This series of video reportages on the Cambodian rainforest and the Mekong river was made by the River Journal Project, an independent group of journalists dedicated to reporting on current issues while exploring the greatest rivers of the world. We are Marzio G. Mian, Nicola Scevola, Nanni Fontana and Massimo Di Nonno.
EP 01 “GUERRILLA ANTI-LOGGERS”
The Cambodian rainforest is called the Amazon of Southeast Asia for its ability to absorb CO2 and regulate the flow of the Mekong River. But this green lung is disappearing at an alarming rate: since 2011, Cambodia has lost more than half of its trees, one of the worst records in the world. Trafficking and smuggling timber over the border with Vietnam are lucrative trades that appear to be actively orchestrated by the political and military elite. A vast amount of research points to an intricate and well-entrenched patronage system that governs the relationships between illegal loggers, local tycoons, and government officers. But in the same jungle that witnessed one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century, a new generation of unarmed guerrilla is now fighting – they are forest defenders and anti-logging activists. These people have been arrested, threatened with violence and accused of being terrorists. Anyone defending Cambodia’s forests risks ending up in the crosshairs of government officials who are more interested in trafficking timber than in protecting trees.
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Trees are also cleared to make way for vast banana, cassava, and cashew nut plantations – which then become the main source of employment for local communities, where people are forced to choose between working as laborers or taking up chainsaws. It’s a battle on many fronts for these guerrilla anti-loggers.
EP 02 “PERFECT STORM ON THE MEKONG RIVER”
Deforestation exacerbates the consequences of global warming, with less rainfall and shorter and more intense monsoon seasons — a perfect storm unleashed on the entire Mekong ecosystem. On top of this comes the impact of hydropower dams. We visited a barrage on the Cambodian-Lao border — the last in a series of 13 dams built upstream, almost all of them in China — which are changing the natural flow pattern of the Mekong River. The most dramatic consequence is a 90% drop in catches reported by fishermen on the Tonle Sap lake, the largest freshwater reservoir in Southeast Asia and one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world. The lake — Cambodia’s main source of protein — is directly connected to the Mekong River, which annually helps replenish it with sediments and nutrients. But today the river water level has dropped, with devastating effects on the Tonle Sap lake and its fish. Finally, the combined impacts of climate change, dams, and deforestation have pushed many fishermen to turn to farming, further affecting the entire ecosystem. More trees are cut down and fires are often lit deliberately to clear land for agriculture, reducing the floodplain forest around the lake, which provides habitat to animals and is crucial for marine species reproduction.
EP 03 “THE GREAT GAME ON THE MEKONG RIVER”
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. and China were allied against Soviet influence along the Mekong river. Today the same river that flows through the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh has become one of the hottest battlegrounds in the geopolitical competition for Southeast Asia between Washington and Beijing. The U.S. blames the many Chinese dams built upstream for subverting the environmental balance of the Cambodian ecosystem. But the government in Phnom Penh proves loyal to Beijing. And the environmental question turns political. Beijing is building a hegemonic sway over Cambodia and it is no coincidence that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is in development along the Mekong river. Increasing Chinese influence in the country also translates into deforestation to make space for immense fruit and vegetable plantations for the Chinese market. Above all, it translates into expanded trade volumes and infrastructure investment for which the Great River is paying a heavy tribute – the impacts of excessive sand mining along Cambodia’s portion of the Mekong river have been documented in many reports, driven primarily by the burgeoning sand demand in the high-growth national and regional construction sector. Perhaps the coup de grace for the Great River.