reluctant to confront us.

The first time I visited Phnom Penh, in 2010, I stayed near the thriving tourist and nightlife district that once surrounded Boeung Kak (Kak Lake). By that time, the lake’s fate had already been sealed, though the true impacts of the 99 year property lease granted to a local development company had not yet fully manifested themselves. Residents were still fishing and harvesting morning glory from the dark water, and children were still swimming in the sweltering afternoon heat.

Nearly six year later, as we passed through Cambodia’s capital on our way to the Tonle Sap lake beyond, the area was a shadow of its former self. After the politically connected land developers were given the go-ahead to develop the lake into a luxury condominium complex, they decided to pump in millions of gallons of sand dredged from the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers to displace the water and prepare the area for construction. Now the restaurants and backpacker hostels had either closed or relocated, and a three metre concrete wall ringed the barren sandpit that was once the largest wetland in the city. After more than six hours of crisscrossing the area, the only remaining water we could find was settled in the bottom of a stagnant ditch, its surface choked with plastic bags and styrofoam food containers.

A bulldozer terraforms the land on a filled in section of Phnom Penh's Boeung Tumpun Lake.

A bulldozer terraforms the land on a filled in section of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun Lake.

Construction workers walk past concrete drainage pipes at a building site on Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake

Construction workers walk past concrete drainage pipes at a building site on Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake

“Three thousand families used to live here, making their living from fishing and farming,” remembered 37-year-old Ou Kong Chea, a Boeung Kak resident who watched the lake’s slow destruction over the last 8 years. “Before things were better. People could make a living, attract tourists, and there were no floods. Now when it rains, the flood water [in my house] comes up to my waist.”

Behind the bulldozer, lighting towers dotted the horizon, poking into the evening sky and encircling a cluster of vibrant green football fields that were – with the exception of a dusty gravel road – the only discernible feature on the otherwise barren landscape. We were told they would cost $10 per hour to play on, making it unlikely that anyone from the once-thriving lakeside community would be able to afford to play on them. Aquaculture and fishing, once the area’s primary sources of income, were vocations that had ceased to be viable after the lake water was replaced with sand dredged from the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.

A van is parked in front of a series of football fields that have been built on the filled in remains of Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake. The fields cost 10$ per hour to play on, a prohibitively high price for many local residents.

A van is parked in front of a series of football fields that have been built on the filled in remains of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake. The fields cost 10$ per hour to play on, a prohibitively high price for many local residents.

It Was Better Before

When the construction crews packed up for the day, a group of young boys clambered onto the dunes and began lighting fires in the dry grass that was the only living thing on the sand other than a solitary young tree – which the boys allowed to burn in the spreading blaze. Though three thousand families used to depend on the lake’s healthy ecosystem for subsistence, in the face of its utter destruction the death of a single tree must have seem like inconsequential collateral damage to them. When I asked one of them, a twelve year old with spiky black hair, why he was starting fires he shrugged and said enigmatically “it was better before.”

Having witnessed the lake’s death rattle over the last five years of visiting and living in Cambodia, we were inclined to agree: it was better before.

Boys start small fires in the dry grass that has grown on the sand that was used to fill in Boeung Kak Lake, once Phnom Penh's largest freshwater lake.

Boys start small fires in the dry grass that has grown on the sand that was used to fill in Boeung Kak Lake, once Phnom Penh’s largest freshwater lake.

Residents play volleyball in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake.

Residents play volleyball in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake.

Across town on Phnom Penh’s southern extremity, residents of Boeung Tumpun (Tumpun Lake) were facing a similarly bleak fate. Though Tumpun still retained some of its water (giving it the de facto distinction as the largest remaining freshwater lake in the city), dozens of large-diameter PVC pipes had been steadily filling the reservoir with sand that unrelentingly encroached on the remaining aquatic farmland.

From the porch of his family house that he built 14 years earlier, Mao Sarith looked across the small green belt of remaining farmable land towards the vast wall of sand bearing down on him with the slow destructive certainty of an iceberg. “People didn’t need anything before. With the [farming and fishing] from the lake, they could earn everything they needed,” Mao remembered. At 61-years-old, Sarith’s farming days were mostly over, but his family of six still depended on the lake for income.

A farmer tends to his aquatic crops on Phnom Penh's Boeung Tumpun Lake.

A farmer tends to his aquatic crops on Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun Lake.

A morning glory farmer prepares to drive his boat onto what water remains in Phnom Penh's Boeung Tumpun Lake

A morning glory farmer prepares to drive his boat onto what water remains in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun Lake

“I used to be able to farm near my house…the land was large and the water was clean. [But now] the farmland is smaller and we can’t produce as much. Now the water is little, and its dirty and smelly, so the crops don’t grow as well. I used to be able to earn $100 each time I went to market, but now it’s more like $25,” Sarith lamented. For the younger of his four children, this loss of equity will likely force them out of school to supplement family earnings by taking on full time work.

And Then There Was Sand

When we asked Sarith’s daughter, Lun Heng, some painfully rhetorical questions about the family’s future without access to water, her responses were predictably pessimistic. “We feel scared. Before we could earn money here, but not anymore. Some people from NGOs (non-governmental organizations) visited and told us that [the developers] plan to kick us out so that they can build here, but I think the water is more important than condos and villas.”

Sitting with Sarith and his family watching the sand slide inexorably closer to his vegetable plot, it was easy to see why they were nervous. For people who had subsisted from aquaculture and fishing their entire lives, the loss of water was nothing short of an economic catastrophe. And like the people we spoke with at Boeung Kak, the motivations behind such developments were difficult for Boeung Tumpun residents to rationalize.

A residential neighbourhood surrounding Phnom Penh's Boeung Tumpun Lake.

A residential neighbourhood surrounding Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun Lake.

“I bought this land, and I want to live here,” Sarith told us. “A lot of people depend on the lake. I’ve seen a lot of trouble happen in Cambodia, but this situation is very bad. Water should be public, but somehow it [has become] private, it belongs to companies. People should be free to use nature.”

A few hundred metres away, 50-year-old Vanna Oi watched from the steps of his stilted wooden house with an air of resigned detachment as a bulldozer gouged a path through what was once his front yard. “Before it was good,” he said, echoing the feelings of the boy at Boeung Kak. “The water was clean, and then they filled it with sand. I’m not really happy anymore.” As the bulldozer pushed mounds of dirt up to the bottom of his stairs, he added “I don’t even have a way to get out of my house.”

Vanna Oi, 50, sits in front of his home on Beoung Tumpun in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Bulldozers are in the process of terraforming the land in front of his house, blocking his stairway.

Vanna Oi, 50, sits in front of his home on Beoung Tumpun in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Bulldozers are in the process of terraforming the land in front of his house, blocking his stairway.

Throughout the course of our travels to date we had seen many instances of water mismanagement, but Phnom Penh’s vanishing lakes provided a chilling look into what the future could look like for Mekong dwellers if the river is not handled with some care. Though it is highly unlikely that the Mekong will be filled in with sand and flattened to make way for football fields, it is imaginable that without proper stewardship the river could cease to support the people who depend on it. And as we saw during out time at the lakes, when the water is gone the results can be disastrous.

A man carries salvaged manaquins through a residential neighbourhood surrounding Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake.

A man carries salvaged manaquins through a residential neighbourhood surrounding Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Reforesting Cambodia, Ten Trees at a Time

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 74% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 75% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

In the 1970’s, 70% of Cambodia was covered in primary (untouched) rainforest. Today, that number is closer to 3%, mostly due to the dual blights of large-scale land development and illegal logging.

The roots of Cambodia’s mass deforestation trace back to the Khmer Rouge era when various factions, locked in a deadly fight to wrest control of the country, financed their armies from the sale of timber to foreign governments and corporations. While  guerrilla groups, including the then-fledgling Khmer Rouge, sold most of their harvest to Thailand, the ruling government they were focused on ousting was exporting to Japan and Vietnam. With all sides engaged in a fight to the death, there was little consideration left over for possible future environmental impacts.

Valued for high-quality hardwoods, such as the luxurious rosewood, Cambodian forests continued to be heavily exploited throughout the civil war period and into the 21st Century. Today the national forests are a spectre of what they used to be, and despite a government supposedly committed to preventing illegal logging, the countryside of the southeast Asian nation is more often experienced as a dusty red desert than a lush tropical rainforest.

A few months ago I was introduced to Kalen Emsley, one of the founders of Ten Tree Apparel.  A company with a business model that revolves around a pledge to plant ten trees somewhere in the world for every item of clothing sold, Ten Tree is already approaching the one million mark in Africa. Having myself spent more than a year of combined days living in a tent as a seasonal tree planter in northern Canada, it seemed logical to combine my past experiences in reforestation with my more contemporary skills as a photojournalist. Kalen and I started working out a way to expand Ten Tree’s planting operations into Cambodia, and through a series of emails and Skype calls we eventually figured out how to make it happen.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Tree planting operations have become somewhat of a cliche, with businesses around the world sending teams of office workers with a few shovels to plant a few hundred trees in a field somewhere. In contrast, this project will see thousands of native trees planted in areas where they will be of direct benefit to local residents – near rural schools, for example. And unlike the industrial scale planting I used to do as a student summer job, these handmade forests will be comprised of mixed species – not just large swaths of monoculture.

Though it’s still far too hot in Cambodia to begin planting (ten thousand dead trees wouldn’t really help anybody), the trees have been ordered from a local nursery and our idea is on its way to becoming a reality.

Workers at a nursery outside Phnom Penh receive instructions from their manager.

Workers receive instructions from their manager at a nursery outside Phnom Penh.

 

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia's often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia’s often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh

When the weather cools off (which is, sadly, not until the end of April at the earliest), teams of student volunteers and environmentally active Buddhist monks will travel out of the city to put some trees in the ground. I’ll be there to document it, but until then these images from my recent visit to the nursery will have to do.

 

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Leo’s House: Escaping Poverty in the Philippines

Leo Castellero is a 49-year-old carpenter from Mindanao Island in the Philippines. When his wife left him for another man, he moved to Manila with his five children looking to start a new life.

Initially he found work on one of the cities large construction sites, but when the project ended he was unable to find a new job. Very quickly the savings he had were used up to feed his family, and within a few weeks he was broke. Several months later his criminal and medical clearance certificates expired. These have to be renewed on a yearly basis in order to be legally employed in the Philippines, and he could not afford the $30 fee.

Two years later, Leo is living in a 6 square meter shack along the train tracks near the Osmena highway in Manila. He has been unemployed since 2010 and is only able to feed his children through the charity of the community.

Made possible with the support of a few private donors, this story documents Leo’s life as he tries to break out of the poverty cycle – a hopeless feat for someone without financial backing.

Leo Castallero, 49, is a carpenter who lost his job and his wife in 2010. He moved to Manila with his five children in the same year.

Leo Castallero, 49, is a carpenter who lost his job and his wife in 2010. He moved to Manila with his five children in the same year.

Leo’s house in perched on the side of a government tenement block in San Andres, Manila. Directly underneath is the power station for the building; when it rains, Leo and his children cannot touch the walls of their house or they receive a strong electric shock.

Leo’s house in perched on the side of a government tenement block in San Andres, Manila. Directly underneath is the power station for the building; when it rains, Leo and his children cannot touch the walls of their house or they receive a strong electric shock.

Leo sits with three of his five children in their house near the Osmena highway in Manila. The youngest child is 3 and the oldest is 17.

Leo sits with three of his five children in their house near the Osmena highway in Manila. The youngest child is 3 and the oldest is 17.

Leo holds a photograph of his commando unit in the Filipino army. His time as a soldier was the most secure point in his life, since the government had provided everything he needed to survive.

Leo holds a photograph of his commando unit in the Filipino army. His time as a soldier was the most secure point in his life, since the government had provided everything he needed to survive.

Leo’s daughter Angelica, 5, plays with some found toys in their shack above the train tracks.

Leo’s daughter Angelica, 5, plays with some found toys in their shack above the train tracks.

The toothbrushes of Leo’s children. The financial burden of supporting five underage children means that Leo’s savings were immediately spent on food when he lost his job.

The toothbrushes of Leo’s children. The financial burden of supporting five underage children means that Leo’s savings were immediately spent on food when he lost his job.

Leo’s youngest son, 3, watches as a commuter train speeds past their house. The trains pass roughly every 15 minutes.

Leo’s youngest son, 3, watches as a commuter train speeds past their house. The trains pass roughly every 15 minutes.

The secondary entrance to Leo’s house leads to a stairwell of the government housing project on the side of which he built his house. The dark space is where the building’s electrical power station is situated and the children must brush against it each time they use this entrance.

The secondary entrance to Leo’s house leads to a stairwell of the government housing project on the side of which he built his house. The dark space is where the building’s electrical power station is situated and the children must brush against it each time they use this entrance.

Leo’s house is roughly 6 square meters and sleeps six people.

Leo’s house is roughly 6 square meters and sleeps six people.

The walls and ceiling of Leo’s house are waterlogged and moldy. Though an experienced carpenter, he lacks the appropriate materials to build a proper house. When it rains the water drips from the ceiling, meaning that Leo and his children must sleep sitting up to avoid the water.

The walls and ceiling of Leo’s house are waterlogged and moldy. Though an experienced carpenter, he lacks the appropriate materials to build a proper house. When it rains the water drips from the ceiling, meaning that Leo and his children must sleep sitting up to avoid the water.

Leo’s middle son, 11, waits for a train to pass so he can re-enter the house.

Leo’s middle son, 11, waits for a train to pass so he can re-enter the house.

Leo makes figurines out of clay for his children to play with. A loving father, his first priority is to enroll his kids in school once he can find a new job.

Leo makes figurines out of clay for his children to play with. A loving father, his first priority is to enroll his kids in school once he can find a new job.

A clay figurine Leo made for one of his kids. The children name this Manny Pacquiao after the Philippines most famous boxer.

A clay figurine Leo made for one of his kids. The children name it Manny Pacquiao after the Philippines most famous boxer.

Leo is photographed in the police headquarters in Manila. With the help of some private donors, Leo is able to take steps towards getting a new job.

Leo is photographed in the police headquarters in Manila. With the help of some private donors, Leo is able to take steps towards getting a new job.

Leo fills out forms in the police headquarters in Manila. A police clearance is a necessary document for a construction job in the Philippines.

Leo fills out forms in the police headquarters in Manila. A police clearance is a necessary document for a construction job in the Philippines.

Leo is examined by a doctor in Manila Hospital. A “fit to work” certificate is required for a job on a construction site in the Philippines.

Leo is examined by a doctor in Manila Hospital. A “fit to work” certificate is required for a job on a construction site in the Philippines.

Leo is x-rayed in a private clinic in San Andres.

Leo is x-rayed in a private clinic in San Andres.

The results of Leo’s x-ray shows that he has no respiratory problems and is fit to work.

The results of Leo’s x-ray shows that he has no respiratory problems and is fit to work.

With his medical and police clearances obtained, Leo prepares to search for a new job. The certification process cost less than $30, but without the help of private donors this sum would have been impossible for Leo to accumulate.

With his medical and police clearances obtained, Leo prepares to search for a new job. The certification process cost less than $30, but without the help of private donors this sum would have been impossible for Leo to accumulate.

 

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