TAKEO, Cambodia -- Cambodia has been growing rapidly over the past few years, but remains one of the poorest countries in Asia.
Studies show that aside from creating more jobs for the rural population, improvement in agricultural productivity is needed.
A Christian agriculturist is doing just that in poor villages in Cambodia-- turning what used to be killing fields into fields of hope and life.
In 2004, the principal of a public high school in rural Cambodia challenged Filipino agriculturist Zoe Guasa to turn the barren lands of the school compound into fields bearing life-giving crops.
It was no easy task, given that Takeo province regularly suffers from severe drought. The province had high rates of poverty and sickness due to poor sanitation.
"They told us nothing grows here, but we said by the grace of God we will prove that we can grow crops here," Guasa said.
He started the Khmer Youth Development Center (KYDC), a Christian holistic ministry that promotes child and community development programs. He began by building a dormitory for students from very poor families who live far from school.
"The children barely finish high school," Guasa explained. "We want to show them that there is more to life after high school."
Learning Skills for Life
At the youth center, the students are taught organic farming and are trained to run the farm.
They plant vegetables and fruit trees, raise fish, cows and chicken and market their own produce. Fifty percent of the earnings go to a scholarship fund to help pay their tuition fees in the university. Another 25 percent goes to the center and the other 25 percent to buy school supplies and equipment for the public high school.
"We want to rebuild their lives to become better leaders. We teach them values of team work, taking responsibility in the decisions they make, being responsible with the environment," Guasa said.
However the team faced challenges In the beginning, many villagers opposed the center and the team was persecuted because the area used to be a place of worship for Buddhist farmers offering their sacrifices.
"One of our workers was almost hacked," Guasa recalled. "But after two years of stones flying over our roof, the people began to see the change and they began to ask what kind of technology we are using. Some people ask what kind of spray or fertilizer did you use and the students answered, 'prayer.'"
A vital part of the training program for the students is their spiritual growth. The students wake up at dawn and start their day by praying and reading God's word.
"We do not force the students, but they say they want to know more about Christianity," Guasa said.
Most of them go back to their villages to teach children about God, like one young man, Sao Sophal.
"Before I knew Jesus my life was hopeless, but now I know the plan of God in my life," he said. "I am teaching the children because it's my way of sharing Jesus to them so they too will know the plans of God in their life and do it."
The first batch of the KYDC students are now in university taking courses in law, medicine, education and community building.
Making a Clear Difference
What seemed to be bleak before has turned into a promising future for these Cambodians, all because people like Guasa were willing to share their gifts and talents to uplift those in need.
Because of the farm's success, has joined with churches in the villages and duplicated the community development programs in their localities.
They've dug ponds to provide drinking water and they taught the people livelihood skills. They also added pre-schools and built church buildings.
Pastor Nuo Map is a village pastor.
"Now that we have a holistic ministry for the people, it is easier to build relationship with the people and share with them the gospel," he explained.