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A New Economy in the Old Territory

A Prey Lang forest community activist inspects a section of Prey Lang forest after it was cleared in June last year.
A Prey Lang forest community activist inspects a section of Prey Lang forest after it was cleared in June last year. Heng Chivoan

A New Economy in the Old Territory

Cambodia is listed as a nation most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

This is of great concern to policy makers and development donors trying to prepare for the coming catastrophes.

Underlying all donor-driven climate-resiliency policies is the knowledge that the effects of climate change can break the infrastructures of the global economy.

The rules of the game will change when the effects of climate change undo the global-market system so dependent on infrastructure and fossil fuels.

Those with the most forests, fish and clean water will be the most resilient in the coming economy.

There is a draft sub-decree to designate the “Prey Lang Forestry Protected and Biodiversity Conservation Area” and granting this forest protected status can be the first step to prepare for Cambodia’s economic future.

In the coming economy, the ones with the most money, rubber, and shopping malls will be the most vulnerable.

History shows that the irrigation infrastructure of Angkor Wat was vulnerable and crumbled from the effects of climate change, after which the vast empire also crumbled.

During the same historic climate event, the Kouy people living in Prey Lang, who sold weaponry to the Angkorian kings, survived without catastrophe and are only now being forced into decline.

The forest is climate resilient and the irrigation system is climate vulnerable.

Another story from Cambodia’s history haunts the coming changes.

During Phnom Penh’s 1975 evacuation, a wealthy man left the city with only a large sack of money, confident in the power of his resource.

He didn’t know the economic landscape had changed.

Later, after being denied access to all available resources by the new privileged class, he threw himself and his money into the river.

Money will be useless when the infrastructure falls.

Clean water, tasty fish, and fertile forest will be of supreme value.

This nation has today the opportunity to begin changing ideas about what is most valuable and about what it means to be civilised.

Right now, the Forestry Administration is remeasuring the proposed protected area of Prey Lang.

The new measurements retain over 300,000 hectares surrounding the “core area” and biodiversity hotspot and also remove some concession land for return to local communities.

This protected area will have great value in the coming economy.

But, they also remove almost 200,000 hectares of recognised forest from Prey Lang, some of it currently awarded to economic land and mining concessions, but most of it is still fertile and rich with forest.

The concession areas split the forested region and the new sub-decree boundaries leave all the natural resources outside the boundary open to conversion into money.

Perhaps the most vulnerable resource in the developing region just outside the new Prey Lang boundary is the Steung Sen River.

This river flows down from the remaining forests of Kulen Prum Tep in Preah Vihear province, through open-pit ore mines and the proposed steel mills in Chhaeb and Rovieng districts, through the deforested concession regions of Kompong Thom province and directly into the Tonle Sap lake.

The cost of this could be unbearable. Further, the extent to which the economic production of rubber and steel increases the country’s overall resources is difficult to determine.

It is a speculative process built on the promise of future returns.

If I invest money to grow rubber or forge steel, the market will buy it from me.

When the market buys the rubber and steel, the banks will measure that as gross domestic production (GDP) and I will make enough money to pay off my investors and have a profit.

This raises the question: Is money a resource?

We currently suffer under a privileged economy across the globe. Rubber concessionaires clear wildlife sanctuaries and mining companies turn mountains into steel mills, declaring that those resources will be transformed into money by the global-market.

This one particular economic purpose is valued over all other resource claims.

The trees, plants, waters, bees and local people are not entitled.

It is through this system of value that some people become more entitled to resources than others.

Those who can convert resources into money are given preferential use rights, and by extension only those who can buy resources can use them.

This economic system creates global poverty and it is through this system that we are also creating the conditions for our changing climate.

We privilege one economy over the other and the economy we privilege is changing the earth’s climate.

The solutions offered so far by the global economy have done nothing to slow the increase in greenhouse gasses, which are now at an all-time high and continuing to rise.

The privileged economy is threatening lives on our planet. Is this what progress looks like?

We can begin to think anew about being civilised in Prey Lang, where the execution of this draft sub-decree allows the government, the loggers, the concessionaires and the conservationists to work together with, and to respect, the forest communities of Prey Lang.

Cambodia still has vast forests and those that are degraded stand ready and willing to grow back.

We will not be vulnerable if we have sustaining forests and rivers; we will not be vulnerable if we all work together.

A new conversation about what it means to be civilised can begin in this moment.

Courtney Work is a research fellow for the MOSAIC project


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