2005 Journey - Cambodia & Vietnam

An Exciting Update

Sept 4, 2005

Hello from my Fair Trade Journey!
I have reached the 8th month of my Journey for Fair Trade, and my newsletter is long over-due.  There is much to report about the past couple months so I will do my best to catch up, but I must say, I think this is the most exciting of my newsletters thus far! Last I wrote to many of you, I had to take time off to recover from a bout with Dengue Fever and a stress fracture.  

Cambodian Journey
I returned to my journey about two months ago, starting in Cambodia where PeaceCraft (www.peacecraft.org) recently began importing from a new trading partner. Before I discuss the new trading partner, I want to present a context in which to understand the importance of PeaceCraft's recent addition.  As most of you know, Cambodia is a very poor country with limited economic development.  The situation is only compacted with rampant corruption which plagues this struggling democracy with a very fragile infrastructure. Additionally the land is littered with landmines and unexploded ordinance from the "we were never there" secret American bombing missions and raids, and the left overs from the Pol Pot Regime.

Landmines of Yesterday
Let me begin with a story of a man in Siem Riep who has devoted his life to disarming the land mines and explosive ordinance he had once set up as a child soldier for the Pol Pot Regime. His name is Aki Ra, and he is a hero amongst his people for his work clearing the explosives and established the Cambodian Landmine Museum. His story is truly incredible and worth reading for a glimpse into a time in Cambodian history that comes directly out of a page in hell . http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/
Furthermore, he has set up a school for the child victims of landmines, in which tourists are welcome to stay and donate a month or two teaching in the school. I saw a few European travelers doing this, and the reward for their time was written on their faces! The children are eager to learn English and other subjects they would not have the opportunity to learn in their villages. Many have been sent to the school because the families are unable to care for a non-productive child who cannot work in the fields. Once a child or adult is maimed, he or she is a heavy burden to a family that lives at a subsistence level. Some of the children in Aki's school were actually kicked out of their homes because the family was unable to care for them. If you ever considered donating time or money to a cause that really helps better the lives of children in need of serious help, I would recommend the Cambodian Landmine Museum Relief Fund

Another group worth mentioning is the Mine Advisory Group (MAG), from the UK.  I found them in Laos and Cambodia. So often we hear of groups doing good work in various countries, but we seldom know for sure if their organization is well known in the countries they work. I can attest that in Cambodia and Laos MAG is a highly regarded NGO that trains and assists local people in mine and ordinance detection, disarmament, and safe detonation. They also provide a comprehensive community education program that travels throughout the countryside focused on teaching children the dangers of mines and to alert their parents when they find one, which is quite frequent.  For sling-shot wielding boys, the steel pellets inside anti-personnel mines are a tempting prize. MAG is definitely a group worth looking into or donating to.

Now what does this have to do with Fair Trade?  Well, if you come to Cambodia, you will see that in the streets of Siem Riep, Phnom Penh and all major towns, there are legions of beggars, virtually all of them disabled to some degree or another.  Most often they are victims of polio or maimed from an encounter with a landmine laid thirty years ago. I found this situation painfully depressing.  

Rehab Craft
PeaceCraft’s newest trading partner is Rehab Craft, a non-profit organization in Phnom Penh. They offer physically disabled men and women an opportunity to get skills training, and stable work . I went to their workshop to photograph and conduct interviews with both the staff of Rehab Craft and the members. I was encouraged by the positive atmosphere I found at Rehab Craft, and I think that PeaceCraft has done well in selecting an organization that has such a positive impact serving a socially marginalized group.  While I was there, they proudly showed me the products they were making for PeaceCraft’s first order, due to arrive in time for the holidays.  

While I was meeting with the sewers and craftsmen, one woman was curious to know if PeaceCraft replaced the Rehab Craft tags in the t-shirts and scarves with their own tags. I had heard of this practice in factories in the free trade zones, and I was surprised that this was a suspicion here. I assured her that the Rehab Craft tags were not only left inside their products, but were a selling point as people who shop in PeaceCraft wanted to know where it was made and who made it. She appeared happy to hear this and returned to her sewing after my answer was translated. It felt good to be the bearer of good news and to see her pride in knowing the products she made were attributed to her handiwork. 

If you are interested in learning more about Rehab Craft, seeing their products at PeaceCraft, or assisting them into a fair trade market near you, check out their website linked above.

A Nation on the Move
After working with Rehab Craft, I moved on to Vietnam. I was in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) for about a week where I could see a noticeable change from when I visited three and a half years ago. Even the road was paved from the Cambodian border, a marked improvement over my previous experience. "Development" appears to be a buzz word amongst the people of HCMC, and the Vietnamese people of the south all acknowledge that the standard of living in the cities of Vietnam is rising. However, there is a down side. Speak with anyone in the streets from HCMC to Hue and in the towns of the central highlands like Pleiku and Kon Tum, and you will hear the same statement muttered under their breathe- "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." This sounds all too familiar. But without going into a spiel on the evil side of globalization and the capitalist concept of "development," I will say that I continued my search for ways in which I can help make trade fair for disadvantaged groups, thus to make a positive impact rather than pointing out the well known negatives.

Getting Involved Directly in Vietnam
I contacted a local NGO here in Hanoi, the Vietnam Handicraft Research and Promotion Center.  I met with the energetic and very intelligent General Director, Nguyen Bao Thoa and learned of a recent project that HRPC and Oxfam Quebec have recently begun. The project is providing skills training in the making of traditional handicrafts, followed by stable employment to 73 women, all recently returned survivors of human trafficking. The issue of Vietnamese women being trafficked into China has led to a direct cooperation between the Chinese and Vietnamese authorities in the past couple months, so HRPC and Oxfam are working together to provide a valuable opportunity for these survivors.  

Many have spent one to five years in enslavement before either being released in police raids,  or escaping their from their captors and going to the local authorities. These women remain at high risk for trafficking even now. Initially there were 75 trained members of the project, but recently two women were kidnapped and taken back into China. Obviously, these women remain at high risk.

But taken into context, the urgency of the situation is due to the economic situation in the rural areas.  Yes, the cities are developing, and foreign investment is pouring in, but not where it is most desperately needed. According to UN statistics, half of the world lives at, or below the $2.50/day poverty level. In the areas these women are coming from, a farmer typically makes an income of $10/month. You can do the math. The dire poverty I have seen here directly contributes to the trafficking of women across the northern border. Mind you, a female fetus is aborted in favor of a male child in China with its state mandated one child rule (think of that next time you read "Made in China"). If the farmers were given a fair and living wage for their crops in Vietnam, the agents and traffickers preying on the population wouldn't be able to buy a farmer's daughter for a month or two months income. Some of the women have been sold by a "boyfriend" who turned out to be an agent.  

The objective of this project is to give these women in three Northern provinces better access to economic alternatives and livelihoods. At this time there are no other NGOs or government agencies providing skills training to these trafficked women when they return, except the International Labor Organization (ILO) which started providing two classes in one northern province to teach cooking and related skills to a few of the returnees, but it is not enough. 

To give you an idea of the present situation, the women who are returned to Vietnam are received at the border by members of the Vietnam Women’s Union of Quang Ninh Province.  I met with the director of the Women’s Union on September 1st, and she explained the process to me. The victims are given transportation funds, one change of clothes, and sent to their home province, but they are not provided any further assistance upon their return. Most often they receive neither counseling nor skills training to assist in reintegration, nor are they readily accepted back into their communities. Instead they find themselves socially-marginalized with little or no local economic opportunities. Often they return to the one thing they experienced in order to make money, which is to say the sex industry of China, the local male-oriented massage parlors, or the red light districts of South East Asia. Oxfam Quebec & HRPC established the project in order to assist these women in their return from China. The project aims to provide a sense of community with skills training and long-term, stable employment as a means to reintegrate into society and encourage women’s empowerment through economic development.

Where I entered the scene is as the Liaison for PeaceCraft. Originally I wanted to assist HRPC and Oxfam Quebec in entering the Fair Trade market through PeaceCraft, as they are only in the development stages and need assistance exploring an export market. However, the more I got involved, the more I found myself able to contribute in terms of marketing strategies for their handicrafts, consulting on issues regarding Fair Trade practices and standards, and even assisting the planning and development the scope of the project itself. However, they needed a name other than "Trafficked Women's Group", so we came up with WIN, which translates well into Vietnamese, and more importantly the women in the group like the acronym. Officially it stands for Women in Need of Support, Opportunity & Community, but I think WIN may stand for itself. The more I learned of this project, the more I wanted to assist due to the urgency of their situation, so I accepted a voluntary position on the Board of Directors as an Independent Consultant.  

Oxfam Quebec is funding and managing the project while HRPC trains the women in both the making of high quality traditional handicrafts and in the necessary administration skills to make the group self-sufficient. The immediate need is for an export market where they can get a fair price because the training and the financial assistance from Oxfam are nearing an end. I have extended my stay in Hanoi in order to assist WIN in their marketing strategy, website development, and in the formation of WIN's long-term goals and objectives. Once the management is trained, Oxfam, HRPC and I will step aside and provide guidance for WIN, and I will move on with my Journey for Fair Trade.  However, this is the first time I am directly involved with such a project and I intend to stay involved for the long-term. I will continue to keep you informed of WIN's direction and development. Currently we are developing the website, so once it is up, I will let you know. I must say that this journey of mine has definitely brought about unforeseeable and important changes both for, and within me. 

A Change in Direction
Another unforeseeable change was a change in my academic aspirations. Originally my intention was to apply to the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, for an MA program in Social Justice in Intercultural Relations when I finished my Journey for Fair Trade. However, the more time I spent working with cooperatives and International NGOs, the more realized a practical need for Sustainable Development at the village and local community level. Additionally, Fair Trade strongly encourages Sustainable Development as a way to insure community development through Fair Trade for future generations. 

So, I went to the SIT website to ponder this realization and redirection....  Lo and behold,  what do I see???  SIT offers a one-year intensive MA in Sustainable Development in Sri Lanka combining course work in Colombo with fieldwork centered on the tsunami relief effort. I contemplated it for a while before applying - and the more I thought about it, the more this was the right direction for me. Besides, I am already in Asia and it would be a much less expensive ticket than the flight to Vermont! I submitted my application and a required essay with the assistance of my terrific cousin, Kameron in LA.  If you are ever in need of a terrific cousin, I would highly recommend Kam!  I was able to have all materials individually sent to him and he sent my packet in to SIT, an impossible feat for me as I am traveling and seldom in one area long enough to collect the needed documents.  Thanks Kam!!!

The MA Sri Lanka program begins in January, 2006. I am very excited to report that last week, SIT accepted my application! I will attend the course with a maximum of 25 other students ranging from early to mid-careers. SIT brings in a terrific faculty from around the world, and I seriously look forward to learning from them. In addition, the program works directly with a local NGO, Sarvodaya, with an emphasis on Buddhist and Gandhian principles in their approach.  This is a new direction for me, and one that fits perfectly with my life, my views and my intentions of working in Fair Trade. 

This has been a long newsletter, so I will stop here. Thank you for your support and emails while I have been abroad. I will keep you posted on the development of WIN and the website, as well as my journey. If you have any comments, ideas, or suggestions, I am all ears. Thanks again for your interest in and support of my Journey for Fair Trade.

Mitch Teberg

Happy Holidays from SE Asia

Dec 25, 2005

Hello and Happy Holidays from SE Asia,

I hope that this newsletter finds you well and in good holiday cheer. I apologize for the very long time between my newsletters, so there is much to cover. As most of you know, I am writing from Hanoi, Vietnam, where I have rented a small house.  This has been an experience in itself, and a terrific way to experience life in Vietnam outside of the tourist mainstreams. Vietnam may be a developing country with a dramatic rise in tourism, but dire poverty is just below the surface for those who slow down enough to notice.

On the street Vietnamese are excited about entering the World Trade organization (WTO) in the near future, and those in power do much to promote this view.  It comes as no surprise since they are the very ones who will profit from it, so the propaganda that promotes it goes unquestioned.  Unfortunately, the general population has no other access to the realities that await them.  

WIN Update
Since August I have become very involved with the development of a woman’s cooperative, WIN to provide economic opportunities to sixty-eight victims of human trafficking and young women at high risk by producing handicrafts for the Fair Trade market. PLEASE view our new website!  WIN was started by Oxfam Quebec and a local NGO, the Vietnam Handicraft Research and Promotion Center (HRPC) I joined the Board of Directors with the intention of working on the export marketing aspects of the group to aid in their entry into the Fair Trade market. However, I have found myself much more involved than I had imagined possible. The experiences have influenced my life’s direction and the opportunities have given me practical experience at grass roots development.  

I am truly amazed at what has become of this Fair Trade journey which began with a goal to do something positive in the world by working toward something I can believe in. I agree with the protests at the recent WTO meetings in Hong Kong and the FTAA protests in Argentina as one way to combat the negatives of globalization with its corporate and elitist agenda. However, I will leave the necessary protesting for those who wish to make banners and grab the much needed media attention. While I support the protesters and their statements, my own idea is to work FOR something, in addition to finger pointing against an undeniable evil. I want to work for a positive and viable alternative, which is why I started this journey, and the path it has lead me down has been one to give me clear direction and focus in my life. 

I have been working with HRPC extensively, both in regards to WIN, and for them as a consultant on Fair Trade.  There have been a multitude of opportunities afforded me as a result of my involvement. One such opportunity was to complete a UNIFEM (the UN Development Fund for Women) Training of Trainers workshop on CEDAW (the UN Convention on Eliminating all forms of Discrimination Against Women). I had studied CEDAW in a Human Rights in Anthropology course at the University of New Mexico (highly recommended!), and this workshop taught me how to put it into practice, and how to utilize CEDAW on the national and international level. Unfortunately I am ashamed to admit that CEDAW and most other humanitarian UN treaties have not been ratified in my own country. 

As a consultant to HRPC, I have seen some of the most beautiful landscapes of Vietnam and worked with minority groups in areas no tourists are permitted. According to the UN statistics, half of the world population lives in poverty, which they estimate is $2 or less per day. Some of the regions HRPC projects are located the average income is $0.33 per day. This is true for one of our WIN groups along the China border. Poverty is a root cause of many social ills, one of them being the trafficking of women and young girls.

Overcoming the Odds

There is much I want to share with you about WIN.  I spent the first week of December working on the objectives of WIN as well as personal and social issues WIN is designed to address because HRPC had sent in a proposal to UNIFEM in October seeking assistance in opening a retail shop in Hanoi for WIN. When I completed it, I saw the intrinsic value of doing what I strongly believe in.  I am hoping they accept our grant proposal and that we are successful.

Additionally, I have witnessed the members in all three WIN groups as they have undergone many challenges the past few months, but most importantly, members of WIN are beginning to develop a sense of pride in what they are doing. For some, it is the first time in their lives they felt some semblance of self-confidence and self-esteem. The combined effects of their victimization and social-marginalization have made it all that much more important for me to see WIN succeed.  
Our Hanoi group, located in a rural area forty minutes from the capital have become stronger and even more committed to what they are doing. Many of the difficulties relate to their status as victims of human trafficking, and the related stigma and social-marginalization. 

Much to our surprise, this group was literally threatened by outside forces. Just this month the group received a very loud and clear message when late at night their workshop was broken into and an iron and two sewing machines were stolen, one of which was donated by a Japanese language school, and the other borrowed from HRPC.  In October all their thread was stolen, but HRPC replaced it. These tools are critical to their work, and without them the group’s existence is at stake. For obvious reasons, their morale hit the floor and fear set in because of who was behind the theft and why.  

When the threats and theft occurred, I was teaching Basic English lessons to a few members of this group in addition to marketing their products in Fair Trade circles. After seeing the fear on their face and how demoralized they were I decided to do something myself. I went with one member who is receiving advanced sewing and administration skills training at HRPC, and bought a replacement iron and an industrial sewing machine capable of sewing through the bamboo they work with. At the same time in the village, a family offered to take in the sewing members of this group so they could work in a safe environment in private residence. I wish I could show you the look on their faces when we returned with the new sewing machine. To them it meant someone actually cared about their situation, and this meant the world to them. 

The members in the Hanoi group who work with bamboo on large weaving looms have also moved their workspace to second private residence who has offered to take them in. Thanks to this arrangement the group is in business again.

A second group along the China border has faced other obstacles related to their victimization. Some are showing symptoms of (undiagnosed) HIV/AIDS impeding their health, and their ability to function. One member’s condition is so advanced that the General Director of HRPC is looking to adopt her half Chinese daughter in the worst case scenario. Additionally, a few others have left the group and returned the cycle of exploitation we are so trying hard to break. Admittedly their wages are not so high now as they are still in a training phase before they can become independent. One reason for the loss of group members is this group is located near a famous tourist attraction of Ha Long Bay, and here they can make about $60+/mo in a sleazy massage parlor catered to Asian tourists. To provide a bit of context, a college graduate makes just $30/mo as a teacher in a nearby rural school. 

The third group, which is of the H’mong minority, has lost four members; two kidnappings and two “disappearances” of its original 25 members. At the same time, the group has grown to 30 members because it offers an opportunity to generate income and the members are becoming a stronger force in the communities they reside.  

Working with these social issues and seeing the obstacles each group has overcome has been an inspiration to me. The people I work with at HRPC are truly incredible human beings, and it has been a pleasure to work in their office and see them in action. I have gone to the field with their staff, attended meetings and workshops as their consultant, and did the English editing of a national publication for the Ministry of Trade. I find inspiration and positivity in everything they do. The CEO, Ms Thoa is a true visionary who wants to see the situation in her country improve.  In contrast while residing here I have seen all too many development organizations seek foreign funds to fill their pockets and feed corruption instead of aiding in the development of Vietnam where it is so needed.

Most of all, HRPC afforded me an opportunity to become involved in the formation of WIN. Again, please go to the WIN website at to see the products they are now making; to read the vision we have set out for WIN; the recent history of human trafficking from Vietnam to China; and their personal stories.  

In November, Angelo Tomedi from PeaceCraft came to Vietnam for a conference and took time to visit all three WIN groups.  This was truly a morale booster for the women of WIN. I see that they begin to feel connected to the world when foreigners show interest in them and their products. From this standpoint, his visit was a big success and greatly appreciated. There is not enough I can say in appreciation. I also had a good opportunity to discuss Fair Trade issues with him, and as a result of these talks, we were able to correct some practices we had from the onset, and clarify a few of my own uncertainties.  He also returned to PeaceCraft with about $1000 in WIN products and Bobbi from PeaceCraft has told me they sold extremely well! 

So please, if you can take a look at their products online, or at PeaceCraft it would be greatly appreciated. If you know of a potential retailer for their products, whether they are a Fair Trade store or a local shop that you can approach about buying from WIN, PLEASE let me know. Feel free to print out this email, or forward it to any potential buyer! I would really appreciate any help we can get in this early stage of their development. The training phases took longer than anticipated, but now we are ready to begin taking orders, large and small. So again, if you receive my emails and you know of any way to help, the members of WIN and I would greatly appreciate it!!! 

Wal-Mart's Encroachment

A few months ago, Wal-Mart contacted HRPC twice to expand into the handicraft market.  After I explained their terrible trade practices, non-existent ethics and horrendous labor practices that are publicized more and more, HRPC did not respond to their inquiries. However, this should raise an alarm for those of you familiar with corporate tactics, especially where Wal-Mart is concerned. Some of the most vocal opponents to their practices are supporters of Fair Trade.  Take it to the next step and you see the Fair Trade niche is in handicrafts and hand woven textiles, and their next tactic is quite simple: if they cannot pump out enough commercial propaganda, then they will use their capital to enter the Fair Trade niche and economically silence their opponents. Keep an eye on them... 

This ends my newsletter from Vietnam and this phase of my Journey for Fair Trade. I will write of my next stage in my journey in the coming months. Thank you for your time in reading my update and helping with finding stores to sell WIN products!  

In a couple days I move on to Sri Lanka to begin an MA in Sustainable Development through the School for International Training. Like I mentioned in a previous email newsletter, I chose this field of study because of my experiences over the past year working in Fair Trade and seeing firsthand the relevance of sustainable development. I am looking forward to this opportunity and I will keep the occasional newsletter coming.

Mitch Teberg

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