Located about 30 kilometres outside the popular tourist destination of Siem Reap there is a site called Anlong Pi. This is a site where over 100 families reside, many of those families making a living here as well. However this site is not a factory, it is not an industrial area and it is not a local village. This place is a dumpsite, Siem Reap’s largest landfill, a place where tonnes of rubbish, generated from both locals and tourists alike, ends up each day.
Takuya came to Cambodia in 2012 and learned about the dumpsite through a friend. Back then Anlong Pi was out in the open and people could come here to witness the lives of the people who call this place home. Now however, the site is hidden by a surrounding tin wall, covered up by the management as a way to keep the media away from the harsh realities of life inside the Anlong Pi dumpsite.
After being moved by what he saw Takuya left his life in Japan and set up here in Siem Reap. He started working with a local tour company and in his spare time would head out to the dumpsite to distribute clean clothes and gloves to the people, and teach Japanese to the children inside the dumpsite itself. At first management weren’t too bothered by this but after a while, as more children started to attend and people began to find out about his story, management banned Takuya and other foreigners from entering the site. Persevering, Takuya still wanted to help these people so he offered to teach at the local school instead and, after much persistence, was offered a night class at the school. But for Takuya this wasn’t enough, although he was helping the children the realisation that hundreds of families spent their days sorting through trash at the dumpsite was hard to comprehend. He wanted to do more so, in 2014, after networking with a Japanese couple he learned how to make paper from Banana tree trunks and started the Angkor Banana Paper Project, a project that would bring women out of the dumpsite and provide them with an alternative way to make an income.
I got the chance to visit the project while I was in Siem Reap. It is located in the village of Anlong Pi, about a kilometre away from the dumpsite itself. Although the project is fairly new Takaya currently employs 5 women who, prior to the project starting, had worked in the dumpsite sorting through the rubbish. There are reasons why the people of this village choose to work in the site. Many people do not have land to grow rice therefore their choices become minimal, especially for the many people who have never received an education and are illiterate. They can choose to harvest rice for others or work in construction however these choices can bring in minimal wage, less than $4 per day. Instead the families choose to sort through the huge amounts of trash that get thrown away each day and pick out what can be sold to the middle-man to send to recycling centres in neighbouring countries, the middle-man receiving most of the profits.
I watched as the 5 women who are employed by the project work on the production of the Banana Paper. One woman decorates the greeting cards, one woman sews the coin purses. Outside 3 women prepare the Banana trunks by peeling back the outer layers and gathering the fibres that make the paper. It takes 3 days for the paper to be made, first the fibres and ashes are boiled together and then left to simmer until soft. The finished product is placed into different sized wooden frames and then left to dry, a different frame used for a different type of paper including A4, greeting cards and post cards. The finished product being a light brown slightly rough piece of paper that is both sturdy and waterproof.
I ask one of the women how their life has changed since working at the project – “Right now the project doesn’t pay as much as the dumpsite, but I used to spend so much of my money on medicines and going to see the doctor because the dumpsite is an unhealthy place to work. I had constant lung problems and skin irritations. Now I feel healthier and can spend my money on other things.” Although the project is still small Takuya has high aspirations. He hopes to expand the business and employ more women, as well as get the word out about a more environmentally sustainable solution to paper.
For now the 5 women can live much healthier lives. Their husbands still have to work at the site, but thankfully their children do not. There is no fast solution for the people here at Anlong Pi. The rubbish will continue to arrive and the families will continue to sort through it to make their living, but projects like Angkor Banana Paper are a start to providing an alternative opportunity for the people here and creating a healthier life for them.
If you would like to find out more about Angkor Banana Paper Project you can visit Takaya’s website here. You can also order some of the Banana Paper items such as business cards, greeting cards and post cards, and have them shipped internationally. If you are in Siem Reap you can pick up some of the products for sale at the Common Grounds Café.