About 5 p.m. every evening, the putrid smell of burning plastic penetrates the lungs of villagers in the community of Kampot in southern Cambodia.
With no system of trash collection in Cambodia’s rural areas, there’s no way to dispose of the voluminous amounts of plastic bottles and containers used by rural Cambodians, other than burning it.
“There’s a terrible trash problem in Southeast Asia. It washes up on the shores; it’s a plastic epidemic,” said Rachel Riggio of Rollins, who has spent the past six years working to bring basic resources to children in Cambodia.
Riggio and her brother Garrett formed the Red Road Foundation in 2013, named for the “red road,” a term used in American Indian spiritual teachings to represent one who is walking in balance. The goal is to make life better for young victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia, a country that’s seen a dramatic rise in sex tourism — the act of traveling to another country to intentionally engage in prostitution.
Garrett works on the marketing and fundraising end of the foundation, while Rachel is boots on the ground in Cambodia.
Along the way she’s learned the importance of the Cambodian word “aigpheap,” which translates generally to “the power of the community to come together.”
One of their first big projects was building an “Earthship” school using 300 recycled tires and 16,000 recycled glass bottles. Volunteers came from all over the world, and engineers from Earthship Cambodia created the school from “bottle bricks,” building material creating by cutting the bottoms off glass bottles and using the ends to create colorful, mosaic-like walls.
Now the focus is on plastic, and Red Road Foundation has tapped into technology created by inventor and welder Harvey Lacey of Dallas, Texas, who developed Ubuntu Blox, building material that uses compacted plastic and wire to create building blocks. Riggio said more than 50,000 plastic bottles already have gone into making the blocks.
She knew the foundation would have to harness the human resources of the villagers to get everyone on board with the idea of making the recycled plastic blocks.
“We knew we needed to get the monks on board,” Riggio said, explaining the key role the monks play in that area during a recent interview with the Daily Inter Lake while she was home in the Flathead visiting her family.
It’s been a challenge getting families involved in Red Road Foundation’s development projects because most of their time is spent toiling in the rice fields trying to make a living.
“So we told the monks, we need 50 to 60 people at the meeting,” she recalled.
Once the monks saw videos of the Ubuntu Blox technology, they were on board with the project.
“They couldn’t believe it,” she said. “This was new information to them. Now they have been helping with making the blocks.”
The plastic recycling project also got the blessing of the chief of the commune, another crucial layer of support.
“The kids can help with this [recycling project],” Riggio said. “And the parents learn through the kids.
As work progresses with the villagers, Red Road Foundation hopes to create the first Cambodian eco-building construction company. The foundation has started an educational retreat for gap-year students who want to travel to Cambodia to immerse themselves in making sustainable contributions.
Part of the student recruitment includes presenting retreats in places such as Los Angeles that will offer inspiration, meditation and workshops. Their first retreat is planned in June in LA.
RURAL KAMPOT continues to be a vulnerable area, one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, the name given to followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army from North Vietnam and is remembered for orchestrating Cambodian genocide.
“We work to give our students opportunity to grow into future humanitarians of Cambodia who can help to make this beautiful country and world a better place,” Riggio said. Through its school, Red Road Foundation offers free Khmer instruction, along with math and English classes.
“We have volunteers and workshops that add trade skill training, extracurricular activities, hygiene and environmental education and awareness for our youth,” she said. “Our goal is to raise the quality of life of our students and their families.”
Another of the foundation’s sustainable programs has been planting 1,000 moringa trees, plants whose leaves and bean pods provide important nutrition to supplement Cambodians’ diet of primarily rice. The school is built on a farm that is growing not only moringa but also turmeric, aloe vera, eucalyptus and lemongrass that eventually will fund the foundation’s projects and teacher salaries.
“We aim to truly help and get to know each of our students and help them become all they can be by helping them develop each of their individual talents,” Riggio said. “We do this knowing of the trauma that this country has recently endured and wanting to be a force for healing and empowerment for the poor rural families in our village and surrounding villages.”