12 September 2011


A full year has passed now since we started Production on LAND/WATER/RAIN. The stories we have been following have changed dramatically and so has the country.

Thousands of families in Cambodia are currently suffering the immediate impact of development as they are evicted from their homes or removed from their land to make way for urban development, sugar and rubber plantations, or dam construction. In 2008, according to Amnesty International, 283,000 people in Cambodia have been evicted or are at risk of forced relocation nationwide. As of 2004, it was estimated that 20-30% of landowners held 70% of the country’s land, while the poorest 40% occupied only 10%. In the countryside, 45% of families were landless or near landless.

While we are able to reveal the beauty and culture of the lives of the families we are following, the urgency to protect this beauty becomes even more critical as we witness the violence and drama overtaking thousands of families throughout Cambodia. These are important stories to tell as they illustrate the fragile beauty of Cambodia's people and the natural environment and support the urgent protection of Cambodia's social and natural landscape.


In Kong Yuk village, only a few kilometers away from the family we are documenting in the jungles of Ratannakiri, the villagers have, in recent years, been stripped of their farmland, which has then been converted to rubber plantations. And each year, their remaining cashew orchards are quickly being encroached upon. The villagers have not only lost farmland, but they have also lost access to forests they depend on for foraging and wildlife. The villagers refuse to work on these plantations. However, thousands of workers traveling from all across Cambodia as well as neighboring Vietnam are coming to take their place.

The villagers in Sav Samourn’s village, however, refuse to believe their village and way of life is being threatened. They maintain that the land on which their village currently stands is communal land and is therefore protected. They are unaware that many villages that sit on communal land have already been seized. Even Sav Samourn does not feel the threat is imminent. Her solution, as is the solution for many indigenous families, is to simply move deeper and deeper into the forest and continue with their tradition of slashing and burning.


In Koh Kong and Kampong Speu, the Cambodian government has granted Economic Land Concessions (ELC) to a company owned by Li Yong Phat, a powerful and well-known politician in Cambodia. The company has converted thousands of hectares of village farmland into sugar cane plantations and sugar processing plants, affecting the lives of hundreds of families.

Tang Keo, of Sre Ambel District, Koh Kong Province, recounted how prosperous the villagers were before their land was taken from them. He and his family had 20 heads of cattle and buffalo and many hectares of land. He planted rice and vegetables and cashew as a cash crop and never lacked for food to eat. He said he often dreamt of the day when he would be able to buy a car to load his cashew harvest. At that time he knew this was not impossible. Now that his land has been taken from him, he knows his dream will never be realized. He is uncertain what the future will bring for him and his children. In the middle of the interview, as we stood in front of the sugar plantation, Tang Keo began to sing a song that he composed right after the land was taken from the villagers. The families are now left only with one hectare per family or nothing at all. Tang Keo remembers not long ago, going to work in the fields and not having to carry any water with him. He said he would drink directly from the streams. Now, pesticides used on the plantation have seeped into streams and groundwater, making the water undrinkable and many people and animals sick.

Som At, of Kampong Speu province, also told a similar story. He believes the villagers have “become slaves on their own land.” Although Som At refuses to work on the plantations that were stolen from him, he knows many others who have no choice. The workers are paid only 12,000 riels a day (approx. 3 USD), not enough to feed the family or send the children to school. School fees cost 500 riels per child (approx. 0.12 USD). Som At believes the companies benefit threefold from the land concessions. Not only do they profit from the timber in the forests and the sugar cane from the land, but they also benefit from the labor of those they have stolen land from. Without land to grow food on, the villagers are only left with desperate choices.

The villagers in Sre Ambel and Aim Laing have already lost their land and are now struggling in the courts to get some of their land back. But with a judicial system rigged to benefit only the powerful and wealthy, it is unlikely this land will ever be returned to them. Many other villagers in other parts of the country are still struggling to keep what land they have left.

One village in Oudong District, Kampong Speu Province suffered two dramatic crackdowns by Cambodian police within the last year as the villagers refused to give up their land. Several villagers were seriously injured in the crackdowns.

While land is being taken wholesale from the villagers, land in Koh Kong Province is slowly being chipped away and transported to other parts of the world. Koh Kong is currently the site of a sand dredging trade with Singapore worth US $248m annually. Millions of tons of sand pumped from along the coast and in protected areas of Koh Kong are being shipped to Singapore to expand its coastline. The dredging operations threaten mangrove swamps, coral reefs and the largest seagrass bed in the South China Sea, which is home to several rare species including the Irrawaddy dolphin, dugong and seahorses.

As we returned to Kampong Chnnang to film the two families living in the floating village, we learned that Sari had left the village to work on a cassava plantation in the neighboring province of Pursat. The plantation sits nestled at the foot of a mountain. The mountain was misty and covered with fog when Pou Sali took us to meet Sari, reminded of when he worked in the labor camps there during the Khmer Rouge Regime and had climbed this same mountain when the Vietnamese came to liberate the country. Twenty years ago, Pou Sali had bought some of this land for $4,000 a hectare. And earlier this year, he was forced to give up this land for only $400 a hectare by Li Yong Phat, the same company that evicted the farmers in Koh Kong and Kampong Speu and set up sugar plantations. Now Sari and other young men and women in the village are working as laborers in the same area of land, converted to a cassava plantation.

We visited Sali on the plantation, surrounded by beautiful, lush mountains, and interviewed him there. Sari was no longer the young and idealistic 14 years old boy we met nearly three years ago. He had now grown into a young man eager to save enough money to one day get married and have his own family.


Villagers in the provinces are not the only people being threatened off their land. In fact, many of the evictions taking place in Cambodia, take place in the capital city of Phnom Penh. More than 10% of the population of Phnom Penh has been evicted since 1990. One the most outrageous evictions is taking place in Boeung Kak Lake, affecting 4,252 families. Although a land law was passed in 2001 recognizing land titles if proof of residence for five continuous years can be shown, residents of Boeung Kak were denied land titles.

In 2007 the Phnom Penh Municipality signed a 99-year lease agreement worth $79 million with Shukaku Inc., allowing it to develop over 133 hectares of prime real estate including Boeung Kak lake and the surrounding area. Shukaku Inc. is a private development company based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It is headed by Senator Lao Meng Khin from the Cambodian People's Party and chairman of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce who also directs the Pheapimex Group, another company responsible for land grabbing in Cambodia.

Since Shukaku began pumping sand into the lake more than two years ago, they have caused the flooding and collapse of many homes around the lake and have reduced the lake to a mere puddle. We attended various protests held at the lake by the residents of Village 22, one of the last villages in Boeung Kak threatened to be removed from their land. We interviewed and followed Heng Mom, one of the community organizers, as she told us her story and showed us the destruction caused by the sand pumping. Some of the protests over the last year have erupted in violence. Two of the community organizers were even recently arrested and detained overnight. The fate of Beoung Kak is yet to be determined. However, with mounting pressure from the World Bank the government and the developers have recently begun to show willingness to set aside some land for community development.

The fate of Dey Krahom and other communities in Phnom Penh have been more tragic. In January 2009, more than 400 families were forcibly evicted from their homes, which were burned down and bulldozed by authorities.

Some of the residents were relocated to Damnak Trayeung site, more than 20km away from Phnom Penh. Others were left to fend for themselves. We interviewed the villagers currently living in this site, more than two years after their eviction. Each family is allotted a small living space in concrete block buildings, removed from any market and without access to land to grow food. One woman and her husband are struggling to barely survive. Stranded from the city, her husband must drive an hour each way in order to continue his work as a moto-taxi driver. With soaring gas prices, they are unsure how much longer they will be able to make a living this way. All of their children have moved back to the city to find work in garment factories. Meanwhile, Dey Krahom, intended for development as town houses and office space, remains a football field.

Factory and Rice

In addition to the two stories in Ratannakiri and Kampong Chnnang, we have also been following the life of Khieu, a factory worker living in Veng Sreng Road, famous for its row of factories that stretch for miles along the highway, and located in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Khieu, is the eldest of the three sisters working at a shoe factory. The family lives in a tiny room, not much larger than a small walk-in closet. The family is from Svay Rieng, a province two hours away from the capital. They came to Phnom Penh six years ago to work in a shoe factory. Like many others in Cambodia, this family is struggling to cope with low wages and the rise in the cost of living in an urban environment as well as trying to balance the need to make money in the city with the need to care for their family and their home in the countryside.

Like most of the factory girls, Khieu only makes 60 USD a month or 100 USD, including overtime. This is barely enough for Khieu to survive in the city, send money back home, or pay off the family’s mounting debts. In addition to her duty of providing regular income for her family, Khieu is also expected to return home to help during the planting and harvest season. This makes it difficult for Khieu and many factory girls to commit to their work and therefore to save enough money to finally escape factory life and return home. Khieu and many of the factory girls are therefore often forced to live their lives in between - in between the city and the country and between the factory and rice.

22 July 2011


I recently had the incredible fortune to visit Haiti and connect with the journalists there. By invitation of Kathie Klarreich and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), I had a unique opportunity to share my experiences and stories as a lawyer, filmmaker, and storyteller with Haitian journalists also interested in investigating, revealing, and recounting the stories in their own country undergoing massive reconstruction since the 2010 earthquake.

The original purpose of my trip was to screen INSIDE JOB to an audience of journalists and to share my experiences working as a researcher on the film. The journalists wanted to learn about how I organized my research and the challenges I faced working on the film. However, the intention changed as I began to talk to the journalists about my life and my experiences working in Mozambique, Iraq, and Cambodia. Our discussions began to slowly build around the similarities between these countries and Haiti, especially in Iraq and Cambodia.

At the height of reconstruction and during the time I was working as a legal consultant in Iraq, the US government poured $12 billion a month into Iraq. With all the money being spent, Iraqis still had no access to water or electricity. In fact, most professional Iraqis became unemployed as private contractors replaced them. Threatened and endangered, many of them fled the country.

A decade after my family fled Cambodia, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) took over the administration of Cambodia and organized and ran the country’s first general election since the Khmer Rouge fell from power. During this time, the number of prostitutes in the State of Cambodia rose from about 6,000 in 1991, to over 20,000 after the arrival of UNTAC personnel in 1992. By 1995 there were between 50,000 and 90,000 Cambodians affected by AIDS according to a WHO estimate. Now, thirty years into reconstruction, there are over 2,000 associations and NGOs in Cambodia.

The parallels between Haiti and Cambodia and Iraq was striking. Even a year after the earthquake and four billion dollars pumped into reconstruction, very few homes have been built and many people are still living without electricity or running water in run-down tent cities that have bloomed after the wake of the earthquake. Port-au-Prince is pitch dark after the sun goes down. NGOs are taking care of social services the Haitian government should be providing. And international aid workers have introduced cholera, as opposed to HIV, into the country.

It was incredibly moving meeting with the Haitian journalists and students and sharing our stories. The journalists became encouraged to not only go out there and investigate and monitor their government and the thousands of NGOs working in Haiti, but also write stories that will help inspire the people of Haiti to rebuild their country as well as their own national identity. This is the power of journalism, of documentary filmmaking, and of telling stories – to expose and reveal, but to also help inspire and reconstruct a new perception and way of looking at the world, each other, and ourselves.

I look forward to returning to Haiti again, this time to screen LAND/WATER/RAIN and to share more stories and experiences that will hopefully shed light on other issues that may also be affecting the country.

22 December 2010

LAND/WATER/RAIN featured in the Phnom Penh Post

LAND/WATER/RAIN was recently featured in the Phnom Penh Post.

Please check out the story on this link:

Voices of the Motherland

02 November 2010

Golden ricefields

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at Sav Samourn and Kepehleb’s home, perched on a hill and surrounded by cashew orchards and ripening rice fields. So much had changed since we visited last July. Most notable were the rows of rice plants weighted down with golden rice grains, ready to be pulled and plucked from their stems. The towering papaya trees and bushes of thorny pineapple plants were also bearing fruit. The sky was less bright, dotted with darkening masses of clouds and the shadows of parrots flocking to the ricefields in search of grain. The farmers had to shout at them to keep them from raiding and devouring the ricefields.

Sav Samourn’s eldest daughter was also getting older and more aware of her appearance. She was toying with a comb and a mirror when I first caught sight of her. Sav Samourn told me she had cut her own bangs.

After lunch, Sav Samourn and her sisters gathered their baskets and hiked through the cashew orchards to the ricefields just beyond, to continue their harvest for the day. The ricefields were situated on a hill just above their home. From the hill you could see other hills and other houses perched on these hills beyond and other orchards and ricefields blooming with grain.

This was the first harvest of the year and the field being harvested belonged to Sav Samourn’s younger sister and her husband. Yet everyone pitched in to help with the harvest, including the younger children who looked after the babies under the shade of the cashew trees.

Sav Samourn and her two sisters worked their fingers among the rows, the grains falling effortlessly into the cup of their hands and straight into small, bamboo woven baskets. Once the small baskets were filled with grain, they would empty the baskets into larger baskets. Hour by hour, the mounds of golden rice grains grew, until they were ready to be carried away and stored in the threshing barn. The sounds of pulling and snapping were only disturbed by occasional chatter and the wailing of a hungry baby, carried on the back of an older sister or brother. Sav Samourn would unhitch the baby from the cloth krama, crouch in the middle of the rice fields, settle the baby on her lap, and croon while the baby sucked from her breasts. Her other sisters did the same once their babies also began crying, carried over by an older sibling. Once the feeding was done, they would hitch the babies back on the backs of their older siblings and return to the harvest.

They spent hours harvesting the fields, pulling grains and dispersing the dead grass that remained. Only when it grew dark did the sisters empty their last small baskets into the larger baskets and carried them home to the threshing barn with the younger children trailing just behind.

The kitchen also had something different hanging from the rafters - new baskets or kapaw, still white and newly woven, all different sizes to match the size and height of Sav Samourn and Kepehleb’s three older daughters. These baskets are one of the most important items the family own. Kapaws are used daily to carry newly harvested rice grains, potatoes dug from the ground, chopped sugar cane, and other items that needed to be transported. Kepehleb prefers to make the baskets himself. It is less expensive than buying them from someone else, which is the common practice for many of the villagers these days.

It was early afternoon. Clouds were gathering in the sky and Kepehleb was finishing the weaving of some of the baskets. With a sharp knife, he separated the thinner pieces of bamboo from the thicker, green outer layer. He then began to whittle the bamboo pieces until they became almost paper thin and malleable enough to be woven. As Kepehleb did this, their second eldest daughter imitated him with her own small knife, working her small fingers in the same way. Their eldest daughter climbed atop the motorcycle parked nearby, playing with the handles and peering at her own reflection in the rearview mirror. Sav Samourn was busy threshing the rice, separating the chaff from the grain. She would shovel the grains from the sacks onto large bamboo trays and shake the trays vigorously until the chaff began to separate.

Suddenly the sky shook and rumbled and drops of rain fell around them. Sav Samourn retreated under the threshing barn and continued with her work. Kepehleb withdrew into the kitchen and continued with his weaving. It was a full moon that night and Kepehleb worked late into the night in the kitchen, weaving the bamboo baskets, while his wife sat at the entrance of their bedroom door shining a flashlight, keeping him company. Old Cambodian tunes played in the background on a transistor radio placed on the bamboo floor.