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Archive for January, 2007

Embarrassment may be the only weapon…

January 30, 2007 By: Kari Category: 2007 January Trip, General 1 Comment →

Chrauk Tiek/The Grady Grossman School: One by one they hand them to me, letters with pictures of the forest, the animals, the birds, fallen trees, muddy waters, dead animals. The children definitely know what is at stake for them. Tomorrow I will leave this village withKari collects the kids letters a pile of over 400 letters from children and community leaders. Forty-eight more letters are on their way from the Souy hill tribe villagers. Some people are afraid to sign their name; they live in fear of the corrupt police and military. But these letters are the beginning of a participatory democracy. Voice of America, CNN Asia, Cambodia Daily, The Phnom Penh Post, I promised to take their letters to show the international community the environmental crisis and concern of the local villagers. The proof is in their letters. I hope I have enough evidence to interest some reporters. Embarrassment may be the only weapon we have to get the government’s attention.

Last night Nou Noun, the deputy head of commune, invited villagers to the school to watch a No Noun and Kari Grady Grossmanvideo. The teachers set up the computer outside in the dark school yard. With power from a DC car battery, he showed his community the documentaries I brought, Voices from the Forest, Khmer Buddhist Forest Conservation Project, and Community Forestry International. Some people were quickly bored and left, but a small group of twenty, mostly women, stayed. It is a beginning. This is how it works in Cambodia; we plant the seed of a new idea and wait for it to spread.

In the morning I made a speech to our teachers, asking them to lead the education effort, especially with the adults. I can give them all the resources they need to educate, I can support the local efforts to protect the forest by bringing attention to their concerns; but I cannot do the thinking and the changing for them. We must solve the problem of student drop out. We have 92 children in first grade, 68 in second, 58 in third, 42 in fourth, 32 in fifth, and 16 in sixth. It seems that after the fourth grade children are big enough to help haul wood.

Once the teachers and students were off to their classrooms, we turned our attention to the charcoal briquettes, attempting to just introduce the concept and determine if theAndre, seated, discusses briquette making with Bun Vana and others. community might be interested in a training session. The response was overwhelmingly positive. They are desperate for an alternative and would start building a press tomorrow if we let them. As with any new technology, it’s important that the product be introduced to the market properly, not hodge-podge; they must prove to have a consistent, quality product offered at a competitive price. This will take some time to develop the skills, test, get feedback and make improvements. It’s not an overnight solution, but it’s the quickest alternative we have. Community leader Bun Vana asked me to come back as soon as possible to train the trainers from each village. “If the people have something different they can do,� he said, “then no reason to cut down the tree and more kids can stay in school.� That’s why I keep fighting; I want to see 92 students in the sixth grade.

The forest people have invited me to return in May for their annual ceremony to honor their forest ancestors. Ek Chun, the Souy group leader requested $50 worth of tin to finish the roof of their community building. I told him if I get 50 letters, they get fifty dollars. He’s been running around the village all afternoon, getting thumbprints onto letters.

We’ve been working so hard on the forest problems I’ve had little time to spend with the kids. Today after class everyone joined me in the library for a photo session with their letters; we broke out the play dough, puzzles, magnetix and leapfrog games. I sat with a group of boys instructing them in a game of word-recognition dominos. Squeals of laughter filled the room; they are so hungry to learn.

We can give the children the opportunity to stay in school only by giving their parentsMonk praying for fallen trees. diverse, alternative options to make a living, charcoal briquettes, agro-forestry and eco-tourism. Everything depends on stopping the forest destruction and the corrupt governance tied to it. Everything depends on those letters.

Be the Change.

Please buy Bones That Float, A Story of Adopting Cambodia and Spread the Word.

Book coverGo to www.BonesThatFloat.com to order pre-publication hardcover copies at a discount price of $20 (+tax & shipping). 25% of the proceeds benefit the Friends of the Grady Grossman School, Cambodia.

A link to an eBook is available with each order.
Autographed hardcover copies will be sent in March. Regular price is $24.95 (+tax & shipping).

Voice of the Children

January 29, 2007 By: Kari Category: 2007 January Trip, General No Comments →

Chrauk Tiek/The Grady Grossman School: This morning the children are busy working Students at the Grady Grossman School.on their letters. They’re creating vibrant drawings with colored pencils and glitter glue under a neatly printed heading in Khmer script “Please Don’t Destroy My Future, Don’t Cut Down The Trees,� signed with name and age. We hope that the voice of the children will touch the heart of the Minister of Environment to do something. Often the smoke is so thick it stings everyones eyes.

After the clay pot piñatas were broken yesterday, we squashed into the back of a woodThe ecomonk, Prom Thommacheat, walking through the forest. truck with a hundred children and drove to the “stream water,â€? a narrow pinch of creek between large granite boulders that make a great slide. “Moi dong diet,â€? a girl in blue pants said as she grabbed my hand, one more time. I probably slid down the rock with her 10 times; she could have kept going all day long. When I sat to rest on the rock several girls joined me, to get warm and be close. I reflected on the monk, Prom Thommacheat’s, words at the school meeting that morning. He preached to the children they must regard me as their own parent. I wonder if the changes over the next 5 years will be as drastic as the last 5; will they be change for the better or change for the worse. I must stay committed.

I told the parents during the school meeting, when I think about the future for their children and grandchildren, with all the trees gone, it makes me cry. They will be more poor and my hard work to fund this school will be useless if they destroy their future now. They can make the choice to stop. Take the case of Sok Sarith, the man with the noodle shop.

Two years ago, I took a letter from the community leader Bun Vanna to the Voice of America detailing the villagers complaint about the illegal logging. A few days laterRice noodle mill helicopters landed in the schoolyard and confiscated many chainsaws and burnt out the sawmill where Sok Sarith worked. At first he was angry but he knew he was guilty. He made a choice to change and stared planting fruit trees and making noodles. The rice is ground into flour then mixed with water to form a white dough. The dough is set in a mold and pushed with a lever through a noodle press, and the strings descended into a pot of boiling water. He uses bark, dead wood, and scrap for the cooking fire. His home is like a forest garden with many different kinds of fruit trees, with a little advice and water saving techniques he could easily increase production. He changed, others can too.

Andre displayed a map of Cambodia and explained to the parents how a watershed works. Souy family living near the Grady Grossman SchoolSome didn’t want to hear it and left, but many were interested and stayed. The monk, Prom Thommacheat asked, “to stop cutting the tree from today, what can the people do to feed their family tomorrow?� Good question. Our Abundant Forest project is a long range plan, but the need is immediate.

We started to discuss a micro-loan program to give people, especially women tending their land, the opportunity to start a new small business, like noodle making. Here is the leverage point, loans will only be available to those not involved or chosing to leave the wood trade. The idea holds promise. We need to research best practices from Bangladesh’s Nobel Peace Prize winning Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank.

1st graders playing with play dough at the Grady Grossman SchoolThis morning while the older children worked on their letters, the first grade class joined me in the library for a play dough lesson. Luckily, I had brought enough so everyone could try. It was amazing to watch them explore something totally new, an array of animals and cooking implements were constructed. There were a lot of radiant smiles.

These children are magical. I am asking them to be the leaders to save their forest. They deserve a better life.

Be the change.
Spread the word.

One Brave Woman!

January 28, 2007 By: Kari Category: 2007 January Trip, General 1 Comment →

Chrauk Tiek/The Grady Grossman School: A woman handed me a letter today after a community meeting at the school. The letter expresses her deep concern about her communities lack of water, lack of income opportunity, lack of health care and lack of law enforcement. Her name is Tou Cham Soka. She is pregnant and she is brave.Kari with Tou Cham Soka.

The letter details the overthrow of the good community leader Bun Vanna by a local corrupt authority, the newcomers who have come to the cut down the trees, the bribes taken from oxcart and wood truck drivers carrying tree trunks from the illegal logging. The parade of trees out of the forest goes on day and night. At night the bribe payments are less, so the poorest oxcart drivers work in the night.

The newcomer houses are easy to spot, there are piles of neatly stacked hardwood in measured units of 3 meters by 2 meters; a harvest for which the family earns $2.62.

At meetings with the schoolchildren and villagers we ask for more letters we can take to the Ministry of Environment or WildAid, or some one who will listen. It’s amazing to me Monk speaking at community meeting.that no one has come from the conservation organizations working in Cambodia to speak to the people living here. The Aural Wildlife Sanctuary is the most imminently threatened region in the country at the moment and there are many local people who want to protect the forest. They know their future is at stake. They know how valuable the trees are to retaining water during the rainy season for slow release during the drought season. They feel powerless to stop the destruction. Many are afraid to write the letters and state the real problem. Except one brave woman. It is a start.

We will begin here at the Grady Grossman School with the Abundant Forest training center, to teach the children how to plant a diverse number of species to produce food andStudents play with a Claypot Pinata. generate income, to conserve water and grow trees. We hope to win over many people. People who want to stop participating in the problem but they have no choice. Transporting wood to the city is the only current way many know to get enough to feed their family everyday. They live hand to mouth. Most villagers ask me for a water pump to help grow their farm. The community leaders are asking for the government to fix the dam at the nearby Peam Levia Lake to provide better irrigation. The government does not respond.

We drove to Peam Levia yesterday, through the forest in the back of a wood carrying truck. During the dry season the water is low and most of the wide open area is marshy, but it is beautiful green with many waterfowl. Andre, a trained ornithologist, says the birds are the most amazing species he has ever seen—and he was trained in the Amazon! In the distance, mostly obscured by a haze of smoke from the burning forest, I could almost make out Aural Mountain, the highest in Cambodia.

The teachers harvested giant snails from the lake. Boiled and grilled over a fire it was best Giant snails.the escargot I’ve ever tasted. We ate picnic style and talked. Community leaders explained the problem again. Vong Sovann, the truck driver, asked me to buy him a video camera so he can monitor and document the perpetrators burning and cutting the forest, although he is available for hire to transport wood. With no choices heSnail party needs the income to feed his family. Like most of the people living here, he is very willing to change if there is another option.

The children are waiting in the big truck to take me swimming at the “stream water”. I must go, now.

It is difficult to express the extreme urgency to support this village. Their future is doomed if we don’t. What is happening here now effects everyone on the entire planet. We all need the trees to fix the CO2 produced in industrial nations and the United States. There is a diverse array of endangered species living in the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary that our planet will lose forever, and most of all the people need water and soil to grow food. Without the trees, we have nothing.

The villagers understand this, but they need our help and they need it now. Reward Tou Cham Soka for her bravery!

Please buy Bones That Float, A Story of Adopting Cambodia and Spread the Word.

Book coverGo to www.BonesThatFloat.com to order pre-publication hardcover copies at a discount price of $20 (+tax & shipping). 25% of the proceeds benefit the Friends of the Grady Grossman School, Cambodia.

A link to an eBook is available with each order.
Autographed hardcover copies will be sent in March. Regular price is $24.95 (+tax & shipping).

I asked the children, “who wants to save the trees?�

January 26, 2007 By: Kari Category: 2007 January Trip, General No Comments →

Chrauk Tiek Village: As we drove north from Kampong Speu through the afternoon light, toward Aural Mountain, a nail spike flatted our tire in the middle of nowhere. The ensuing tire change and repair took 3 hours. It was well after dark before we arrived in Chrauk Tiek by moto escort with school director, Ngim So Bun, and English teacher, Din Narith, negotiating a path through the night over a heavily potholed road. As I watched a man who lived in a shanty repair a rubber tire by hand with nothing more than a tuna can and some flame, I felt humbled by my total dependence on such ingenious people. And an hour later, with my head slamming against the ceiling of our van with each massive pothole, I noticed red glowing embers in the night. My heart sunk when the glow registered as trunks of burning trees.

The forest destruction since my last visit in 2005 is unbelievable. Andre’s gruffCharcoal being transported from the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary to Phnom Penh. exasperations have increased to a hearty “Holy Shit!� The road is an absolute mess, made much worse in the rainy season by the transport of logs and charcoal. We passed 20 moto trailers carrying charcoal and 16 vans and mini-trucks carrying hardwood in one afternoon, all on their way to Phnom Penh. They stop at several checkpoints along the way and pay their bribes to the forest rangers. A fancy red sports car is parked under the house near the Forest Administration building; along the roadside, whole families covered in soot tend their kilns.

This is the entrance to the famous Cardamom Mountains and the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, a biological world heritage site; a forest with the most diverse species of flora and fauna in Southeast Asia and the ancestral region of the Souy people. I don’t think even education can stop the onslaught. I felt sick and sad.

Kari, with Yoen the interpretor, meets with the parents and students of the Grady Grossman School. In the morning, the children come to school with their parents for an assembly to meet us. It is the first time I get to speak to them one to one, without the pomp and circumstance of the government officials who usually accompany me on my visits. I tell them I am proud of the hard working teachers and students, especially the soccer team. Our teachers taught the children how to play soccer and they won second place in the district tournament. It was their very first sporting event.

I told the students and parents about the learning games I brought, along with a newKari teaches students to play one of the new games. computer so that more children can study in Din Narith’s class. When I asked who would like to take a music class, everyone raised their hands. I had discussed with Arn Chorn-Pond about bringing a master from his Cambodian Living Arts program here, so the children can be exposed to the traditions of their own culture. The only music they ever Students learning to build with Magnetix.hear is Chinese style love songs blaring from the karaoke shop in town. Arn and I want the children to learn the foundation of Cambodian music, so they can write new songs and communicate the message to save the forest through music and dance.

Students playing jump rope in the school yard.After the assembly, the children played games in the schoolyard and the community leaders gathered to talk to me. My old friend Bun Vana, former community chief, Ek Chun, the Souy village group leader, Prom Thommmacheat, a monk praying for the forest, and Nou Nuon the new Deputy Head of Commune. They are all desperate to stop the forest destruction, especially for the Souy people whose ancestorsLogging operations in the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary. are forest spirits. Bun Vana was evicted from the community chief position last July in a secret meeting between four higher-ranking officials, and replaced with a newcomer, Vy Sok. The forest has been burning ever since. They feel powerless to stop the destruction.

A student at the Grady Grossman School writing a letter to save the nearby forest.I asked the children, “who wants to save the trees?� and everyone raised their hands. I asked the community leaders to have everyone in their villages write a letter. The ones who can write can sign their name and the ones who cannot will thumbprint letters written by their children. The children will draw pictures. I asked the Head of Commune, Nou Noun to ask all 7,743 families under his jurisdiction to participate. I don’t know where I am going to take them, but I promised I would not stop until someone takes action.

Monks in prayer at Buddhism Srei Puos, the forest temple.In the afternoon, the teachers and elders took us to see Buddhism Srei Puos, the forest temple. Thirty monks are praying for the fires to stop burning every night. They tie saffron robes around the trees to make them holy. The monks and community leaders fight the fire, thrashing large branches of green leaves to the ground. We choke on the smoke and our feet are blackened by soot.

Fighting the fires by thrashing large branches of green leaves to the ground.

Further on we meet with former soldier’s hauling oxcarts full of tree trunks and sawn timber from the mill in the forest. The operation is orchestrated by Mr. Pea, a former Khmer Rouge commander. His kids go to my school.

The monk points to a forest covered mountain in the distance, Phnom Knong Jaik, telling me that is where the forest animals are hiding, tigers, gibbons, sunbears and more. Traps lay all around the base of the mountain and the monks cut them loose at night. He tells me they recently found a Sunbear in a trap and tried to save it, but it died from theMonk fighting the fires. wounds with monks praying all around it.

The destruction of this forest is imminent. The winds are blowing hard, the soil turning to sand; the desertification process can be seen and felt. The rains have not come for 4 years. The rivers are drying up. The local people want to stop it, but feel powerless. They know their children’s future is as stake.

Please help us help them.

Please buy Bones That Float, A Story of Adopting Cambodia and Spread the Word.

Book coverGo to www.BonesThatFloat.com to order pre-publication hardcover copies at a discount price of $20 (+tax & shipping). 25% of the proceeds benefit the Friends of the Grady Grossman School, Cambodia.

A link to an eBook is available with each order.
Autographed hardcover copies will be sent in March. Regular price is $24.95 (+tax & shipping).

Our van is packed with books, maps, games, and a new computer…

January 25, 2007 By: Kari Category: 2007 January Trip, General No Comments →

Kampong Speu: Our van is packed with books, maps, games, and a new computer as we travel westward through the outskirts of Phnom Penh, past rows of garment factories and onward toward Kampong Speu. The air is hot and choked with the dust of a thousand motos and the traffic of overloaded trucks carrying goods from the province to market in the city.

Our research in the city has gone exceedingly well. We’ve met with the education project officer at American Assistance for Cambodia (AAFC) to buy a new computer for our students, a musician to discuss arts classes, and biomass and renewable energy experts exploring simple technologies appropriate for Cambodia. Everyone we have met with believes our idea shows promise. Our vision to use school level education to engage children in solving local economic and environmental problems with hands-on learning is utterly revolutionary.

There-in lies the difference in the fundamental reality of an educated person. I can come from half the world away, negotiate a foreign city, be resourceful, ask questions, network connections to expertise, and gather the resources from many levels to advance a vision of sustainability. These are simple skills that our teachers and village community lack and I hope our project will teach. Now we face the challenge of connecting our vision to the reality of Cambodian village life.

The Abundant Forest project is taking shape around the idea of charcoal briquettes, though they are not really charcoal at all. They are partially decomposed and pressedSmall pieces of wood, from pruned fruit trees for use in experimental improved cookstove. biomass, made from material collected from the forest floor. With the briquettes as the basis of an inquiry based science class, we hope to create problem-solving leadership in our students. For the first time we will connect what the students are learning with the world they live in. Students can collect raw material from home, bring it to the school, and spend time working the decomposition and production of briquettes.

Our new friends at GERES, Mao Rotha Cambodian project director and Aurelien Herail, a GERES project director Rotha (right), Kari (middle) and Aurelien (left), a French doctoral student.French doctoral student, offered excellent input to assist the first stages of our project, the lessons of quality control they’ve learned from their attempts to introduce improved charcoal and cooking stoves to reduce raw wood consumption. With the vision in mind to one day sell our briquettes as a sustainable, income-generating product for our school, they can test the products at home with their parents, take notes to gain valuable GERES has created a new and improved cookstove that burns less charcoal more efficiently to reduce the demand for charcoal in the city. They have 30 cook stove production partners throughout the provinces and a demand for 110,000 new cookstoves each year. feedback for improvements, and then consider marketability of their product. The secondary effect is that we get the parents to try something new without having to buy something, and begin their conversion to sustainable use. The students take their feedback data and create materials to educate people about the use of their product.

Connecting classroom lessons of experimentation to an important issue in the students daily lives is a revolutionary style of learning for rural Cambodians.

In the next dispatch, read about our visit with Arn Chorn-Pond, a child of the Khmer Rouge who survived to tell his story through music. His Cambodian Living Arts program is saving Cambodian classical music from extinction. Kari with her new friend musician Arn Chorn-Pond in Yoen Soek's tuk tuk.I’m talking to him about using music to communicate our message of forest conservation to the children. We are both excited to lend our support to each other. I am especially honored, as Arn is a personal hero. His life story is detailed in the PBS documentary The Flute Player. What an intensely passionate and warm hearted person!

Be The Change
Spread the Word.