Remembering Lost Landscapes in Cambodia

The village of East Big Lake once had an abundance of fish, recalls Sok, a wiry and well-tanned farmer who has lived in the village most of his sixty-three years. I stand next to him and watch his cattle graze in the harvested rice fields. He tells me that in the old days, there were so many fish in the village’s big lake that a person could catch enough in one afternoon to feed their family for days. But that was before the Pol Pot time, when the villagers cut down all the trees around the lake and dug canals to drain its water. After Pol Pot, they split up the land and planted rice where the lake had once been. These days if people want fish, they have to go to the market or dig a fish pond. Sok jokes that in the past, the fish raised the people, but now people raise the fish.

Like many place names in Cambodia, the name of the village East Big Lake suggests a story of a different environmental past. The clues are inscribed on the landscape. The village is in southeastern Cambodia where the land is flat, but in the orange light of the early evening Sok and I can see several karst mountains standing tall on the western horizon. Closer to us, we can spot pond herons flying over an irrigation canal that forms a border around the rice fields of Sok’s village. Small paperbark trees that used to line the entire lake shore now grow on top of the dikes between the rice fields. Behind us is Sok’s house, only a short walk along a small dirt path shaded by sugar palms, coconut and mango trees.

Agricultural work party harvesting rice together. Photo by W. Nathan Green

Agricultural work party harvesting rice together. Photo by W. Nathan Green

When paired with people’s memories of the past, the history of this landscape becomes animated by stories of joy and suffering, abundance and loss. For so many Cambodians, war, genocide, and socialist reconstruction in the second half of the 20th century re-defined the relation between people and nature. I have begun to learn how these difficult years changed people’s values, meanings, and practices of living on the land by living in East Big Lake for these past six months. In this place, landscape and memory have much to teach us about local agro-environmental change, and the lessons such histories offer for the future.

On the eastern edge of Sok’s village, there are a group of twenty graves marked by large conical mounds of sand. In the middle tower is a singular grave for Sok’s grandfather, who immigrated from southern China in the 1920s to grow pepper. When Sok’s mother was born several years later, there were only four other families living in their village. The houses were far apart from each other, separated by fields and forest. Sok’s mother remembers being afraid of the forest beyond her village: at night wild dogs would roam into the village to kill people’s chickens and ducks.

The forests in East Big Lake began to diminish, however, as more children were born and more land was put under the plow. Such was the pattern elsewhere in Cambodia during the early 20th century, when rice farmland quadrupled and the population grew from two to five million people. 

Today, rice grown with chemical fertilizer is only fit to be sold in the market rather than eaten at home.

Sok was born in 1953, the year that King Norodom Sihanouk helped Cambodia gain independence from France. For most of the older generation in East Big Lake, the nearly two decades of Sihanouk’s reign are remembered with nostalgia, when people still farmed naturally. Sok used to gather with other children to watch the young men race their cow carts around the fields after a day of hard work. Back then, no one had tractors like they do now. The diesel powered machines of today may be swift and powerful, but they are replacing the cattle that replenish the sandy rice fields with manure. Today, rice grown with chemical fertilizer is only fit to be sold in the market rather than eaten at home.

Not everyone remembers this period fondly, however. For some, Sihanouk’s reign in the 1960s was a time filled with poverty and inequality. In the north end of Sok’s village lives an older woman named Pisal whose family has been in East Big Lake for generations. When she was growing up, her father had to supplement their vegetable garden with cash from work on nearby pepper plantations. He never earned enough money, and once he was forced to sell off part of the family’s land to pay back a loan. For Pisal, farming has always entailed bitter hardship. From 1970 to 1975, it was such feelings that empowered the communist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, during their civil war against the US-backed general Lon Nol.

Lompu Lake in front of Kirisala and White Mountains, just north of East Big Lake Village. Photo by W. Nathan Green

Lompu Lake in front of Kirisala and White Mountains, just north of East Big Lake Village. Photo by W. Nathan Green

When the war made its way to East Big Lake it came on the wings of America’s B-52s. From 1969 to 1973, the United States bombarded eastern Cambodia to destroy the supply line of the North Vietnamese Army, and to dislodge the Khmer Rouge guerrillas from their mountain hideouts. US bombs rained down upon East Big Lake on several occasions, leaving behind destroyed roads, open pits, and dead livestock. By the end of the 1970s, more than half of the land cultivated with rice in 1968 was lying fallow, home only to wild pigs and landmines.

As I listen to Sok recount those hard years of civil war, we watch the pond herons begin to circle upwards and fly towards his house. Sok looks up at the birds and tells me about the sarus cranes, whistling ducks, and cormorants that once lived here. Sok is silent for a moment as he looks with his mind’s eye at the fields in front of us. During the Pol Pot time, Sok continues, he was ordered to go to the marshes to collect baby egrets and carry them back to the communal kitchen to supplement the meager food stocks.

Like a loadstone, older villagers in East Big Lake are drawn to the Pol Pot time when describing the environmental past. In April 1975, Pol Pot’s forces gained control of the country, and the 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days under Khmer Rouge rule have been collectively burned into people’s memories and the landscape.

Like a loadstone, older villagers in East Big Lake are drawn to the Pol Pot time when describing the environmental past.

Sok was amongst the many who worked night and day on the infrastructure projects that would launch a “Super Great Leap Forward” into a modern socialist society by transforming nature through physical labor. At the heart of the Pol Pot regime’s strategy was a technical plan to finally overcome the water shortage for Cambodian farmers. Sok and his siblings were forced to dig canals with pick axe and hoe. They also drained the big lake, chopped down the trees in the fields, leveled the dirt, and straightened the dikes to make fields no smaller than one hectare. In spite of record yields in some parts of the country, the regime strictly rationed food in the communal dining halls in order feed its soldiers and trade rice for Chinese weapons. With only rice porridge and water lily to eat, laboring as many as 20 hours per day without medical care, many of the villagers in Sok’s village—including his younger sister—were worked to death. It was a savage time, Sok says, when Khmer killed Khmer and there was no Dharma.

One of the tragic ironies of the Pol Pot regime is that while people starved to death, life teemed all around them

One of the tragic ironies of the Pol Pot regime is that while people starved to death, life teemed all around them. The canals, rice fields, and lakes were abundant with food, but no one could take it without permission on pain of execution.

It was this natural abundance that allowed villagers to survive after the Vietnamese army and a small group of former Khmer Rouge leaders liberated Cambodia at the beginning of 1979. The year’s rice harvest was burned by the fleeing Khmer Rouge, and so villagers turned to the crabs, snails, frogs, and fish in the fields to feed themselves. Others went to the woods to trap rabbits, quail, and fruit bats.

In the rainy season of 1979, with the country on the brink of famine, the new Cambodian government collectivized agricultural production by organizing people into solidarity groups. East Big Lake was divided into four such groups. Yet collectivization was doomed nearly from the start, because most people rejected the government’s socialist policies that were so reminiscent of the genocidal Pol Pot regime. Villagers also lacked essentially everything needed to start farming again. Most plows, seed, and cattle had been lost or destroyed as the Khmer Rouge fled the area. Aside from the village chief who was himself a young 30-year-old farmer, there were no state officials to assist in the day to day affairs of rebuilding East Big Lake village. And like in many places throughout the country during the 1980s and early 1990s, Khmer Rouge guerrillas continued to wage a bloody war from their camps in the nearby mountain forests.

Women planting rice during the rainy season. Photo by W. Nathan Green.

Women planting rice during the rainy season. Photo by W. Nathan Green.

Given these challenges, in 1983 local authorities set about re-distributing land for families to farm on their own. But what the new government leaders and their Vietnamese patrons failed to realize is that while they were scrambling to figure out how to build a socialist state, the villagers in Sok’s village had already re-adopted a communal form of mutual aid that Cambodian farmers had practiced for centuries known as brovas dai.

Villagers formed reciprocal work groups during the plowing, transplanting, and harvesting periods of rice production. Working in groups of twenty to thirty people, farmers would make short work of the relatively small plots owned by individual families before moving onto the next person’s field. In this way, farmers balanced those peak moments in the rice production process when time was limited and labor needs were high.

For many villagers, this traditional form of mutual aid exemplified an important relation with the natural world. On a late November afternoon, I was walking through the golden rice fields with Sok’s wife Sothy, when I asked her an open question about what the environment used to be like in the village. She responded that previously people would do brovas dai to transplant and harvest the rice.

I was confused by Sothy’s answer because I was expecting something about the forest, fish, or fields—what I associate with the word environment. Instead she went on to explain how much she used to enjoy helping her neighbors to farm rice. They would laugh and tell jokes to each other, and sometimes they would break into song to make the work go quicker. She always enjoyed sitting in the shade, eating fruit and feeling the breeze on her back while she waited to join a work group. She smiled wistfully thinking of those years. Now only a few poor families do brovas dai together, because all of the young people have gone to work in the factories.

Sunrise over East Big Lake. Photo by W. Nathan Green.

Sunrise over East Big Lake. Photo by W. Nathan Green.

The sun has gone down as I accompany Sok back to his house where his grandchildren are busy playing marbles. Already Sok has taught them how to take the cattle out to the fields, and how to tell when the milk fruit is ripe. But he does not want his grandchildren to be farmers. Farming is hard work, and these days the prices of crops only seem to go down, never up. The fact is that even if Sok’s grandchildren wanted to be farmers, there is not enough land for all of the new generation in this village.

Nonetheless, as we listen to the soft clicking of bats chasing nighttime insects, Sok expresses regret that this new generation has never seen or even known about the big lake or the animals that once lived in the village. The crows and the fruit bats are gone. The wild dogs that once lived in the mountain forests are silent. Like the rain that replenishes the ponds and the cattle that fertilize the fields, Sok hopes that people will take care of the land and water that remains.

W. Nathan Green is a doctoral student in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include the political ecology of microfinance, technologies of land formalization, and environmental history in Cambodia. He has also written about hydropower development in Laos and the history of antimalarial drug resistance along the Thai-Cambodian border. Contact.

End

Leave a Comment