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"... suddenly, the shrimp start appearing. They show up in little ponds and they light up at night. The country must be getting better, I think. For four years, no birds and then suddenly a crow flies by overhead." The Mountains of Cambodia, 1979, from The Koh Tree (unpublished)

During a plenary session on Building a Green Agenda for Racial and Economic Justice Movements, I learned something that so chilled me I had to look down to make sure a knife had not actually been plunged through my heart.

For the past two years I have been writing The Koh Tree, the memoir of a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide. She has worked in nail salons for almost 30 years. She survived the Khmer Rouge, but her young daughter and son died of starvation. She considers herself lucky. She is married and has two sons. Both are in their 20s; both are severely mentally impaired.

I learned that Southeast Asian women continue to be viewed as 'acceptable losses' by a Capitalist Economic System which indiscriminately tinkers in their native cultures, bombs their homeland, and relocates them into a booming industry which poisens them and their children. Yes, I learned that the toxins in nail products cause neurological birth defects.  

"The name for the Kabok tree (Ceiba pentandra) in Khmer is "Koh", a word which also means mute. During the Pol Pot era, an oft repeated saying had it that "if you want to live, grow a Koh tree in front of your house." Part official threat, part unofficial advice, this saying was directed at the "new people" or "17th of April people" (i.e., those who fled from the cities to the countryside in April 1975). The saying invited the addressed to remain silent about everything that they had seen, heard, knew, or felt ... the trunk of the Koh tree itself is fractured in several places "to show the scars which all the survivors still bear today both inside their bodies and in their hearts."" Link

Spirit is everything in Cambodia. Our parents tell us that on the day we are born, our spirit is flying above, summoned to land in that split second of time when our body slips into this world. They choose us; they are our first taste of the air.

I am maybe five or six. Already, I am angry at my spirit.

"Why you have to stop here, why this poor family?" I ask. "Why you do this to me? If you had flown a little slower, you would have landed just next door. Look how many things you would have had — a TV, a car, lots of food."

Then I look out in the other direction.

"Why you not fly a little slower? Even on the other side, still things would have been a little better. Why you have to land here?" Takmou, 1957.

From October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having "unknown" targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed—not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson. The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide. Link

Takmou so different now. Many buildings now home to government soldiers. Seem like so many boys now join army and many older soldiers live here alone without their families.

One of the soldiers, Pran, is a nurse. He visits our house a few days a week and gives Mae some medication. Look like maybe he as old as Ba. He starts hanging around after leaving her room, joking and laughing with me, telling me I am the prettiest girl he has seen anywhere in Cambodia and he has traveled everywhere.

Pran is the first person to tell me bad things about Sihanouk. He says our leader allows North Vietnamese to set up camps inside our country. Now Ho Chi Minh Trail inside Cambodia, so Vietnamese can move supplies to troops in the South to fight Americans. Big American planes have started dropping bombs on villages near the border. Many Cambodians dying.

"You wait," Pran say. "War coming to Cambodia. Rebel troops gathering in countryside, want to get rid of Sihanouk." Takmou, 1974

The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21% of the country's population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. As in the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide, in Nazi Germany, and more recently in East Timor, Guatemala, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot combined extremist ideology with ethnic animosity and a diabolical disregard for human life to produce repression, misery, and murder on a massive scale. On July 18, 2007, Cambodian and international co-prosecutors at the newly established mixed UN/Cambodian tribunal in Phnom Penh found evidence of "crimes against humanity, genocide, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, homicide, torture and religious persecution."The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University

Oh, the world you would have known, Shrey Mom. There are still times now, thirty years after you left us, when I look up from whatever I am doing and search for some sign from your spirit. Is that you, that slight soothing pressure on my face? Are you hiding in the clear fresh water I use to clean my client’s feet? Did you slip into that little girl’s giggle? For just a minute, she sounds so much like you.

So many times I ask my husband, "Where are the spirits of all the children who starved to death during the Khmer Rouge? Are they still waiting in Cambodia for their families to come home? Do they know we are here in America?"

The women who come into my salon, Shrey Mom, carry huge leather satchels that probably cost more money than all the rice we harvested during five years at Pou Chrey. Sometimes they bring their children with them, pale little children in fancy soccer uniforms and hundred dollar sneakers. They will never know the joy of playing a simple game of Leak Kanseng in their dirty bare feet. The dogs that wait for them in cars much grander than the Anghar tanks go to special shops for shampoos. Akmow would not be welcome here, with his dusty black coat and half an ear.

The nail industry has tripled in size in the last two decades. The majority of workers are women, and nationally, an estimated 42 percent are Asian. In California, home to a fifth of the country's manicurists, an estimated 80 percent are Vietnamese. Of that number, half are of child-bearing age.

The nail trade is fast, easy and cheap to learn, said Nguyen, and doesn't require a high level of English language skills. More attractive is the earning potential. Nguyen said nail salon workers like herself can typically make 2,000-4,000 dollars monthly/

As much as I want to tell you about my life in America, things are so very different here that there is no space in your little mind for you to even imagine their existence. I can tell you that I own a small shop in a very, very rich town in America, that I clean people’s hands and feet and paint their nails different colors. Sometimes I grind fake nails for them and paste them on their fingers. Every day fancy women come here and I put rich creams on their faces to make them look younger or use hot wax to strip hair from their body. Not sexy in America to have hair on your body.

I do these things to make them happy but they are not happy, Shrey Mom. Always they have problems. I am sorry with them. I remember to ask them how things are when they return. But deep inside, as I bend over their hands, I am saying to myself: "You think your life is a sad story? You have everything. A home. Food. A job. Education. Why you so sad?"

Sometimes I think, "If only you knew my story. You would understand what sorrow really is." But I say nothing. They are my customers and I have bills to pay.

One of these chemicals is toluene, a nervous-system toxin and Volatile Organic Compound that not only helps nail polish go on smoothly and adhere evenly to the nail, but is also used as an octane booster in gasoline fuels used in internal combustion engines. In addition to causing eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, and nausea, high amounts of toluene can also lead to birth defects, developmental abnormalities, along with liver and kidney damage. In fact, studies have noted an association between toluene exposure and an increased incidence of spontaneous abortions. Planet Green

The European Union in 2004 banned the use of toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate in nail products. But not so in Ameria because the U.S. Food and Drug Association doesn't require pre-sale testing of beauty products. (Toluene is also labeled  phenylmethane, methylbenzene, or toluol.)

EcoJustice: The Plenary

The Bioneer's event was sponsored by Movement Generation, an organization which unites urban Bay Area organizations in supporting their work on economic and racial justice in communities of color.

Movement Generation sprung to life in 2007, when a number of local groups realized they had reached a similar consciousness regarding the inter-connection between environmental and social justice. Members come from backgrounds as community organizers around the issues of poverty, environmental racism, labor, youth development and leadership and indigenous rights.

"We were all very struck by the gravity and scale of the global ecological crisis and the impact it is having on the various communities we are working with on various social justice issues," says Dana Ginn Paredes, organizing director of Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice. They also shared  "a sense of deep alarm at future of humanity."

Embedding ecological literacy into their programs is now core to their philosophy because, Paredes says, "the ecological crisis will continue to impact the most marginalized communities first and worst. Folks with the most power and economic wealth caused the problem, and they are paying the least price."  

"We need collective, organized and power building approaches," she says. "People need to meet their own basic needs which means they can't engage in ecology problems. We don't have time for that anymore. They need a seat at the table."

One of the speakers at the plenary, Mimi Ho, is program director of The Asian Pacific Environmental Network. Her work, she says, is centered around the belief that "all people have the means to make empowered decisions."

It was Ho who addressed low toxic waste industries and their role in polluting the environment and ravaging the health of their employees. Many APEN families work in low toxic waste industries: cleaners, construction, and beauty/nail salons.

The solvents and hardeners used in nail salons, she says, are no more healthy for the environment than for the customers.

"The toxic chemicals in nail salons result in disproportionate rates of spontaneous abortions, respiratory difficulties, and problems in fetal development," she says.

When APEN adjusted their lens to include climate, they began engaging people living in homes and schools in close proximity to toxic businesses in  walking tours of their communities "with a bigger awareness ... to make it a more physical thing. Use your other senses; smell, ask questions. Should that smell exist? We want to expand their awareness.

"When we are walking what we are seeing is very narrow," she says. "So we started to say look up, have a 180 degree view. Then they are able to see all the smoke stacks that they hadn’t seen before."

Environmental Justice is the right to a decent, safe quality of life for people of all races, incomes and cultures in the environments where we live, work, play, learn and pray. Environmental Justice emphasizes accountability, democratic practices, equitable treatment and self-determination. Environmental justice principles prioritize public good over profit, cooperation over competition, community and collective action over individualism, and precautionary approaches over unacceptable risks. Environmental Justice provides a framework for communities of color to articulate the political, economic and social assumptions underlying why environmental racism and degradation happens and how it continues to be institutionally reinforced.

Environmental racism refers to any environmental policy, practice or action that negatively impacts communities, groups or individuals based on race or ethnicity.APEN's Definition of Environmental Justice

The plane approaches San Francisco and I look out window. Oh, it look like heaven at night time. Everyone say this heaven. I look down and I just think about my life. I just can’t believe I got here. So many times almost die. So lucky.
I look around apartment. Not understand. No furniture. One tv. Only mattress in bedroom. Old mattress. Only one table to eat in kitchen. Why US so poor? Not like they say at all.
The first thing I buy in America is from Goodwill. Just 25 cents. All I have to buy some clothes. San Francisco. 1982

Photo Credits

Bombacaceae by Elf-Y
Torture Room at S-21 (Tuol Sleng) by Rob Luzecky
Cambodia:Siem Reap: Rice field by Frederic Poirot
Let me see dah-ling by Lol@KaleighDean
Fog Invasion by Sutanto
Full Production by A guy with A camera

EcoJustice series discuss environmental justice, or the disproportionate impacts on human health and environmental effects on minority communities in the U.S. and around the world. All people have a human right to clean, healthy and sustainable communities.

Almost 4 decades ago, the EPA was created partially in response to the public health problems caused in our country by environmental conditions, which included unhealthy air, polluted rivers, unsafe drinking water and waste disposal.  Oftentimes, the answer has been to locate factories and other pollution-emitting facilities in poor, culturally diverse, or minority communities.

Please join EcoJustice hosts on Monday evenings at 7PM PDT. Please email us if you are interested in hosting.

Originally posted to boatsie on Mon Oct 19, 2009 at 06:54 PM PDT.

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