While many countries spent 2020 in and out of lockdowns and are now broadly free of restrictions, Cambodia’s COVID journey has been almost the polar opposite. For much of last year, we still had freedom of movement, affording a degree of normalcy to daily life and some relief against the worsening economic situation – essential in a country where a full half of the population live hand-to-mouth. In early 2021, COVID arrived in full force – first in Phnom Penh and the south, then working its way inevitably up to Siem Reap and the northern provinces, bringing waves of increasingly severe restrictions. On September 17th, Siem Reap province and city was suddenly locked down with many areas and surrounding villages being designated red zones, and having the strictest regulations: no leaving the house unless for a medical emergency – not even to obtain food. 

With no advanced notice to make any preparations, and for so many low-income families without the funds or refrigerated means to stockpile, this kind of lockdown situation quickly becomes very dire. Add to this the police and army patrolling the streets, imposing fines and arrests on anyone found outside their homes, and stress and fear rapidly escalates.

The local authorities did begin distributing food in these zones – but reports quickly came that this was either from over-priced suppliers or in the form of scant and irregular food drops. So many families already living on the edge were plunged deeper into food insecurity, and starvation was becoming a genuine threat.

Military blockades and patrols during Siem Reap red zones (Source: Siem Reap Provincial Hall)

At PLF, with the lockdown being announced literally overnight, we had to act fast. Tchey village was sealed off immediately, followed by Siem Reap city, where our urban students were instantly locked inside their homes with no access to food. 

Our team worked quickly and tirelessly to unravel the red tape and gain the necessary permissions to deliver food to these areas, and within a day we had dropped parcels to the 20 students inside the Tchey zone just outside the city, and our urban students.

Our regular supporters will know that food has always been an integral component of PLF’s program since its inception, and with the consistent and essential support of our key food donor Eyes-Open, we provide school breakfasts, dormitory meals, a rural food bank in Knar Village and urban food bank for our High School students living away from home in Siem Reap city, supporting them with food and cash so that they can focus on their studies. 

When COVID struck, food became our fundamental core component; we realized very quickly that in the COVID context, food was now the most pressing issue. If our beneficiaries and their families were going hungry, we couldn’t even begin to address the other questions of education and learning. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been doing fortnightly food drops to over 700 food-insecure PLF students in Siem Reap and Preah Vihear. As COVID drags on, the need for food rises exponentially: this latest wave of restrictions has seen an unprecedented increase in the applications for assistance, as even more beneficiaries’ family members lose jobs and basic income in the last few months. 

Given a choice, we probably wouldn’t have opted for food distribution to become our newest superpower, but with COVID calling the shots, we had to respond to each new curveball as it arrived. Eighteen months in, and it’s safe to say that we know what we are doing when it comes to food drops!

When Eyes-Open heard the harrowing reports of growing food insecurity in the red zones, they threw us a whole new challenge, entrusting us with an emergency food relief grant to extend out into the wider community, with the simple instruction: “You need to go feed some MORE people.”

Of course, we accepted the challenge! Going beyond our community areas and extending to hungry families who are not already supported by any NGO network is actually harder than it sounds. In the current economic situation, all families would gladly accept help – but are they the ones most in need?

To simultaneously scale up AND hone our reach, and distribute this relief appropriately into communities that we knew existed but had no connection with, would involve a complicated and time-consuming vetting process … where did we start with that? Who are the people, and how could we reach them? 

We knew we needed a partner who had their sights on the beneficiaries most in need. We researched and reached out to our friends within Siem Reap, to see who was helping whom and where assistance was still needed. 

In response to the red zones, informal initiatives had temporarily sprung up such as Covd Help who mounted a lightning-quick and efficient effort, raising and distributing $3500 of food, masks and sanitizer within one week to families in the red zones and to whom we donated $500. 

With this small dent made in the emergency relief fund, we continued our research, which brought us to our friends at Treeline Urban Resort, a socially responsible and community-minded hotel in Siem Reap, with whom we have had positive collaborations in the past. During this whole COVID rollercoaster and even while temporarily closed to visitors, Treeline has identified and assisted 81 families living in challenging conditions near Tonle Sap lake. Treeline had been doing food drops to these families on and off in the last months, but their funds had run out during this new wave of restrictions.  

Treeline food drops in March 2021 (Source: Treeline Urban Resort)

The families they identified at Chrev and Phum Muoy Chong Kneas are mostly displaced fishermen. With fish populations drastically dwindling year on year, these families had been forced to pivot – long before it became a familiar COVID concept – and had turned to running tourist boat trips on the lake. Wiith the tourist industry now completely decimated, they had once again run aground, finding themselves with zero income.

Dwellings at Chrev & Phum Muoy Chong Kneas

It’s difficult to imagine a more precarious set of circumstances for these families, whose fishing nets hang empty and redundant. As we learned of their fight for survival, a collaboration was born. 

We are pleased to announce that the PLF-Treeline Food Net will begin its first distribution by re-booting food drops to these 81 families; and with careful further identification, we will cast out farther and wider to reach other families in need. As you read this, our staff are working together, calculating the packages needed and preparing for delivery, and we can’t wait to bring you those updates over the coming weeks. 

PLF has always been focused on collaboration and knows that we can do so much more with the right partners – kindred spirits who share the same ethos and values. We are stronger working together than in our own bubbles, never more so than in these current times, as COVID grinds deeper and deeper into the most marginalized segments of society. 

For now, the lockdown is lifted, and the cordons disappeared almost as quickly as they had arrived. However, the city is still reeling from this latest blow, with another wave of businesses closing, resulting in even more job losses. The zones may be over, but COVID still very much isn’t; as Cambodia’s economy remains in crisis, the need for relief is still very present and real. 

At this ongoing difficult time, we are even more grateful for the assistance from Eyes-Open and our new partnership with Treeline. More families will now receive essential relief, and we are doubly happy that we get to achieve that through positive and sustainable collaboration.

Of course, if you would like to help too, we will always gladly accept ☺ 

We hope this partnership inspires others to seek collaboration. Together we can achieve so much more! 

By Kate Allen

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