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Does sustainability matter in Cambodia? by Prof. Dan Rohlf

Posted by: | April 13, 2014 Comments Off on Does sustainability matter in Cambodia? by Prof. Dan Rohlf |

One need only consider Cambodia’s history during my lifetime to understand the enormous hurdles the country has faced, and the burdens it bears as it struggles to compete in the 21st century. They play out like a parade of horribles: colonial rule; a U.S.-backed coup; years of carpet-bombing by B-52s followed by an American invasion in 1970, killing a quarter-million people; the unspeakably brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge, during which millions were forced from their homes and made to work in the fields, and an estimated two million people were executed or worked or starved to death; Vietnamese invasion overthrowing the criminal Khmer Rouge but ushering in nearly two decades of civil war; wrenching international trials of some of the architects of genocide that have dragged on to this very day and still produced uncertain results; decades of self-dealing rule by a ruling party whose leadership still has connections to a shadowy Khmer Rouge past.

In this context, even I sense that the concept of “sustainability” or “sustainable development” is more of an irony than any sort of reality. While riding mountain bikes on a rural Cambodian road – where my wife and I were both a curiosity and source of amusement for the passing traffic – we came upon a man who had hit a bump and dumped the load from his “moto” onto the dirt road. As we struggled to help him right his ancient scooter – far and away the most common source of transportation in Cambodia – we marveled at both the ingenuity of his packing job as well as the weight of the huge cargo on the tiny bike. He had tied onto the scooter (and carried in his lap) about 250-300 pounds of scrap metal, cans, and assorted other scraps that he apparently could sell for some amount of money. Could I really talk about “sustainability” with this person – someone who literally picks up junk from the rural countryside to support himself and his family with what is no doubt a small sum of money even by this county’s standards?

But he and his family will feel the effects of the host of problems that those of us in industrial nations read about under the rubric of sustainability. Climate change is already affecting monsoon rains, which the great majority of the country’s farmers depend upon to produce rice and other staple food crops. As surface water sources become more scarce donor fund may help drill wells, but the ground water is contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic, a geological hurdle added to Cambodia’s myriad other obstacles. His family will struggle to find wood for cooking as forests and charcoal become scarce. Some of his kids may die before adulthood without adequate medical care, and the likelihood that his surviving kids will finish high school is slim.

Will anyone be there to help? The Cambodian government is obviously here; its most noticeable function is that almost every village has a sign – and often a vacant-looking office – of the Cambodian People’s Party, which has been governing (and selling) Cambodia and its resources for many years. Well-connected government officials tend to live very well; a relative of the Prime Minister was linked in a recent Phnom Phen Post story to yet another illegal logging scheme. The rule of law means little here. China’s presence is felt in Cambodia in a big way, mostly as a voracious market for (often illegal) timber and other natural resources; it is also the principal destination for thousands of illegally caught animals and animal products. France is here, planting rubber plantations where tropical forests and Bunong villages recently stood. Coke is here, buying sugar from cane fields that once were forests, and distributing sod to virtually every corner of the country. USAID, UN organizations, and an alphabet soup of NGOs are here, sometimes doing genuinely good things for people and communities, sometimes doing a brief project and then moving on, always filing lots of reports and holding endless streams of meetings.

Out on that dusty road, helping to heft a pile of junk onto a scooter whose gas can is literally a plastic jug tied to the frame, notions of sustainability or “sustainable development” seemed pretty academic.


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under: General, International

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