Cam­bo­dia’s L’Ecole du Bois is us­ing fine wood­work as a tool to change lives

A vo­ca­tional school in Cam­bo­dia is seek­ing to ex­ploit gaps in the lo­cal mar­ket by train­ing ru­ral youth for a ca­reer in wood­work­ing

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents -

Think about young men work­ing with wood in Cam­bo­dia and you’d be ex­cused for imag­in­ing a crew hid­den away in a for­est armed with chain­saws and chop­ping down top-grade tim­ber. But in a coun­try with abun­dant nat­u­ral re­sources and ex­pand­ing ur­ban cen­tres, Kénory You saw an op­por­tu­nity to use wood for good.

Dur­ing trips to her home coun­try in the 2000s, the French-Cam­bo­dian busi­ness­woman saw a poor ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and a dearth of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties – along with al­most no do­mes­tic sup­ply of fine fur­ni­ture or crafts­peo­ple ca­pa­ble of mak­ing it for the coun­try’s many res­tau­rants and ho­tels. In an ef­fort to fill these gaps, and in­spired by the King­dom’s lack of vo­ca­tional train­ing, she de­cided to open a wood­work­ing school.

L’Ecole du Bois, or the School of Wood, opened in 2008 with fund­ing from a col­lec­tion of spon­sors and donors. The first class grad­u­ated two years later, and ev­ery year since the school has taken in 18 dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents from the prov­inces to pass on the prac­ti­cal skills nec­es­sary to pro­duce high-end cus­tom fur­ni­ture and cabi­netry.

“Most Cam­bo­di­ans can­not af­ford to think of their fu­ture. They just think about how they can feed them­selves on a daily ba­sis,” said You. “We want stu­dents to build a fu­ture for them­selves and their fam­i­lies by giv­ing them the skills they need.”

Cam­bo­dia has watched its forests dis­ap­pear at a faster rate than any other coun­try in the world over the past decade, mostly to meet Chi­nese de­mand for lux­ury tim­ber. How­ever, there is also a grow­ing do­mes­tic de­mand for fine fur­ni­ture and wood­work thanks to an ex­pand­ing up­per­mid­dle class and a build­ing boom.

“The best sus­tain­able so­lu­tion to sup­ply­ing this de­mand is to train Cam­bo­di­ans in fine wood­work­ing skills as a re­source for the fu­ture,” says You. “With their new­found skills, they can find em­ploy­ment and can earn enough money to pro­vide for their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion.”

Suon Vuthy, 25, grad­u­ated from the school, lo­cated in a quiet vil­lage in Kam­pong Speu province, ear­lier this year. With his de­gree in hand, he quickly got a job work­ing for a lo­cal French-owned wood­work com­pany.

“Car­pen­try will be nec­es­sary ev­ery­where and the de­mand for such skills will be high in a de­vel­op­ing coun­try like Cam­bo­dia,” said Vuthy, who started on a base salary of $200 a month. “In the fu­ture I plan to have my own work­shop.”

The school’s two full-time teach­ers – both grad­u­ates of the school who have re­ceived teacher train­ing from vol­un­teers in Canada and France – also work to forge con­nec­tions be­tween its stu­dents and their peers at ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign uni­ver­si­ties in Phnom Penh.

“Con­nect­ing our young peo­ple with those from the city gives them the feel­ing that ev­ery­one can gain a skill,” You said. “And those skills can truly give birth to not just a won­der­ful ca­reer but a be­lief in a bet­ter fu­ture.”

– Madeleine Keck

From left: a stu­dent puts his skills to use at L’Ecole du Bois; Kénory You, the founder of the school; some of the stu­dents’ hand­i­work on dis­play

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