Sunday, March 16, 2008

Why we form rice banks

by Katherine Parker

Cambodia is a country still visibly struggling to rebuild community trust, stability and self-sustenance after many years of civil war and foreign occupation. A significant job for the Community Health & Agriculture Development (CHAD) program is to share about the concept of stewardship and why we, as Christians, need to nurture, sustain and expand the resources that have been entrusted to us so that we can share with others. Cambodian staff person for CHAD, Mr. Thy, talks about a time when Cambodia was rich because people worked together, but now because of mistrust people are locked into poverty. It is from this starting place that CHAD works with church and community groups to start development projects. We ask the community to identify what needs it has and then what resources it has to begin addressing those needs. CHAD works together with the community to provide a gift-loan. It is called a gift-loan because the individual who is entrusted with the initial portion of money or, say, an animal is expected to return that to the group so that the gift-loan can be re-invested in the community, rather than being paid back to the donor.

CHAD began working with a community in Swaian village in Batanmbong province starting in 2005 to establish a cow-raising group. When we visited this week (March 2008), we met a five day old calf, the second to be born to this cow! This church community has worked well together for cow-raising and so we were excited to celebrate the beginning of a rice bank with 10 families.

The economics of rural Cambodia is that the primary source of income for farmers is selling their rice, which is usually harvested in December. Some of the rice is sold immediately after harvest, and some is kept to feed the family throughout the year. However, if the family needs money (such as for medical expenses or a wedding) they will sell their stored rice. For this reason, there is a lot of hunger in the months of October through December before the new crop is harvested. The local merchants charge 100% interest on loans of rice taken at this time.

Unfortunately, no one family has the money to build a structure to store rice. In the Swaian community, the families had all contributed money to purchase the supplies for building a communal storage house for rice (about $5 per family). We observed the cement pillars that had been erected for the storage building and the palm trees selected to be cut down for further construction materials. Unfortunately, the community member who is skilled at planking palm trees has been sick with a fever and so the rice store is not completed. The community hopes he will recover soon and the families can finish building the structure in the next week.

CHAD provided the $750 in capital to purchase the initial store of rice. The group has established its bylaws and policies for loaning out the rice (at 30% interest, about 1/3 the rate offered by local merchants). The group hopes that in three to four years it will have doubled its rice and can use this to start a new rice bank in the neighboring village. I was excited to listen to the families talk about how they hoped to use this rice bank to reach out in ministry to their community. They were realistic about the challenges and were committed to continue working together, expanding upon their initial success with the cow-raising group and building the rice storage house.

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