WASHINGTON — Two hours south of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, down a dusty dirt road, sits Sam Rong, a small rural village of one-room houses made of bits of wood and dried palm leaves built on stilts above green rice paddies.
Water buffalo and oxen till the fields as the occasional motorcycle with live chickens tied on back passes by. Fishermen cast their nets in rivers, and hand-powered machines using centuries-old techniques crush the rice.
Hot and tropical, Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world. Mosquito-born dengue fever remains a threat, e-coli and lead can lace the brackish water supplies, and nightmares of Pol Pot and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge linger.
Extreme poverty is a reality, not a statistic.
But a tiny organization in Lacey, Wash., is trying to do something about Cambodia's poverty, and its solution is simple: pigs.
"Once you have gotten to know these people over a period of time, you simply cannot go back to the comfort of ignorance and distance from the wretched poverty that dominates most of the globe," said Brian Ebersole, a former speaker of the Washington state House of Representatives.
Ebersole and a small group of friends founded the Village Pig Project several years ago. They couldn't escape the memories of poverty they found in rural Cambodia when they visited the ancient temple at Angkor Wat.
The idea was to help a village work its way out of extreme poverty in a sustainable way. A Cambodian suggested pigs. There's a ready market for pigs in Cambodia, and they breed rapidly.
On a shoestring budget, the project has supplied pigs to more than 30 families in Sam Rong.
"When the problem is so large, you have to start somewhere," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who met with officials of the Village Pig Project while she was in Cambodia over Congress' Thanksgiving recess.
"I am a Pol Pot survivor," said Darren Pen, 47, who immigrated to the United States nearly 20 years ago and eventually settled in Tacoma, Wash., where he raised a family in a tough neighborhood.
Pen tells a chilling tale of his life in Cambodia, including being buried in the ground up to his neck by the Khmer Rouge when he was a teenager.
"It was raining," Pen said. "I thought I would die."
He eventually was dug up and placed in a labor camp, but he managed to escape. After five years in a refugee camp in Thailand, which he said was just as brutal as the labor camps in Cambodia, he arrived in the United States.
By some estimates, more than 2 million Cambodians were slaughtered or died of starvation or illness during Pol Pot's reign.
Pen, a community activist and the president of the Khmer Community of Tacoma, Wash., who lost his mother, two sisters and a brother to the Khmer Rouge, has been back to Cambodia. He's on the board of directors of the Village Pig Project and has been to Sam Rong and seen the pigs.
"It's a piece of the puzzle," Pen said. "One thousand pieces come together into a big picture. It's little step by little step. When people are no longer hungry and have a little bit of money, they go to work and send their children to school. It's a major step out of poverty for these rural people."
Statistics help tell the story of poverty in Cambodia, which the United Nations says is the eighth least developed country in the world. Nearly 80 percent of Cambodians live on $2 a day; nearly a third live on a $1 a day or less. One child out of every six dies before age 6. The average age in Cambodia is 19, and 40 percent of the population is under 15.
"We are not trying to save the world, or even Cambodia," Ebersole said. "These are people we know; it is personal."
On a budget of about $25,000 a year, the project supplies each family with three piglets, pig food and visits from a veterinarian. The families are also given a $10-a-month stipend.
"It's an incentive to keep them from eating the pigs," said David Michner of Olympia, Wash., the president of the Village Pig Project.
Michner said the families breed the pigs and can sell them when they're big enough, or eat them. Eventually, the families are weaned off the program after the pigs raise three litters.
"We talked to a lot of people," he said. "There is a market for pigs, and they breed like rabbits. These are very poor people. We are teaching them how to make a living, survive until the next day and feed their kids."
The project has a Web site, www.villagepigproject.org, and does seek contributions. But at least for now, it plans to remain small.
"It's not a Bill Gates-size project," Michner said of the Microsoft founder's multibillion-dollar foundation.
Recently, tests showed the water supply at Sam Rong is tainted with e-coli and lead, and the project is looking to help solve that problem.
But for now, it's about the pigs.
"The people seem to take pride in their pigs," Ebersole said. "They seem to be taking to it and they are pleased someone in the world cares about them."