In desperate need of electricity, Cambodia is ploughing ahead with Chinese-funded dam projects that are ravaging the environment. But a movement is harnessing the trust placed in monks in a bid to save the country's pristine forests. Words and pictures by Luke Duggleby
|OUTSIDE TA TAY LEU VILLAGE, IN CAMBODIA’S CENTRAL CARDAMOM PROTECTED FOREST.|
The 200-metre-long orange cloth snakes its way through the village of Ta Tay Leu and into the forest. Guided by Buddhist monks and villagers, it follows the path until it reaches a clearing.
The contrast here is shocking; emerging from the forest, this religious procession advances into what looks like a war zone. Only the largest trees, their canopies towering above the devastation below, their enormous buttresses too large for loggers, still stand. Around them lies smouldering land that is being cleared for a banana plantation. The monks pause, then make their way towards the remaining goliaths – to ordain them in the hope that their blessing will make others think twice before reaching for the chainsaw.
In an adjacent valley, a different threat is looming, one that would not only destroy the forest there but also flood the entire valley. If the Chinese-funded Cheay Areng dam project goes ahead, a large part of Cambodia’s Central Cardamom Protected Forest – a misnomer if ever there was one – will be lost.
CAMBODIA IS A COUNTRY in dire need of electrification. During its civil war, in the 1970s, its energy sector was seriously damaged. Once the Khmer Rouge took control, in 1975, it destroyed virtually all electricity related facilities.
When Cambodia eased into a state of peace in the late 90s, the government tried to rehabilitate the system, but internal fighting, lack of funds and other issues relating to the nation’s regression to year zero just a couple of decades before made that no easy task.
There remains no national grid and the vast majority of the population have no regular access to electricity. Less than 15 per cent of rural households, which account for about 90 per cent of the 15 million population, have access to electricity. The demand is increasing every year yet the government has insufficient capacity to meet it. Even the capital, Phnom Penh, sees regular blackouts. So it is in this sector that foreign investment has become particularly vital.
|Areng Valley in Cambodia's Cardamom Forest is home to ancient trees and numerous endangered animal species. However, a planned hydroelectric dam threatens ... rainforest-rescue.org|