Dust is thick in the early morning heat as I leave the city everyone else seems to be flocking towards. Strings of villages thrive along the Sangker River, near Battambang, and compose what is known as Spring Road. There is no better word to use than “compose,” because the people that live here love here, and create here have built a life in harmony from the dirt and plants around them. Effortlessly natural, they have created an art-form that rules South Eastern Asia culture.
Earth workers at heart, I met a mother and daughter who spend their days making rice paper for restaurants around Cambodia, producing 2000 per day; a couple who turn between raising pigs and distilling various rice whiskeys, feeding the pigs leftover boozy rice mush; a woman who makes rice noodles – for anyone who purchases them, while her husband masterfully prepares their families meals on a stone; a woman who spends her afternoons slicing bananas on a hand-made raft of bamboo, a dried delicacy that brought tears to my eyes
Mothers and daughters producing 2,000 rice papers a day!
A theme of sustainability carried through each person I met. When making sticky rice, the cook used otherwise wasted bamboo to stoke the fire. Serving the dish inside a bamboo shoot with no utensils required. The rice husks are used to stoke the fire, unlike earlier generations who used wood for the fire. When distilling rice whisky, the broken and lesser grade rice is used, with the leftover mush used to feed the pigs (also using rice husk to stoke the fire). This is partly from a lack of availability of wood since most of the country has been cleared for rice production, but also from a newfound mindfulness of creating as little waste as possible.
A lack of access to education for the majority of adults in the entire country. As a result of massive killings the Khmer Roux committed, led to a complete decimation of the school system. The Khmer Roux killed off hundreds of thousands of doctors, teachers, nurses, business people. Including many other people of professions that were not directly linked to manual labour. This created a stagnant development that lasted decades.
Most of the adults now have self-taught themselves other languages; they read books on sustainability, business, and education.
An example of this developmental stagnation, in modernity, is found in the introduction of plastic packaging. Generations previous to the ones that grew up in the Darkness (Khmer Roux rule) used banana leaves to package their goods. Both in services and for personal use. The banana leaf would compost on its own in a matter of days. However, after the switch to plastic, not realising plastic took hundreds of years to compost, littered the countryside with it for years and years. The remnants of this are still visible today along nearly every road, in every village, and filling every river.
As time passes, you can see, and even feel the change happening. Most of the adults now have self-taught themselves other languages; they read books on sustainability, business, and education. They spend their work in lesson volunteering, cleaning up, and most importantly trying to teach their children how to care for their world so that it will last beyond them.
I never thought poor Khmer people, without Western standards of formal education, could teach me anything of sustainability, but they taught me the most important thing. Sustainability isn’t just for those with the data on sustainability, or the technology to assist in sustainability. Rather, sustainability is humanities applause. A sign of our wisdom actualized by our abilities. A tool we can grow freely, and with vigour, that works side-by-side with advancing technology and comprehensible data acquisition.
We must continue the work to educate ourselves, and our neighbours. Continuing to educate our children, ensuring their access to quality schools and teachers. We must teach them faith, of any sort so that they learn how to move forward. We may only hope that one day whoever they are, and whatever they are doing, they will have found a deeper understanding, and respect, for their Earth and the Spring Roads on it.