This Land is My Land

Environmental Corruption in Cambodia

In a country like Cambodia, development and reconstruction is crucial. The Khmer Rouge and resulting civil war nearly destroyed the country and left it a skeleton of its former self. For the past fifteen years, the government has been pushing to bring back normalcy in a country that has seen nothing but war for over thirty years. For the Cambodian government, step one to a better country is economic development and the best way to do that is to follow the market—to find the item in highest demand. Cambodia is fortunate enough to be home to some of the most globally desired products: free land, exotic species, and luxury hardwood.

In this rush to bring the country out of poverty, the government has made quick measures to exploit all the resources Cambodia has to offer, and as a result, uncontrolled capitalism has exploded there. Private companies and investors have flooded Cambodia with offers to buy land, wood, and animals. The government acquiesced to their increasing demands and many officials quickly slipped into corruption, deciding to reap their own benefits from this new system. Officials started accepting bribes and donations from business tycoons, and taking land to develop their own industries. Cambodia’s forested landscape was divided into state-owned land and national parks. National parks are meant to preserve the natural ecosystems in the country while state-owned forests could at any time be sold to private developers. These sold pieces of land, called economic land concessions (ELCs), are huge drivers of deforestation. The official purpose of the ELCs is to promote economic growth through industrial agriculture. However, many companies are buying up land just to clear-cut acres of land for timber.

This land-grabbing system is not only  environmentally unsustainable, but also causes incredible amounts of social harm. Many rural peoples and ethnic minorities inhabit these state-owned forests and, because the land is owned by the state, these people are prohibited from receiving land title. As a result, they live in the fear that, at any moment, the land they have historically lived on will be turned into an ELC. The people living in these state-owned forests are very poor and heavily depend on the forest’s resources in their daily lives. The destruction of natural resources for economic development hurts this extremely vulnerable population and only benefits the upper crust of Cambodian society. This system leaves the poor desperate and the government officials hungry for more money.

In such a corrupt system where most decisions are based on profit, clever tycoons easily penetrate the system to manipulate it to their benefit. One of the best examples of the depth of corruption in this system is the monopoly of timber by an influential tycoon in Cambodia—an owner (whose name I can’t mention) of a number of hotels, casinos, and a logging company. His logging company is interested in Cambodia’s two economically significant luxury hardwood species: rosewood and mahogany. His influence over the government is so great that the prime minister gave him exclusive rights to all the wood cut from every ELC in two provinces, as well as all the wood confiscated by forest government agencies from illegal loggers. Ironically, this man’s logging company is hiring most of the illegal loggers whose wood gets confiscated. These people who are hired to cut illegally are desperate people who, when offered up to $100 for a tree, can hardly refuse. When these poor loggers get caught, the government agencies not only confiscate the wood, but also their saws and their motorbikes. The loggers are risking everything to get some money. In this system, the poor are taking the fall while tycoons are getting fatter.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident—there’s another man who has control over mining and yet another over water resources. For each resource, there is a tycoon raking in millions of dollars while millions of people suffer as a result. Thousands of hectares of land are being taken away from locals and given to private companies. Many displaced people are forced into the illegal logging or hunting trade. Merchants offer these displaced people large sums of money for luxury wood and exotic animals and these people are forced to accept the offers because they are left with such limited options to survive. This then creates a cycle which perpetuates systematic corruption and environmental degradation.

Sadly, I’m not sure if this problem can be fixed. Given the choice between conservation and development, the Cambodian government is going to choose development. It is a difficult decision for an emergent country to make, especially when very few developed nations are making strides towards economic growth without environmental degradation. Witnessing the effects of privatization in Cambodia’s government has made me reflect on the influence private corporations have on governments worldwide. Globally it has become acceptable for companies to run a country and for the government to represent the needs and interests of the corporation instead of the people. Cambodia is just one piece of a larger trend which needs to be addressed by the global community before it’s too late to be fixed.