Channrith Hing: From Landmines to Mushrooms – One man’s story of using mushrooms to better his world

Channrith Hing runs schools in Cambodia for three to six year old children through the not-for-profit Cambodia Children’s Advocacy Foundation. CCAF has established 13 preschools since its inception, helping 2,300 school children. The program is partnered with in home visits for parental education. Additionally as part of their mission, the CCAF staff expands the income generation of the families of the children they teach by over seeing the introduction of small scale farming best practices, training directly in the homes and communities of those they serve.  Hing is a trained attorney, and worked for the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia during Cambodia’s first election in 1993.

Hing - United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia first election in 1993.

Hing – United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia first election in 1993.

Hing had been funded from a grant from Boeing Corporation and a  grant from a Methodist group allowed the school program to expand to 13 schools. Once the grants ended Hing decided that growing mushrooms for sale locally using rubber tree sawdust as a substrate, would be a quick way to create a funding stream to continue his programs. Once understanding all of the trouble of growing P. ostreatus (Oyster Mushrooms), he’d begin growing medicinal mushrooms – notably G. lucidum (Reishi Mushrooms).

But this isn’t the first effort to alleviate suffering and ending poverty that Hing has been involved in, 15 years ago he worked with victims of land mines. Hing’s work directing a rehabilitation center is detailed by long time friend, and Cambodian Children’s Foundation Board Member, Phil Nelson:

hing veterans int cambodia

Hing Circa 2003 – Veterans International Cambodia

Boston based, Phil Nelson is a retired social studies teacher he is exceptionally well traveled, during the first ten years of his teaching career he spent his summers exploring Europe. For over 25 years he has extensively explored South East Asia. He is the brother of a US Marine who died in combat during the Vietnam war, Nelson got a deferment from the Vietnam draft as a sole survivor.

. . .  “There were all these rusting wheel chairs with men in rotting military uniforms desperately waiting for the hospital to be built,”. . . 

It was in the early 1990′s and Phil Nelson was in Cambodia near what had been a Khmer Rouge torture school and noticed several people missing limbs. He asked a street vendor why there were so many injured people, the vendor directed him over a hill. Cautiously he proceeded and found dozens of people, all with missing limbs; arms, legs or both, camped under trees and bushes. It was small tent village. “There were all these rusting wheel chairs with men in rotting military uniforms desperately waiting for the hospital to be built,” Nelson said. “Those that could were helping. Imagine men with no arms carefully balancing lumber on their shoulders in order to build a hospital so they could be a patient.”

In the midst of this surreal scene of misery and survival that Nelson witnessed, was a brand new white SUV, so out of place that Nelson had to see why it was there. It turned out to be a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) official overseeing the hospital construction. Phil chose to document the people living in the bushes and trees in this encampment of homeless and limbless veterans and civilians, taking pictures and writing about what he saw. It’s important to note that in a 1996 World Health Organization report stated that over 4,800 people in Cambodia alone were injured by land mines, the report further states that that figure is significantly under reported.

Nelson was friends with many folks involved with the Vietnam Veterans of America, and when he returned to the US he was invited to a fundraiser thrown by the VVA, for a hospital being built in Cambodia. Phil immediately knew that the hospital supported by the VVA was the one he saw being built. He quickly offered his photos for future fundraisers for the construction of the Kien Kleang National Rehabilitation Center, for of the victims of land mines that he had met.

“Vietnam Veterans of America was financing the Rehabilitation Center, partnered with it’s Cambodian sister organization the Veteran International Cambodia – I started in 1996 at the Assistant Manager of the facility, designed not only for veterans but anyone effected by land mines, and anyone physically disabled. We provided therapy, braces, prosthesis, and wheel chairs.” Said Hing, who was soon to became the Center’s Site Manager. “Many people had to stay very long term in order to learn to walk again.”

“I met Phil in ’96 or ’97 on a visit he made to Cambodia, we kept up with each other,” Hing intimated to me during a recent Skype call, “At first I treated him as I would any donor, giving him regular updates of our work. but as Phil continued to come to Cambodia every summer and volunteer, we soon became best friends.”

Phil Nelson quickly began raising funds for the hospital on his own, shaking down friends and neighbors for donations and saving a significant portion of his salary for the hospital. Each summer he would travel to Cambodia to spend time, and to drop off the funds directly at the hospital. “Corruption in Cambodia is so rampant, any funds used for hospitals or schools is quickly funneled of into the pockets of government officials,” Nelson says.

. . . “The US bombing campaigns in Cambodia known as Operation Menu and Operation Freedom Deal not only caused horrendous injuries tens of thousands of innocent people, but can be directly attributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.”. . .

 

Hing community dev 1

Recent CCAF Wheelchair Recipient – Photo Phil Nelson

 

Hing stays out of politics and refuses to on comment the cause of the injuries and poverty, but his US friend Nelson is more outspoken, “The US bombing campaigns in Cambodia known as Operation Menu and Operation Freedom Deal not only caused horrendous injuries to tens of thousands innocent people, but can be directly attributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.”

American B52 Bombing SE Asia - Wikimedia Commons

United States Air Force B52 Bombing SE Asia – Date Unknown – Photo Wikimedia Commons

Despite Nelson’s best efforts the USAID ended the funding of the hospital. “For a long time land mine victims and land mine eradication were a cause célèbre and even though some celebrities like Steve Earle, Sheryl Crowe, and Emmy Lou Harris continued to hold concerts, Princess Diana’s death dealt a serious blow to funding rehabilitation efforts both politically and financially, and when the political will dried up, so did the USAID money.” Nelson told me in a recent conversation. “The British did an incredible job for many years taking out landmines but people are still being injured by them, fewer, but it’s no longer covered even in Cambodian media.”

. . . “The rice fields, you know kids don’t go to school there, when the parents work in the fields the children just sit there in the sun all day, doing nothing, all alone.”. . .

Nelson and Hing still working together when the Cambodian government took possession of the Rehabilitation Center because the USAID stopped the center’s funding. Hing resigned from the Rehab Center to begin the Cambodian Childrens Advocacy Foundation, a local NGO, and it was again Nelson raising funds in the US and Hing looking to Nelson and others for inspiration and doing the ground work.

Students - Phil Nelson

Students – Photo Phil Nelson

“The rice fields, you know kids don’t go to school there, when the parents work in the fields the children just sit there in the sun all day, doing nothing, all alone.” Nelson remembers. He and Hing decided to begin something to improve conditions of Cambodia’s poorest children.

” . . . The funding we receive is a small amount of the teacher’s salary, about $17.00, or a third of the teacher’s salary of $50.00 a month. We have to raise the rest. . .”

Hing began to raise funds for schools for preschool and kindergarten aged children founding CCAF and opening three schools simultaneously. Hing developed the curriculum as a pilot program designed to be eventually taken up by the Cambodian government. The goal of alleviating poverty and education children is lofty, but in a country with so little in terms of social services or available governments funds, even small scale projects have large effect on the people. All of Hing’s schools have vegetable gardens to supplement the caloric intake of the families of the students.

IMG_5023

“Our schools are overseen by the Cambodian Ministry of Education, and we receive technical advice, teacher training, and they monitor the work of the schools, recently we began to receive funding not from the Ministry of Education but from the Ministry of the Interior, at the provincial level” Hing told me, “The funding we receive is a small amount of the teacher’s salary, about $17.00, or a third of the teacher’s salary of $50.00 a month. We have to raise the rest.”

Phil Nelson teaching, 2014

Phil Nelson teaching, 2014

“Hing not only teaches the children to read and write at an early age, the schools teach general knowledge but most importantly reflective thinking, the precursor to critical thinking,” says Nelson. “That’s the rub, the government which essentially is a dictatorship doesn’t want critical thinkers to challenge them, it wants poverty level workers for the new family of Western owned clothing factories. Another reason the government doesn’t want to take up the problem of early education is that the government is so corrupt, theft of funds so prevalent, they’ve realized there’s no side money for them to take in small scale, early education projects.”

To date Hing has educated over 2,300 children.

The early Boeing Global Corporate Citizen grant allowed Hing some breathing room and enough money to open 13 small schools. The three year grant ended and wasn’t renewed when the Boeing Vice President for Asia received a promotion and the connection to the manufacturing giant dried up.

“. . . Last year Hing had to end a popular and economical program that allowed families to create income, the loan of chickens partnered with animal husbandry best practices education. . .”

Education is only one of CCAF’s activities; Raising the the local population and families of the school children out of the abject poverty they’re forced to live is also a main focus. Last year Hing had to end a popular and economical program that allowed families to create income, the loan of chickens partnered with animal husbandry best practices education. Hing lent families five chickens and one rooster, which allowed them to sell eggs. If successful at hatching chicks the program allowed them to sell the chickens as meat. After one year the families would return to CCAF five chickens and one rooster, keeping the offspring for their own flock.

“This program was successful, though many families had set-backs, disease in the flocks, problems with predators, or simply the need to eat during the worst economic times would wipe out a flock” Hing revealed, “Over all this program allowed dozens of families to rise out of poverty and many families are still raising chickens.”

While inexpensive to run the program did have costs, “with the ending of a Methodist Relief Development Fund grant we’ve had to cancel the program, though we are currently trying to have it taken up by the local chiefs.” said Hing. The MRDF Grant was given to CCAF twice, for a six year run, but grant guidelines only allow two concurrent funding cycles.

 

“. . . Loans of $100.00 or less were common, the purchase or materials were limited to $50.00. – followed by training in bookkeeping, was enough to raise income levels so the locals could afford necessities like school books and candles. . .” 

“Last year on my trip to Cambodia Rith and I had been told about an elderly blind woman whose neighbors had to bring her water, and some days she went without when the neighbors were too busy. Her shack was secluded, in the middle of rice paddies, and she couldn’t get to the community well. Hing and I dug wells until we found water,” Nelson told me, “now she has to only walk a few yards to get her water.”

Recent Recipient of CCAF Small Business Loan - Photo Cannrith Hing

Recent Recipient of CCAF Small Business Loan – Photo Cannrith Hing

Hing has had to cut back on other programs. Hing used to loan out money using local monasteries to find the appropriate recipients of small loans to open shops, or to find people to open small scale manufacturing operations in their homes. Some recipients opened shops and stores, others began sewing operations simply receiving enough thread and material to begin sewing. Loans of $100.00 or less were common, the purchase or materials were limited to $50.00. – followed by training in bookkeeping, was enough to raise income levels so the locals could afford necessities like school books and candles.

Boeing Corporation touted Cambodian Children’s Advocacy Foundation in the US as one of it’s success stories, setting up a tour in 2009 for US Senator Mary Cantwell, arranged by executive Paul Walters and Vice President of Global Corporate Citizenship, Anne Roosevelt.

Anne Eleanor Roosevelt – Former VP Boeing Corporate Global Citizenship Program

Hing read the writing on the wall,  When Paul Walters moved into a new role and the new regional Vice President named, Boeing wouldn’t renew his Corporate Citizenship grant, and gave him no  feedback why.

Adalia Hill, a Media Spokeperson for Boeing Corporation replied to my request for comment. Boeing states, ” the country president did not opt to not renew the grant. At that time Boeing was re-aligning giving strategy/objectives into key areas of impact and while the program is a good one, when the grant was submitted it ultimately did not meet the updated objectives.”  Hing has since reapplied and been turned down.

Instead of cutting programs Hing took a chance, creating new a program growing Oyster Mushrooms on Rubber Tree sawdust mixed with Rye Grain and other supplements for local sale. P. ostreatus, is a fast growing and aggressive cultivator, easy and fast to grow. It causes little problems and overcomes many competitor fungi. “I had gone to the internet to find the processes to grow mushrooms to raise funds for my programs, I found so many people willing to spend time with me, give me advice, and encourage my efforts.”

IHing Mushrooms farm Oyster

CCAF Oyster Mushroom Grow Room – 2013

About two years ago Hing realized that production of Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) known in Asia, as the Lingzhi, would be more profitable with only slightly, he thought, more work. He had an inoculation, incubation and grow rooms already, so he began experimentation and quickly went into production. He realized the extra profit he’d be able to plow back into his schools if he produced his own spawn and needed a laminar flow hood.

Reishi - Phil Nelson

Reishi – Phil Nelson

As usual Hing turned to internet forums for advice on the construction of the flow hood, chatting with people all over the world. Finally, with plans in hand, he took the time to carefully craft his hood. A benefactor in the UK provided the specialized filter. Using a laminar flow hood prevents contaminants from infiltrating the critical inoculation stage of mushroom cultivation.

“I like the production of Lingzhi, the problem I have is marketing, the local market is soft for cultivated Lingzhi, people want tree grown.” Hing’s disappointment was clear. Without a US distributor who would partner in a program similar to “Fair Trade” programs, one that would not only sell his production based on the medicinal value and value added of the use of the profits going to his good works.

In a recent conversation with Hing, I mentioned switching to log grown Reishi, frustrated he said, “Right now I can not even wait for the 30 days it takes each crop of Lingzhi from start to finish, I need to make payroll, having log grown production, which takes up to two years for a first crop would bankrupt me, who would pay the teachers?”

“Both in the cultivation of Oyster Mushrooms, and Lingzhi, I have made mistakes. Sometimes it feels like hundreds of mistakes!” he laughingly told me recently, “It is through these mistakes that I’ve learned, and perfected my skills.” Currently he has polished his skills further, perfecting cultivation of the medicinal cordyceps mushroom.

Hing preschool 1

Hing is the penultimate inventor. With finished materials so hard to get in rural Cambodia he has had to make do or do without. He’s chosen the path of neither; insisting that his schools and facilities have power he’s made wind generators from scratch. Insisting that water be available he’s hand dug wells and installed home made pumps. Insisting that the schools have funding he’s installed vegetable gardens so not only the children can eat, but so the organization can sell the produce to finance operations.

Hing refuses to be dejected about the future, each day he spends time working with his mushrooms, ensuring his schools are run well, and that individual foreign donors and volunteers are kept in close communication. He understands that his position can be one of a bottleneck, so he’s begun to teach his farm supervisor, Mam Sei, how to cultivate mushrooms. Hing is convinced that with some further skills learned from mycologists overseas, and slightly better facilities his efforts using the Fungi Kingdom to pay for his work will be successful.

 

Earlier this year Hing raised funds and traveled to Thailand, to an outfit known as IFarm, to learn liquid inoculation techniques, “I had to quickly raise $500, but the liquid inoculation saves a week of incubation time. It is open to contamination easier, but we’ve overcome that problem with better clean room skills”

 “. . . I’ve learned and developed growing Lingzhi and Cordyceps we can make it work. The future is in Fungi! . . .”

Lolita Van Buuren is from England and a recent volunteer. She’s a pharmaceutical saleswoman, taking a sabbatical to volunteer with CCAF. She has a background in finance, property development, and business management. She’ll be in Cambodia for two months, beginning next week, though she has been working long distance with Hing on feasibility studies. “After studying Rith’s work in mycology, as an attempt to finance his projects I can only say that we’ll have to look at completely canceling the operation if he doesn’t manage to get outside marketing.” Van Buuren told me over the phone, “Any project should only be given three years, and if within that time span can’t pay for itself it needs to be scrapped.”

Reishi CCAF

Channrith Hing stubbornly rebutted this analysis. “I appreciate the work she is doing, and understand that work must have payback, but with the right marketing and partnerships, even some kind of agricultural tourism where we teach the techniques I’ve learned and developed growing Lingzhi and Cordyceps we can make it work. The future is in Fungi!”

Fortunately Channrith Hing has never followed normal guidelines, if he’s run his life as Van Buuren suggests he run the medicinal mushroom business he may have left the service of his community long ago.

The Cambodian Children’s Advocacy Foundation’s website is: http://www.ccaf-khmer.org/

Installment II – “From Landmines to Mushrooms – The Trouble with Partnering with International Foundations and Volunteers” is due outWednesday, April 23rd

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