Underneath the burning sun, the village traffic consists of malnourished cows with ribs sticking out of their bodies heading towards rice fields. They are being marched along a track covered in rocks and dust under the watchful eye of their owner. Sometimes it is an adult at the helm; other times a young boy or girl carrying a scarf weaving apparatus is responsible for supervising the herd. Occasionally, a lone cow breaks from the pack to search for vegetation or garbage to eat in a residential yard, and is unphased by the bamboo whip cutting sharply through the air and whacking the side of its body or legs.
I became accustomed to such sights and sounds while working as a volunteer English teacher in the village of Tropang Sdok. Sreat, a local resident, spent time sharing his experience of working in the fields during the rice planting period. It also presented me with the scenario to examine the relationship between humans and cows.
“To us, cows are a part of the family,” Sreat told me. “But in the same way that a parent disciplines a child, if we are prevented from doing our work, we have to let the cows know.”
“Do you whip them? How often?” I asked.
“Yes, we whip their legs to tell them to move faster. They do not feel it, but I still feel bad because cows experience pain too,” Sreat continued. “Considering how much they are loved, farmers feel guilty about using a bamboo stick, but it is the only way to stop them from running away.”
Rather than being a form of punishment by defining the relationship between animal and farmer and reinforcing the belief of humankind’s superiority over animal life, it is a reminder to the beast that during the wet season, time is precious and that much work lays ahead to plant rice between June and November. The coming harvest season will provide Cambodian families with the staple food that guarantees survival, and the manual labor that cows and oxen perform in pulling ploughs and softening the earth is the backbone of the rice planting season.
Farmers in the rural Cambodian district of Roviang have a high degree of love for bovine creatures. Owning a cow opens the doorway to obtaining more respect in society, for they will be capable of cultivating their fields to grow rice and feed their family. However, ownership also allows farmers to generate more wealth. The average price of a cow fetches $USD300, approximately one year’s salary for Cambodian workers. Since cows breed at a rate of every 9 months, this income generation has the potential to multiply numerous times.
Tropang Sdok’s male farming population consists of 99% of the 100 families living in the village, so nearly every man has spent some point of their life as a rice farmer leading cows into the fields.
“In Cambodia, every man is a rice farmer at some point in their life because all Cambodians like to eat rice. It is our most important food,” Sreat explained to me. “But without the help from our cows, we cannot work the land.”
For a young man of 23 years, Sreat is familiar with the grind of rice planting and the reliance of his family’s prized cows. During the rice planting season when he was not at school, Sreat’s day would begin at 5am with the sunrise, when he would gather the cows and lead them to the family farm to work on the fields. He would spend an average of 8 hours in the fields, planting rice and ensuring that the cows ploughed enough land to prepare for planting crops. The clay surface, mixed with rains that measured up to the knees in the height of the wet season, would present difficulties, for the land would be too soft for crop preparation. Also, persistent rain would result in mass flooding of the rice fields, followed by prolonged periods of dry weather.
“What is the main task that the cows do?” I asked.
“They pull the ploughs that make the land more fertile for planting rice stalks and allows for the rain to enable the crops to grow,” came Sreat’s response.
Sreat admitted to me that in recent years, farmers were very worried that uneven distribution of rain meant that crops would often die early, normally within 2 or 3 months of being planted. This would drastically affect the total amount of rice. Eager to know the social connection between male farmers en route to the fields, I queried Sreat on what farmers talked about and how often he took part in such discussions.
“We always talk to each other because it makes the long walk more bearable,” Sreat began. “After we acknowledge each other, as soon as farmers meet, the conversation focuses on rice planting. We talk about whether we have grown any more crops, or how much land we have left to cover.”
Was there a competition between farmers as to who could produce the most rice in the quickest time?
“No, but occasionally we make jokes between each other as to who may be the slowest. When the weather is hot, we need to make the best of a long day,” admitted Sreat. Being the youngest of the farmers in the midst of most conversations and always mindful of the respect paid to the elderly men who farmed full-time for a living, Sreat found himself being good-natured on days when he was singled out by the more experienced men.
“We cannot answer back to the older men in Cambodian culture. We are not allowed to be rude to anyone that is older than us. Doing so meant that we would be looked down upon and if rumors about my behavior reached home, then my parents would not be happy with me,” he said.
“So who gets the blame if not much work is done?”
Sreat’s answer to me was simple. “We blame the cows, because they cannot answer back.”
Farmers understand the importance and value of cows to their families, but the limits of their work are set by the ability of cows to prepare the ground for them. At some point, cows undertaking hard labor feel the threshold of pain in the same way that human beings get tired when they are working in the sun. Due to the lack of vegetation and grass in the dry parts of Cambodia, cows do not appear anywhere as healthy as their Western counterparts, and seeing ribcages exposed is an example of shortfalls in livestock feed and water. Cows from as young as one year experience this, yet they are still asked to go and do work on the farms day in and day out.
Sreat went further to explain that when farmers would seek shelter in isolated pockets of the property at hourly intervals, cows would remain in the sun and stand resiliently in a huddle, knee deep in water, looking in the direction of empty fields. I wonder if this represented a longing to escape to a simpler life in the same way that poor workers dream of emigrating to developed nations, or employees think of retiring from their jobs to travel worldwide and seek greener pastures themselves.
“At the end of our day on the farm, we round up our cows and head home. Usually we know when cows feel tired and overworked because they moo loudly. Calves cry by mooing longer,” said Sreat. “They miss their mom and want only to return to a peaceful field, where they can stay close to their parents. They are just like Cambodian children.”
It may be difficult to comprehend the logic of tough love and how it affects the relationship between farmer and animal, but to understand the dynamics of acquiring a cow in a village where income levels are too low to afford bulk purchases of valuable livestock, non government organizations operate animal husbandry projects designed to provide a greater number of families with opportunities to generate more income and increase standards of living. One such scheme is the cow lottery.
Organizing and facilitating a cow lottery operates in a manner similar to a regular random draw numbers game. Numbers are written out onto a piece of paper, rolled up and placed into a bowl before each entrant would be invited to draw a number out. The winning ticket holder is entitled to own the cow for 9 months in what is similar to a leasing scheme, but instead of paying the market price of $USD300 for the bovine, the winner would only need to pay 31,000 Cambodian riel ($USD7.75).
After 9 months, the holder would be required to give the cow back to the NGO and another lottery would take place for the benefit of all community members. This maximizes the chances of spreading wealth within the community and ensure local ownership of a treasured resource. One of the key concepts that ensures long-term income generation is that the cow lottery winner is allowed to keep the first born calf permanently. Subsequent calves born in the same litter will become property of the host organization on behalf of the community. Eventually, the calves will be available in future lotteries.
On the day that I observed the drawing, 38 people, one representative from each family showed up. It was to be conducted inside the grounds of a pagoda that serves as a community meeting place. Next to the statue of an upright Buddha wer four photos of donors contributing the most money towards the construction of the pagoda, and beneath the images a list of everybody who gave money. Some of the participants already had a cow, whereas others did not have one and saw the lottery as a one-off chance to generate income through means other than growing vegetables for sale at the local market. Children played gleefully on the equipment outside, oblivious of the events being undertaken.
Formalities commenced with a series of speeches in Khmer to thank everybody for showing up and inform participants of the process and spirit in which the lottery is to be conducted. Any visiting dignitaries or foreigners observing the day’s events are also expected to say something, regardless of the language which it is spoken. The message will be relayed in Khmer for the benefit of the participants, but even if it were not translated, the speech’s completion will always result in polite applause from the audience, out of respect. The general message is that one day, it is hoped that everyone will get a cow; but if you do not, your opportunity will arrive someday in the future.
From my own perspective, I wanted to wish good luck to everybody, and for the winner, to please treat this cow as if it were their own child and this cow’s life as if it were their own life.
One of the greatest difficulties for village families to is to adequately clothe, feed and educate their children. But for the eventual winner, a 38 year old woman with four children, her winning number presented an economic lifeline and instant change in fortune for her growing children, as well as herself.
Hopefully, the lottery will also be a guaranteed ticket for the cow’s tranquil existence.