New Emissary

Cambodia’s Blind-Eye

The country plans to build a skyscraper and titanium mine and forgets…the people.

It isn’t the likeliest place to house Asia’s tallest building, but Cambodia has officially made it known that it plans to build a skyscraper that stands 1,820 feet (555 metres) high in its capital city of Phnom Penh. The slightly ‘off’ nature of this news hasn’t gone unnoticed by many. The Associated Press, for instance, states (with a hint of irony?) that the new structure will stand in ‘a dusty city of colonial villas (and) slums,’ while Reuters points out that ‘real estate companies questioned whether there was much demand for a building half a kilometre high in the capital of one of Asia's poorest countries.’

Indeed, it seems ironic that the impoverished nation, which has lately also been garnering international criticism on human rights issues, would be investing such a large sum of public funds into a building that seems to be no more than a status symbol for the government and the few well-to-do. Construction of the proposed tower, as publicly announced this week by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, doesn’t have a scheduled start date yet, but it will cost about $200 million to build.

Meanwhile, there's also talk of another large infrastructure change brewing in the small country—the construction of a titanium mine in Koh Kong Province that's slated to begin next year. This project, which would be the largest mine ever built in Cambodia, has drawn protests locally and from around the world, as it threatens to destroy ‘144,000 hectares of protected forest in the district, as well as ecotourism projects that support 150 families in Chi Pat commune.’

I visited the unforgettable Chi Pat village last year, and spoke to members of the Wildlife Alliance conservation organization there who told me that this area is also an important elephant corridor (the Southwest Elephant Corridor), and that ecotourism (not titanium mines) offers hope for the majestic creatures’ future survival.

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Non-profit organization Care2 lays the facts out eloquently on their website, describing the area threatened by the proposed mine, the Cardamom Mountains, as a home also to species including Malayan sun bears, pileated gibbons, Siamese crocodiles and half of Cambodia's bird species—as well as being inhabited by the 100 wild Asian elephants, the country's largest population of the animals.

Care 2 also has said the project will likely damage rivers key to fisheries, agriculture and drinking water for local populations and wildlife and spoil ecotourism programs in the region that ‘bring revenues and jobs to poor rural people while preserving the natural environment.’

It seems that the Cardamom Mountains are very close to being recognized globally as being a prime example of the conservation movement and an ideal model for community-based and sustainable economic development. But, according to the organization, ‘if the government allows mining, for the sake of a few years of mineral extraction, Southwestern Cambodia would lose forever the forest, the elephant corridor, and the chance for a sustainable future for local communities. All that would be left would be a massive hole in the ground and surrounding ecological devastation.’

One can only hope that the government of this vibrant and resilient nation will come to put its people’s long-term well-being first when making such major decisions that for now seem entirely about short-term economic gains.