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Sunday, June 17, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Life in Cambodian village transformed by Internet

The Washington Post

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ROVIENG, Cambodia - For as long as anyone here can remember, this dusty farming village deep in Cambodia's northern hinterland had been cocooned from the winds of development by a line of imposing mountains, miles of jungle and the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

On the Web


Scarves made in the village are sold through its Web site - www.villageleap.com -- and profits are plowed into its pig farm.
Like countless Cambodian villages, there's no telephone or electricity service. Most people in this hamlet of 128 families, which is also known as Robib, eke out a living as subsistence farmers, making less than $40 a year.

But lately, the villagers have been doing some unusual things. Grade-schoolers ogle pictures of Thai movie stars - though they've never seen a movie.

They make friends with children in other cities without leaving town. Women weave silk scarves that are sold in far-off countries. Men now make a year's wages in a month working on a new pig farm.

The changes are the result of a couple of desktop computers, a set of solar panels and a satellite dish that have connected the village to the Internet.

"I don't really know what the Internet is or how it works," said Mit Mien, the village chief. "But it is changing our lives."

Funded by a U.S. aid organization, Rovieng's onramp to the information superhighway is one of several projects aimed to bridge the "digital divide" - the ever-growing discrepancy in access to information technology between rich and poor nations.

"What we are trying to demonstrate is that two computers, powered by solar panels and hooked up to the Internet, can change a village," said Bernard Krisher, who heads the nonprofit American Assistance for Cambodia, which is paying for the project.

In Rovieng, the Internet is transforming the economy and the educational system, but because few villagers understand English, extensive training and support is needed from project organizers.

In the long yellow schoolhouse, pupils now take a three-month course on e-mail and Web sites. Some even have e-mail pen pals at an orphanage in Phnom Penh.

The impact on Rovieng's economy is even more significant. Several young women have revived the village's traditional silk-weaving industry, which died out during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the 1970s.

The scarves are sold through the village's Web site (www.village leap.com) to customers around the world, and profits are plowed into a pig farm.

The farm has generated employment, possible spinoff industries and hoped-for profits that will go into a fund to pay for the villagers' medical care.

"This is the best job in the village," said Chan Hat, 43, a rice farmer who now cares for 10 squealing piglets. "It's much better than working in the field."

It also means his children can stay in school instead of being forced to work in the rice fields.

"I am sure they will have a better life than I had," said Chan. "We are a very lucky village."

Whether it makes sense for governments, international lending institutions and aid organizations to spend development budgets on technological whiz-bangery is still the subject of intense debate.

Although the price of computing hardware has fallen, the cost of satellite connections - the only way people in places such as Rovieng can tap into the Internet - remains prohibitively expensive.

Krisher was able to get around the obstacle by encouraging a satellite company in Thailand, owned by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to donate a 64,000-bit-per-second link to the village, which is valued at about $18,000 a year.

"If we had to pay for satellite time, there's no way we could afford to do this," Krisher said. He's trying to convince telecommunications companies to donate unused satellite capacity to projects in developing countries.

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