In a surprising move, a news station has agreed to broadcast a film that presents some difficult truths about the impacts of deforestation on Cambodia’s water table, particularly in the controversial Prey Lang forest area.
On Sunday, the fledgling Cambodian News Channel is scheduled to air conservationist filmmaker Allan Michaud’s Cambodia: Forests, Water, Life – a film he says is intended to explain the dire consequences of deforestation in Prey Lang to the government and public without being confrontational.
“It was a pleasant surprise that they said yes. It was the plan all along, but we could never actually be sure that they were going to do it,” said Michaud.
“This is just unbelievable, what we are seeing in Prey Lang. It is going so fast,” he said.
Generally, the programming of government-affiliated networks excludes items that might run against the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party ideology, or that could paint the government in a poor light, pointed out Chhay Sophal, editor-in-chief of the Cambodian News website and a journalism trainer.
“As I have mentioned, the main thing is to look at the vision of the television. If the television owner is close to the government, I think news content produced by the TV, they don’t want to [conflict] with the government policy,” he said.
Like most of Cambodia’s broadcasters, CNC squarely fits the bill. Launched in July as the nation’s first 24-hour news network, it is chaired by Royal Group CEO Kith Meng, a powerful tycoon who has close ties to the CPP.
In clear, simple language, Michaud’s film explains how mass deforestation of the Stung Sen and Stung Chinit watersheds in Prey Lang will have myriad impacts on economic development, environmental resources and social harmony by reducing water flow into aquifers.
It argues impacts will be felt in fisheries, through increased saltation; agro-industry, by decreasing nutrients in the soil; and by a planned $486 million investment in irrigation infrastructure, because the silt will clog dams and channels, decreasing their lifespan.
Villagers will have to dig deeper and deeper to find potable water, the film illustrates through the example of previous deforestation in Battambang province. There, interview subjects tell the audience, they have to drill 30 or 40 metres just to hit water, too deep for traditional ring wells.
The natural regulation the catchments provide to mitigate seasonal weather variations would be destroyed by deforestation, with water escaping as run-off rather than sinking into the water table to provide a slow-release reservoir during drought and an absorbent sink during floods, the film shows using 3D animation.
Finally, it tackles the sticky issue of social unrest from villagers in the area who are seeing the natural resources they live off destroyed and their trees bought up or simply stolen, resulting in large-scale demonstrations such as the famous avatar protests staged in recent years.
Michaud, a veteran conservationist with about 12 years experience in forests all over Cambodia, said he is in no way out to rile anyone.
But he said he was deeply shocked by the rate of deforestation he had seen in Prey Lang and other forests in recent years and was keen to communicate these concerns to higher powers.
“They’re massive areas. Kulen Promtep [Protected Wildlife Sanctuary]… most of Kulen Promtep has now been sold,” he said.
“Ninety-five per cent of Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary has now been sold. Ninety five per cent.”
The most controversial economic land concession in the greater Prey Lang area is the 6,044-hectare ELC granted to Vietnamese firm CRCK, a company which villagers have accused of intimidation and mass illegal logging.
A protected zone in Prey Lang has been touted by the government, but any talk of those plans has grown hushed recently, with Forestry Administration officials refusing to discuss the topic.
Keo Omaliss, deputy chief of the Forestry Administration’s Wildlife Department and a focal point for negotiations over setting up carbon sinks, flatly refused to speak yesterday on whether any progress had been made in establishing the protected area.
Huy Vannak, business news director at the Cambodian Broadcasting Service, which is the umbrella company in charge of CNC, said yesterday he had yet to see the film and so could not comment.
“Before, we used to do the story about the Prey Lang community that staged the protest in Freedom park, but I don’t know any information about this [film],” he said.
In August, the Post revealed that ELCs totalling more than 40,000 hectares in the core area of Prey Lang forest had been cancelled by the government, though questions have since been raised as to whether those concessions ever actually existed in the first place.
To contact the reporter on this story: David Boyle at [email protected]