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Climate change contradictions in Cambodia

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A Cambodian farmer on the banks of the Mekong River in Kandal province, 19 April, 2011. Fears that livelihoods, fish species and farmland could be destroyed continue today (Photo:Reuters/Samrang Pring).

In Brief

A striking feature of climate change governance in Cambodia is the absence of key economic, political and socio-ecological processes in policy documents and discourse. Cambodia has been a frontrunner in several mainstreaming policies as well as adaptation and mitigation initiatives in the region. But the ease with which international climate policy discourse is being appropriated by the national government can instead be understood by looking at the dynamics of resource extraction — an industry that forms the wealth base for the country’s elite.


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The donor-driven policy narratives of ‘triple wins’ — synonymous with catchphrases like ‘climate compatible development’ and ‘low-carbon climate resilient development’ — that emphasise the possibilities of simultaneously producing adaptation, mitigation and development benefits have had a clear buy-in in Cambodia. But while international and national actors seem to agree that Cambodia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, the underlying causes of this vulnerability — large-scale resource extraction projects and agro-industrial land concessions — remain unaddressed. Agreement on climate policy seems to take place at the expense of Cambodia’s development path. And the objectives presented as ‘synergising’ in practice often seem antagonistic.

A case in point is the development of Cambodia’s hydropower-dominated power sector, which has been repeatedly justified with reference to climate change. Hydropower is presented as low-carbon and eco-friendly. The government has also expected carbon markets to add to private sector interest in hydropower. During the past few years Cambodia has led the way in developing Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects within the so called Least Developed Countries. CDM projects are supposedly a win-win — they assist industrialised countries in achieving emission reduction targets flexibly while assisting the project’s host country achieve sustainable development.

The biggest share of Cambodia’s projected CDM carbon credits comes from four large hydropower projects: Kamchay (193 MW), Russei Chrum (338 MW), Tatay (246 MW) and Atay (120 MW). They have all been developed by Chinese companies. The three latter projects are located in the Cardamom Mountains, within the largest remaining forest areas of mainland Southeast Asia. The adverse outcomes of these projects include dispossession of downstream fishing communities, broken promises with regards to local electrification and compensation, exploitative labour practices and accelerated logging. None of these are visible in the CDM project documents, the only official public documents available for these projects.

The Cardamom CDM dams have been shaped by a mix of neoliberal and authoritarian modes of governing. The hydropower projects have been made investor-friendly through tax holidays, free-of-charge licences and government guarantees to purchase the electricity. The build, operate and transfer terms (30–35 years) ensure long-term revenue flows to project developers, as the projects are only transferred to the government in the final stages of the dams’ operational lives. The CDM in turn is a manifestation of neoliberalism in environmental governance, where direct regulation is to a significant extent replaced by market-based solutions and the creation of new environmental commodities (such as carbon credits).

At the same time, high-level authorities have influenced how these projects have been handled — they have managed to proceed in protected areas and their construction have begun before environmental impact assessment approvals were issued. The dams’ concessionaires have been provided significant autonomy to operate in fenced enclaves with very limited government oversight.

The environmental impact assessments were also highly problematic as they excluded or seriously downplayed the longer-term impacts of the projects, which include degrading downstream fisheries and livelihoods. The communities excluded from the project impact zone were also excluded from consultations, while consent of those included was gained with limited consultation and promises of benefits and compensation.

The fisheries affected by the Cardamom dams include those coastal communities in the estuary of Koh Kong often identified as the most vulnerable to climate change. Forest communities — again often considered as particularly vulnerable — have also been affected. The hydropower projects made previously inaccessible sites of high-value timber more accessible and logging activities eventually covered the protected areas in the Cardamoms almost entirely.

The projects also triggered in-country migration and land disputes. Many of the villagers in O’Som, Tatay Leu and Russei Chrum have transitioned into logging communities and have suffered from intimidation by logging operators and the military police. Chut Wutty, a well-known environmental activist, was shot dead while trying to expose some of these activities. Logging revenues have concentrated in the hands of few tycoons that operate these paralegal operations in return for loyalty and significant contributions to the Cambodian People’s Party.

CDMs often obscure the ways in which they are intertwined with power and resource politics. In future, more attention should be paid to how climate change and climate change policies interact with the different political, economic and socio-ecological processes that make people differentially vulnerable to changes in their environment.

Pursuing mitigation and adaptation objectives simultaneously is vital, but it cannot be done without addressing the ‘root causes’ of differential vulnerability. In the Cambodian context, this means challenging the current concession-based development model that puts common pool resources under extreme pressure. This also speaks to the importance of giving more visibility to where, how and at what costs carbon credits are being produced.

Mira Käkönen is doctoral candidate and project researcher in Development Studies at the University of Helsinki.

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