The Cambodia Project


With generous support from The Tamaki Foundation, Three Degrees Warmer traveled to Cambodia in 2011 with Emmy-award winning producer Michael Harris and photojournalist Kevin Ely on an investigative mission. Together we explored the Southern Cardamom Forest, a vast Cambodian jungle rich with biodiversity. The forest’s wild elephants, tigers, primates, and many other endangered species are threatened by immediate and long-term environmental hazards such as mining and climate change.

Cambodia, although not often the topic of major news headlines, is a climate change hotspot. Although less exposed to climate impacts than other Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia emerges as one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the region. Its vulnerability to climate change is specifically attributed to the government’s low capacity to adapt. Climate change, although often envisioned as a purely scientific and technical problem, is an equally important governance issue calling for attention, service, and engagement from lawyers and policy makers alike.

Cambodia, still reeling from a devastating genocide that killed nearly 20 percent of its population and suffering under an extremely high level of governmental corruption, is building the governmental and institutional capacity necessary to help its citizens adapt to climate changes, such as flooding and droughts (both of which are projected to increase in Cambodia over the course of the 21st century).

Nearly 80 percent of people in Cambodia live in rural areas without access to basic human services such as electricity, water, toilets, all-weather roads, and health clinics. The inequitable distribution of economic resources is one significant barrier to building adaptive capacity in many parts of rural Cambodia. In addition, deficiencies in adequate technology and infrastructure and a weak rule of law threaten to further Cambodia’s long-term sensitivity to climate change and other environmental conditions that support Cambodian livelihoods, economies, and cultures.

Recently, a Cambodian mining company, the United Khmer Group, applied to the government of Cambodia for an economic land concession to mine 20,000 hectares (about 60,000 acres) of contiguous tropical forest in the heart of the Southern Cardamoms.

The mining company claims (but to date has provided no proof) that there is $135 billion worth of titanium in the ground, which to extract would involve strip mining and clearcutting tens of thousands of acres of some of the last remaining intact forest in Southeast Asia. To the surprise of some in Cambodia—including Phnom Penh Post reporter David Boyle, who has been covering the story for over a year—Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen rashly approved the mining project on February 11, 2011.* The government said that an environmental impact study had been completed. But no public record of the study is available.

Working with photojournalists Michael and Kevin, and the staff of Wildlife Alliance (the lead NGO in the Southern Cardamom forest region), Three Degrees Warmer produced a short (12-minute) video about the Southern Cardamom forest and the titanium mine, documenting some of the long-term environmental threats to human life and well-being in Cambodia.

The footage includes interviews with Suwanna Gauntlett (head of Wildlife Alliance); the University of Washington’s Professor of Atmospheric Sciences David Battisti; Jen Marlow & Jeni Krencicki Barcelos, Directors of the University of Washington School of Law’s Three Degrees Project; Phnom Penh Post reporter David Boyle; and His Excellency Vann Sophann, Head of Forestry Administration, Coastal Protectorate, Government of Cambodia.

The short film clip tells the story of the mine based on our first-hand observations and interviews, including a surprise interview with United Khmer Group staff. (Earlier in that week, the Khmer Group declined our request for a sit-down interview about the mine, referring us instead to the Prime Minister.) The clip shows us knocking on the mining companies’ door on our last day in town, and features our reluctant United Khmer Group spokesperson, “Chu.”

The area threatened by the mine is more well-known perhaps for its promise as an ecotourism destination than as a mining site. Recently, the New York Times featured an article about the Southern Cardamon Mountains and Chi Phat—one village threatened by the mine—as a prime ecotourism destination. However, critical threats including the mine received only a few quick sentences of treatment buried between lavish descriptions of orchids and mountain bike treks. For example, after reading several sentences such as this one—”[e]ating by the light given off by fishing cages doubling as lamps, the group recounted the day’s activities: bird-watching at sunrise, mountain biking across rocky streams, swimming in waterfalls”—it’s hard to visualize how industrial mining equipment fits into the grand green tourism scheme.

Many of the thousands of nonprofits working in Cambodia are effectively substituting for effective governance while donor money ($1.1 billion last year) doesn’t reach the people. More accountable governmental institutions and strengthened rule of law protections are critical factors for improving climate resilience in remote corners of Cambodia. Such work cannot be outsourced to non-profits.

For more information, watch the video clip above or read another post about the trip here. Also, you can view additional photos and read the full trip report here.

*UPDATE: Cambodian Prime Minister Reverses Decision on Mine on April 8, 2011.