Cambodia’s microfinance shakeup: in whose interest?

On the river island of Koh Srolav in southern Cambodia, everything changed for the 300 or so families inhabiting the small fishing village about ten years ago, when the sand dredging barges arrived. Operating in the dark of night, they have plundered the Tatai river with little concern for the destruction they sow, safe in the knowledge that exporting the excavated sand to foreign governments – such as Singapore’s – and local developers would likely bring handsome rewards. As they scraped up mountains of silty sand from the riverbed, the fish deserted, once-plush mangroves were drained of life and the villagers’ fishing equipment was left in tatters. In dire straits, the locals began taking out small microfinance loans to sustain themselves. Leak Sopheap, the community’s representative, told Southeast Asia Globe that up to 90% of families had taken out microloans in a bid to improve their lot. But, without the necessary economic conditions to increase their incomes, the families had instead fallen further into debt. “Most of the families with loans are struggling to pay them back as it’s difficult to earn enough money from fishing now. Some have had to sell the fishing equipment they bought with the initial loan to try and pay back their debt,” she explained. “Some have even resorted to taking out second loans to try and pay back the first.”

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