With generous support from the Tamaki Foundation, Jeni and I, along with producer Michael Harris and photojournalist Kevin Ely, recently traveled as an investigative team to Cambodia. Our mission was to document the impacts of a proposed titanium mine on 20,000 hectares of intact forest in the Southern Cardamom Mountains as well as on neighboring villages. As part of our inquiry regarding the mine, we also conducted a fact-finding investigation into Cambodia’s resilience to climate impacts.
Cambodia is quite vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change, including increased risks of flooding and droughts to the lowland rice-growing areas upon which 80 percent of Cambodian people depend for sustenance. Fisheries of the lower Mekong delta, accounting for 10 percent of Cambodia’s GDP, are also threatened by climate risks in addition to more intense human pressures on the fisheries as environmental conditions deteriorate.
Other Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, are more seriously threatened than Cambodia if you look at physical climate hazards (e.g., cyclones, floods, landslides, and droughts) alone. Yet, Cambodia has among the highest vulnerabilities to climate impacts in Southeast Asia. Why? Cambodia’s climate vulnerability is more attributable to a lack of adaptive capacity than to the physical hazards themselves. Low adaptive capacity is measured by weak institutional, administrative, and legal support capable of setting Cambodia on a reliable path to resilience, protection, and stability. Although over 2,000 NGOs operate in Cambodia, a strong reliance on NGOs is creating an external substitute for weak internal governance, which for the long-term may not leave Cambodia any better off than it may have been before the proliferation of NGO activity in the country.
We have a long story to tell about our journey to Cambodia. And because the journey is strewn with Asian elephants, IndoChinese tigers, gibbons, and genocide survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1979), we are lucky to be working with a team of incredibly talented journalists who can provide a visual narrative of the complex, interwoven history and future of Cambodia.
A few days after we returned from Cambodia, we learned that Prime Minister Hun Sen granted the United Khmer Group the right to mine in the Southern Cardamom forest. This news came as a shock to us. See the Wildlife Alliance press release, “Cambodian Government Approves Controversial Titanium Mine,” which describes the turn of events.
For now, I will tell the story of our journey to Cambodia only using a few images. You can also read Michael Harris’s trip report here.
Prawn fisherman who depend on clear water for their catch. Last Friday (Feb. 11, 2011), Prime Minister Hun Sen approved a roughly 20,000 hectare economic land concession to the United Khmer Group to mine for titanium in the Southern Cardamom forest. The mine will impair the quality of the fishermen’s waters among imposing other damages to the forests, farms, and peoples of Cambodia.
Two survivors of the Khmer Rouge Regime at their home in Chi Phat commune, just outside the proposed mining site in Koh Kong Province. The couple signed a petition (with a thumbprint) opposing mining activity in their community. The local NGO, Wildlife Alliance, has worked to build an ecotourism center based in the village of Chi Phat. But its programs have not engaged much with the history of the Khmer Rouge in the area or in ways of thinking about conservation efforts as a means of building resilience in the face of a tragic past.
Kok-Thay Eng, Deputy Director of Research at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, shows us a map of the killing fields, or mass grave sites, where hundreds of bodies were buried during the genocide. The former killing fields pictured on the map in the photo are today’s rice fields. The risk to rice harvest and production posed by climate-driven hazards such as increased flooding and droughts demonstrates the link between the killing fields and climate justice. Climate justice raises critical questions that ask how the political vulnerabilities of Cambodia’s past combine with today’s climate threats to limit Cambodia’s capacity to adapt to climate change, with the goal of building a prosperous and healthy future that addresses the realities of life and experience in Cambodia—both past and future. (As a side note, while investigating the mine, we learned of an unmapped killing field outside of Chi Phat. We will provide the Documentation Center with more information so that its staff can investigate.)