Dr Tim Killeen, author of The Cardamom Conundrum, Reconciling Development and Conservation in the Kingdom of Cambodia, discusses his recently released book, which argues that Cambodia is well positioned to reap the benefits of ‘green development’.
Why did you select the Cardamom Mountains as the area as for proposing a development model that is both economically vibrant and environmentally sound?
This was where CI [Conservation International] was working and it turned out to be a good microcosm for the country as a whole. The challenges and opportunities for the Cardamoms are essentially the same that face the nation.
You use the phrase “Cardamom Conundrum” to sum up an ideological stand-off that sees proponents of economic development and conservationists in constant opposition. You argue that this is a false dichotomy and offer alternatives you refer to as the “utilitarian” and “utopian” scenarios. Please explain these.
There are many opportunities for “green” development, which generate economic growth, create jobs and reduce poverty, while conserving the natural sources that support the Cambodian economy. The point is to avoid knee-jerk reactions to oppose traditional development options, such as hydropower for example, while convincing investors that the blind pursuit of short-term economic gain based on exploitive practices is not the best way to maximise the return on your investment capital.
Your book is clear that development in the Cardamom region is inevitable due to internal and external factors, but you argue that this development must be carefully planned. What evidence do you see that the government and corporations currently working in the area are carefully planning development there?
Not a great deal, but there is sign of some forethought. For example, there seems to be an absence of economic land concessions in the areas upstream from the dams that are being constructed. I don’t know if that is planned or not, but it would be a good outcome for the hydropower operators to keep those landscapes covered with forest.
Is it too late to implement more planned and sustainable development in the Cardamom region?
It is never too late to start planning for tomorrow. In the case of the Cardamoms, it is perhaps the ideal moment.
You also argue that fast-tracking of hydroelectric projects in the Cardamom region will reduce pressure to build dams on the Mekong, and that this may provide a window of opportunity to adopt newer technologies that may reduce the need for large-scale hydropower projects in the future. There is, however, already concern about the impact of the effects of the dams being built in Koh Kong province.
Is the choice you are proposing merely to sacrifice one region to minimise damage of a greater extent?
No. The hydropower dams in Koh Kong are located in the regions with the highest precipitation regime and greatest altitudinal drops in the country, thus the Cardamoms are particularly well suited to hydropower. The streams are short and naturally fragmented by waterfalls and rapids, thus their artificial fragmentation will not be so great. Moreover, since the area has high forest cover, sediment flows are naturally low, thus the impact of the dams will be less proportionally when compared to the Mekong, which is both naturally unfragmented and characterised by high sediment flows. Nonetheless, it would be prudent to preserve at least one river without any dam, as a type of “protected and wild river”.
You argue that Cambodia is well placed to reap economic benefits from global funds set up to reduce deforestation. Do you see much political will to do this?
I am not the one to comment on the political will of the Cambodian government.
You present a coherent argument for a shift towards environmentally sustainable development, but some argue that the challenge seems to be the lack of a logical and coherent decision-making process in government. Do you believe that the Cambodian government, which some critics say relies on a patronage system to make decisions, has the capacity or ability to implement the development paradigm you propose?
I am not the one to comment on the decision making process in the Cambodian government.
You argue that “foresight and good governance are essential for organising how land is used”. Can you provide any examples of foresight and good governance in land use in Cambodia?
The government with help from the ADB [Asian Development Bank] has carried out a coastal planning process in the last decade.
You argue that the Cardamom Conundrum is global and that, relatively speaking, Cambodia has yet to avoid the worst examples, such as the “resource curse”. How optimistic are you that Cambodia can continue to avoid the worst excesses of resource exploitation?
I am an optimistic person by nature.
Environmentalist Chut Wutty was killed in the Southern Cardamom Mountains, where he had been a leading advocate against illegal logging and other forest crimes. What signal does this send about Cambodia’s ability to solve the Cardamom Conundrum?
I think it is a tragic incident that grew out of the altercation of two individuals who were not engaged in the types of dialogues that can avoid conflict and identify positive opportunities for the nation.