In the Field
The Cambodia Project
Photo: Three generations of a Cambodian family at home outside Chi Phat, a village threatened by titanium mining. The family is pictured here along with Three Degrees Project’s Jen Marlow and Jeni Barcelos, film producer Michael Harris, and photojournalist Kevin Ely.
With generous support from The Tamaki Foundation, Three Degrees recently traveled to Cambodia with photojournalists Michael Harris and 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 critical 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, lacks 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 with no access to basic human services such as electricity, water, toilets, all-weather roads, and health clinics. Thus poverty is one significant barrier to building adaptive capacity. In addition to poverty and the lack of adequate technology and infrastructure, a weak rule of law only further exacerbates Cambodia’s long-term sensitivity to climate change and other environmental impacts, which threaten to risk 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 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 stated that an environmental impact statement had been completed. But no public record of the study is available.
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 a more complete 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.”
Going forward, we are examining the feasibility of conducting significant project work in Cambodia. Our interest is to advise the government of Cambodia on building awareness, drafting legislation, and boosting adaptation capacity within the Cambodian Parliament specifically using scenario planning tools and our climate justice seminar curriculum. Many of the thousands of nonprofits working in the country are effectively substituting for effective governance while donor money ($1.1 billion last year) doesn’t reach the people. Our goal in working to strengthen the governmental institutions acknowledges that strong institutions and rule of law protections are critical factors for climate resilience in Cambodia. Such work cannot be outsourced to non-profits.