Meeting Francois Ponchaud

by on Friday, 22 May 2009 Comments
Ponchaud on his past and current projects
If you’re ever in need of an expert’s view on Cambodian culture and society, Francois Ponchaud is the man you should look for in Phnom Penh. A resourceful peacemaker, the amount of developmental work that Ponchaud has accumulated over the last ten years in Cambodia is astounding. In his forty years in Cambodia, Ponchaud has not only witnessed the beginnings of the Khmer Rouge regime but was also one of the first to denounce the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Apart from having written hundreds of books and translating the Bible to Khmer, Ponchaud initiated many projects in the area of development and education. In a village in the Prey Veng province (Eastern Cambodia), Ponchaud built schools and a nursery, helping 265 orphans.

In Kampong Cham, Ponchaud revived the previous construction of canals of the Khmer Rouge with the help of the locals in the year 2000 after a drought in 1997 that left the villagers desperate for water. Together, they built canals the length of 6.5Km which enabled peasants to irrigate 100 hectares more land than before. In 2004, the peasants faced another terrible drought in the neighbouring commune; to counter this persisting problem caused by the global climate change, Ponchaud and the villagers built even longer canals and seven very large ponds, a hundred metres long, twenty metres wide, and two metres deep. Using shovels and baskets that were not unlike those used in the time of the Khmer Rouge, the image of the labourers at work made Ponchaud often wonder whether it was a good thing to bring back the memories of a painful past. “Sometimes I feel ashamed to make them work like this,” says Ponchaud, “but when I ask them, the villagers tell me that they are happy- knowing that whatever construction they did was done for them and that no one would be killed at the end of the day”. For every one metres cube of land transported, Ponchaud gives the workers 3.5kg of rice and 4.5kg for canal work. It is a system that the labourers appreciate as they are glad to work along with others and bring back food to their families at the end of the day.

In 2008 Francois Ponchaud decided to direct his attention to the hygiene problems prominent in the rural areas by building 64 latrines in a total of 17 villages. Ponchaud financed three-quarters of the cost of the latrine while the rest are paid by the locals. “I started with practically no money” recalls Ponchaud incredulously; it was through writing friends and holding conferences that Ponchaud managed to gather sufficient funding for all his local projects. Ponchaud continues to engage in rural development locally, but remains highly sceptical of the Cambodian government and future well-being of its people.
Ponchaud shows photos of his work in rural development and national education.
Alice Lin (林炳秀)

Alice is a Taiwanese-born journalism major who spent most of her childhood in Windhoek, Namibia. Having left home at a young age for boarding school, she has since then lived in Singapore, New Zealand and France. She worked briefly as a translator for a Paris-based NGO and recently returned from a work placement in Morocco, where she freelanced for local papers El Watan and Morocco Today. She is now studying in France.

Alice worked as the English editor of eRenlai from December 2008 to June 2009.

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