- Sim Him has organized the planting of more than 200,000 mangrove trees in Cambodia’s Trapeang Sangke estuary. The surrounding ecosystem, which feeds thousands of families, is thriving.
- But the nearby construction of a ferry terminal and a luxury resort are upsetting the estuary’s equilibrium, and development projects continue west along the coastline from there.
- Dotted along a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) coastal strip, no less than six large-scale developments present a direct threat to healthy mangrove forests and the fishing communities they support.
- Aside from being a nursery for sealife and a barrier to erosion, mangroves are also one of the planet’s most effective carbon neutralizers, capable of capturing and storing it for millennia.
KAMPOT, Cambodia — As the Trapeang Sangke estuary opens up into the Gulf of Thailand, the dense green mangroves that line its edges taper off in stages, from thick, full-grown forest down to new, spindly saplings marking a perfect frontier. On a timber deck that stretches by gangplank out over the furthest reach of this 337-hectare (833-acre) mangrove plantation, its guardian, Sim Him, was talking about the future.
“That’s the shipping lane,” he said, pointing toward two peaks of golden earth protruding from the ocean, “and the resort development,” he continued, raising both eyebrows and sweeping an arm over a bay crawling with tiny, rundown fishing boats, “is here.”
Seven years ago, Him gave up fishing in Kampot Bay off Cambodia’s southern coast and began growing mangroves. From a spider’s web of timber huts and walkways built over shallow, muddy waters, he sprouts and nurtures saplings and then replants them at the outer edges of the forest. Kampot Mangrove Forest, his not-for-profit organization that hosts environmentally minded travellers and students, has successfully transplanted more than 200,000 individual trees. As a result, this diverse estuarine ecosystem is thriving. The benefits spill out into a stretch of water that is the hunting grounds of small-scale and commercial fishing boats from both Cambodia and Vietnam.
But something has changed in recent months, Him said. The number of saplings surviving the transplanting process has decreased, from 95 percent to about 30 percent. Toxic sediment has spread to the plantation after a channel was dredged in the seafloor to service an under-construction ferry terminal. The terminal, itself built on 4 hectares (10 acres) of buried mangrove forest, is just one in a series of industrial and commercial developments set to impose oil tankers, factory zones and cargo ships on this placid bay of mangrove forests, salt fields and fishermen.
Dotted along a 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) strip of Cambodian coastline, no less than six large-scale developments present a direct threat to healthy mangrove forests, which, as a nursery for fish and crustaceans, stand at the vital center of an ecosystem supporting thousands of families.
The ferry terminal, being built with an $18 million loan from the Asian Development Bank, aims to bring passengers from nearby Thai and Vietnamese resort islands — upward of 360,000 of them a year, starting in 2019. An environmental assessment conducted in 2014 found that the terminal could harm mangrove forests and would destroy seagrass meadows. Earlier this month, an Asian Development Bank officer told Mongabay via email that a revised environmental management plan would be published in the first quarter of 2018. The project was approved by the Cambodian Ministry of Economy and Finance and has been well publicized. The remainder of the projects, however, have been less transparent.
A new Cambodia
Twenty years after the last of the Khmer Rouge rebels surrendered their arms, putting an end to decades of war, Cambodia is enjoying statistical prosperity like it has never seen. Expanding at 7 percent per year, its economy is among the fastest growing in the world. The World Bank has elevated the country from lower- to lower middle-income status. Foreign investment, particularly from China, flows in untapped. A country fractured by civil war is enjoying the fruits of development.
At least, its ruling class is. Land grabs, forced evictions, environmental destruction and the pillaging of natural resources are staples of local news, and poverty still hangs heavy over much of the population. In a traditionally modest and conservative society, the newly attainable consumer desires and development plans of the wealthy and well-connected often clash head-on with the basic needs of average citizens, the ecosystems they depend upon, and the conservation projects set up to protect them.
The $23.2 billion French Riviera Marina is a 6,000-hectare (14,826 acre) strip of golf courses, polo grounds, yacht clubs, beach resorts and villas on two artificial islands slated for construction across the mouth of the Trapeang Sangke inlet. The developer, a Dubai-owned, Cambodia-based company called Pallas Brilliant Investment and Development, has the wife of a senior government minister on its board. The project was given preliminary approval by the Council of Ministers in October 2016. On its website, the resort offers prospective residents the chance to enjoy life “with the very top tier of society” and “in complete harmony with the environment.”
Him said he was never consulted over the project, which would place a barrier of extreme decadence between hundreds of fishing families and the bay they depend upon. When a crew of laborers arrived in May to begin work on the project just beyond the reach of his mangrove plantation, a recognized conservation area, Him lobbied local authorities and had them removed. But he remains wary.
“It’s never over,” he said. “They test for our reaction, then they withdraw and reassess.”
A village holds on
A 30-minute drive west of Trapeang Sangke, past villages where fishermen literally step out of their homes and onto their boats, construction is once again underway at the site of a long-planned, 1,000-hectare (2,470-acre) special economic zone and accompanying port. The project’s stop-start development was punctuated by battles with a local fishing community over 200 hectares (494 acres) of threatened mangrove forest. Alongside a $400 million coal-fired power plant to be built with Chinese backing, the site is planned to become a manufacturing hub, importing raw materials and exporting finished products. The mangrove forest is long gone.
Nearby, the skeleton of a $300 million deep-sea port stretches out into the ocean. Built by Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings, it is expected to receive 20,000-metric-ton cargo ships by 2019. Between now and then, a 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) channel will be dredged to 15 meters (49 feet) below the water’s surface, releasing sequestered carbon into an ecosystem already besieged by acidification and rising water temperatures. Attached to the port, the Cambodia Petrochemical Company has flattened mangroves and erected the first storage tanks at a $2.3 billion oil refinery — all of it on a 300-hectare (740-acre) chunk of coastal land owned by timber baron Try Pheap, who is also an adviser to the Cambodian prime minister.
Private security guards ordered Mongabay away from the edge of the site, where dump trucks were lining up to pour dirt into the narrowing strip of wetland separating the development from a row of rickety homes belonging to a fishing community called Prey Smach.
“We don’t know how far they will come,” Sin Sen, the village chief, said later, peering through a tangle of mangroves toward a row of giant oil silos, the rumble of land reclamation grinding away in the background. “When they work, they work,” he said. “We don’t know much.”
At the far western edge of this strip of coastal development, bookending it opposite the Kampot Mangrove Forest to the east, Prey Smach is shrinking. Worse, its mangrove forests have been decimated. What’s left is constantly inundated with foreign sand, sediment and pollutants as the chunk of trucked-in red earth and development grows larger, louder and more imposing.
As village chief, Sen is the voice of the 37 families that remain in Prey Smach, the ones with nowhere else to go. But he has his own additional attachment to the mangroves here. In 2009, the United Nations Development Programme sent officers to initiate a mangrove rehabilitation project in the area. The locals resisted. “He persuaded us to participate,” Noa Ye, a mother of five, explained from the porch of her home, rolling her eyes at the idea of outsiders teaching people who live among the mangroves how to look after the mangroves.
The community eventually acquiesced and, according to Sen, revived and replanted a 10-hectare (25-acre) mangrove forest that attracted enough fish, crabs and shrimp for them to maintain a decent standard of living. “Now, it’s gone,” he said. “Eighty percent of it, gone.”
Rumors persist that Prey Smach and its mangrove forest will be totally erased by the oil refinery and port development. Sen, a wiry picture of resilience and frustration, insists he has assurances to the contrary from the national level. But he knows well the influence that money and power can have over assurances, duty and reason: in an extremely rigid, top-down system of governance, all those between Sen and the highest level seem to have thrown their lot in with the developers, effectively silencing any noise coming from below.
“It is his duty to protect,” Sen said of the local commune chief, one rung above him in the administrative chain of command. “But he has taken the money and now he is over there working for the company every day, directing the trucks that are filling our land.” The construction, he said, has taken such a toll on the ecosystem that fishing is no longer sustainable — the cost of gasoline required to get far enough away from the destruction to make a decent catch outweighs any potential returns. Locals are going overseas for work or into debt, he said, explaining that he had made an official appeal to the government to intervene.
“They must stop filling our land and killing our mangroves,” he said. “And fast; our stomachs are empty.”
The Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) is the government body ostensibly responsible for oversight of all large development projects in the private sector. However the process is not always transparent. Posed a series of questions regarding the sustainability and collective impact of the developments along Kampot’s coast, CDC official Lux Rachana said only that the agency “takes every impact of people’s lives into consideration.” He referred further questions to Kong Bunnary, head of investment planning for Kampot Province.
Bunnary said that all the projects had been considered and approved at the national level “one by one” and without “a master plan.” She said environmental impact assessments had been completed in all cases and Ministry of Environment requirements would ensure each project had systems in place to “make sure it does not pollute the sea.” She acknowledged some “minor” negative impacts imposed on local communities but argued they would be offset. “We will have restaurants, tourist agencies, tourist boats, hotels and resorts,” she said. “All these jobs will offer new income to the people.”
The decline of mangroves
All around the world, coastal wetlands are under threat, mostly from human activity, and their destruction feeds into rising water temperatures and climate change. Aside from being a nursery for sealife and a barrier to erosion, mangroves are one of the planet’s most effective carbon neutralizers, capable of capturing and storing it for millennia. One hectare, about 2.5 acres, of mangrove forest can store 726 metric tons of carbon emissions, as much as 44 Americans produce in a year. However, similarly to seagrass beds and tropical forests, mangrove forests are now being destroyed at such a rate that they have become a net source of carbon.
Back at the Trapeang Sangke estuary, Him draws a direct line between the health of the mangrove forests and the welfare of his people. Mangroves attract sealife; sealife is harvested and sold; parents can afford to educate their children, is how it goes. “For us, the mangroves are as important as life itself,” he said.
It was this realization, coupled with a sudden spike in developers’ interest in the area, that led him in 2009 to start advocating within the community. “It began with just a few of us spreading the message, that the mangroves needed to be preserved because they are the key to educating our children,” Him said.
But with rumors of development swirling, his activism didn’t go unnoticed for long. “Powerful people wanted to take control of this land and I was accused of becoming political because I was organizing in the community,” he said. For two years, Him spent most of his time at sea, he said, afraid police would be waiting each time he came back to land. And his fears were not without cause — Cambodia’s courts and prisons are littered with cases of local activists fallen afoul of well-connected developers.
Eventually, Him was cleared of any wrongdoing. He quit fishing, returned to village life and legitimized his new work, launching the Kampot Mangrove Forest. The project sleeps visitors in riverside bungalows and teaches them how to manage estuarine ecosystems, while expanding the existing forest and increasing catches and incomes for locals. “Our network is very strong: not just here but all around the world people will protect us if someone attempts to push us out of here,” he said.
A man for the people
Him is the commune chief now, the voice of 507 families across three villages. He said he has resisted threats, intimidation and large sums of money in order to protect what he has built. “I stand with my people,” he said, noting the story of the commune chief at the other end of the string of developments who had sold out his. “If we don’t protect these ecosystems we will have another generation of migrant workers,” he added, referring to the estimated 1 million young Cambodians who, due to a lack of opportunity or a sudden change in circumstances, have gone abroad in search of employment.
Soon to be swamped by cargo ships, oil tankers and tourist ferries, the Kampot coastline is undergoing a drastic makeover. But Him has pledged to continue planting mangroves, even in the knowledge that he could never do enough to offset the destruction. “We transplant 1,000 mangroves in a month; the developers come along and destroy 1,000 in a day,” he said.
The French Riviera Marina would spell disaster for Trapeang Sangke, according to Him, but it could yet find its way to the scrapheap of similarly overambitious projects that never made it off the drawing board in Cambodia. The ferry terminal will disturb the ecosystem during construction and in operation, but Him is optimistic that its impact is manageable. The big worry, he said, is that this is just the beginning — that the place will be swamped by investors, land prices will spike, the mangrove plantation will be destroyed, and his people forced away from the ecosystem they are very much a part of.
“We understand that development is important, that it creates jobs for the people,” Him said. “But it creates jobs for educated people, not my people. We are fishermen — for us, development is like a cancer: fill this land, fill that land; kill, kill, kill.”
Global Mangrove Watch (2018). “2010 mangrove extent (v1.2).” Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Kyoto & Carbon Initiativehttp://www.eorc.jaxa.jp/ALOS/en/kyoto/mangrovewatch.htm. Accessed through Global Forest Watch on January 30, 2018. www.globalforestwatch.org.
Banner image: A local volunteer plants a mangrove sapling at the Trapeang Sangke inlet. The best time for transplanting is July, the peak of the wet season when the estuary is least salty. With a full team of volunteers, 4,000 saplings get transplanted in the most productive months. Photo by Matt Blomberg for Mongabay.
Matt Blomberg is a freelance journalist based in Cambodia since 2012. He doesn’t tweet much, but you can follow him @BlombergMD.
Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy.
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