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Temple Restoration & Economic Development in Cambodia

On June 3, 2009 Robert Turnbull wrote an article for the International Herald Tribune entitled “Coaxing the Khmer temple from the jungle’s embrace” (pg. 10). The article focused on the restoration of Banteay Chhmar in NW Cambodia by a team led by British Architect, John Sanday.

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The site, once restored will likely be added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It currently has a budget of US$6M and there are 44 employees working full time to restore the site.  Pictured here is a photo I took of the beautiful restoration that was done on the Banteay Srea temple of about the same historical period.

Interestingly, Turnbull also pointed out some of the other issues that are facing the team as they proceed with restoration. Key among these issues is the availability of water. They are operating in a region with many unexploded ordinance from previous war time activities.

These legacy land mines are dangerous to the local people for two reasons. First, many unsuspecting by passers are injured and maimed from the triggering of these old land mines.

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Second, the weapons-grade materials are leaching out of the unexploded ordinance and into the local water supplies. As a result, the local people are plagued by both water quantity and water quality problems.

A hydrologist from Geneva, James Goodman, will be working with the team to map the area and to identify suitable spots for wells to be drilled. These wells will benefit both the restoration activities and the livelihood of the local population. Interestingly, a  Community Based Tourism group has been set up to support the development of a local infrastructure that is compatible with the life style of the local people while at the same time providing a framework for accommodating the increased traffic that is sure to come if the site attains listing on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

I have taken the time to sketch out the events and issues surrounding this temple restoration to point out some of the trade-related implications.

Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in Asia.  Despite recent progress, the Cambodian economy continues to suffer from the effects of decades of war, civil war and internal political strife. The Cambodian economy is still essentially aid-dependent. Investment in infrastructure and social services is predominantly funded by overseas development aid and concessionary loans. Per capita income is rapidly increasing but is low compared with other countries in the region. According the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, per capita GDP was US$357/year in 2004.

Nonetheless, by 2008 the rate of growth was 9.4% in 2008 as noted by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in his February, 2009 speech to the Economic Conference of the Economist Group and as reported by the Xinhua News Agency (February, 2009).  They are seeking to maintain a rate of at least 6% in 2009 given the current global financial crisis.  This optimism is based on the relative importance of their three most important industries:  agriculture, textiles, and tourism.

JaneWithChildrenHowever, more than 50% of the population is 20 years or younger. The population lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure. Fully 75% of the population remains engaged in subsistence farming.  Agricultural production for the export markets (a source of hard currency) is just beginning to develop.  And, the country’s textile industry has been affected by the end of the Multi-Fiber Agreement in 2005 which had governed a global quota system for decades.

Nonetheless, efforts are being made, with the support of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank among others, to develop training programs for employment in each of these sectors.

It is against this backdrop that the Community Based Tourism group associated with the Chhmar restoration is taking place.  It is my hope that the regional issues associated with water availability be resolved.  Further, it is my hope that some training programs be implemented.  A tourist economy can be a double-edged sword.  The demands for young men and women in the sex trade are high in Cambodia.  And, when this is the only option for feeding the extended family, even this can become acceptable in this societal context.

SreyGirlsSmallAgriculture, especially silk worm farming, presents a viable alternative to a Cambodian economy based strictly on the tourist industry.  Silk worm farming relies heavily on the cultivation of mulberry; the leaves of which are the preferred food source for these rapidly growing worms.  And, due to Cambodia’s latitude, rainfall patterns, and climate, mulberry farming is a suitable crop.

It is my hope that some of the contributions being made by the private donors to restore the beauty to the Banteay Chhmar temple be budgeted for just such programs for the local population.