BANGKOK—Woodcarving has emerged as a way for women in Cambodia’s remote villages to improve their lives, despite the difficulties associated with living far from traditional centers of commerce.
In Cambodia’s western Pursat province, 23-year-old Uk Srey Mom carves a piece of wood into the shape of a traditional water bowl and proudly announces that her family of five can finally enjoy a better living, even though they don’t own land for rice farming.
Srey Mom, a resident of Prongil commune in Pursat’s Phnom Kravanh district, says she is saving the money she earns from woodcarving to learn how to sew for a living.
“If I work hard, I can earn nearly 200,000 riel (U.S. $50.00) [per month]. If I don’t work too hard, I earn only 150,000 riel (U.S. $37.50) or 100,000 riel (U.S. $25.00).”
She carves intricate designs on her work, including knotted braids, vines, decorations in the Pha Chan style, and other forms particular to her province.
Srey Mom says small carvings can sell for 5,000 riel (U.S. $1.25) in the market while larger carvings can bring in anywhere from 10,000 riel (U.S. $2.50) to 20,000 riel (U.S. $5.00), depending on their size.
On average women from Prongil village, where Srey Mom lives, and the surrounding community make U.S. $1.00 a day or less for hard work farming local rice paddies.
Many other young women from nearby villages also come to Prongil to work as woodcarvers to support their families and save money to continue their education.
Ni Tong, a 17-year-old resident of neighboring Santreae commune, says she works part-time as a woodcarver to buy school supplies for her studies at Hun Sen Phnom Kravanh High School and to put some money aside for her family.
“If we work hard, we can finish carving one bowl a day, and the [workshop] owner will pay us after he has sold the bowl.”
Ni Tong says she makes more than 100,000 riel each month and says the experience has taught her the value of learning skills to support herself financially.
“I want the Royal Government to build schools to help poor children get a good education so that they have the knowledge to earn a living by themselves.”
The village is home to nearly 20 workshops that produce traditional woodcarvings, including flower bowls, water bowls, water pots, Buddha statues, and statues of celestial maidens known as “Apsara.”
Each workshop employs seven to 10 young women as carvers.
The workshops sell their woodcarvings to both tourists and local collectors.
According to village chief Yim Bunly, the majority of Prongil village was poor as recently as a few years ago.
But he says that since they developed a woodcarving industry, more than 60 percent of the residents now live above the poverty line.
The village has a population of 441 families, out of which around 90 families now depend wholly on work as woodcarvers and do not own rice paddies, Yim Bunly said.
He added that hundreds of young people who in the past might have been more likely to leave their villages to find work are now working locally as woodcarvers to support themselves and their families.
Chhim Sina, director of the Pursat Department of Women’s Affairs, said the negative impacts of job migration seem to have disappeared in Prongil commune after the creation of the woodcarving workshops.
“We have projects to help find jobs for women in their own villages so they don’t have to migrate, and from these I have observed that more young people choose not to leave home,” she said.
Prongil Commune chief Yan Thol says woodcarving has also helped to reduce crime and provides area youth with goals to work towards.
“It’s important that the people feel connected to the business in addition to making an income. This reduces the number of troubled youth in the area because they are busy working and don’t get involved in bad things,” Yan Thol said.
“In total, it helps society and helps with village chief management. The village chiefs don’t have as many difficulties because there are fewer problems in the area. When people have jobs to do … they don’t have many arguments,” he said.
Dangers of corruption
Keo Bunsieb, a disabled former soldier and now the owner of a woodcarving workshop with 10 workers, says the business has allowed him to support his family and helps a number of villagers to live better lives.
But he wants the government to protect the industry through regulation to allow his business and others to thrive.
“When the carvings are transported, they are often seized [by forestry officials]. This will lead to the disappearance of Khmer culture,” Keo Bunsieb said.
“[Also] if a tree falls and we don’t use it, it will be burned. But if we take it for carving, we can be accused of committing an offense,” he said.
Yim Bunly, the chief of Prongil village, agreed that without a comprehensive legal framework to protect the woodcarving businesses, owners and woodcarvers would suffer from corruption and extortion.
“There has been too much pressure on the people. Tax officials collect taxes from them, the military police take money from them, civilian police take money from them, and environmental protection officials take money from them.”
In an interview, Phnom Kravanh District Governor Touch Sambour promised to make the establishment of legal provisions to nurture and protect the industry a priority.
Original reporting by Mondol Keo for RFA’s Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated by Uon Chhin. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.