During the Vietnam War era troubles, the business opportunity for wealthy and connected Thais was teak poaching and smuggling from Cambodia. Somehow, they never had any problems with any of the Thai legal formalities that prohibited such activities. The young man behind me worked for me at Esso and was the privileged son of a Minister in the Thai Government at the time. He was a great guy and that is his .45 caliber Smith & Wesson “Dirty Harry Special” that saved my bacon once on the other side of Thailand in a different product smuggling operation from Burma. This camp was the base operation where teak logs were pulled over from Cambodia into Thailand and cut into tabletops representing a more saleable and transportable commodity. There is nothing like a foreign camping adventure in the rain forest jungle.
Unfortunately, we went into the rain forest in Khmer Rouge territory the next day and had great difficulty extracting ourselves which is another chapter as the focus of this coverage is conservation and exploitation. Nonetheless, just to give everyone a sense of the grandeur of a true virgin rain forest, the image below illustrates what I subsequently coined “Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for I am the meanest mother ----in the valley.” I have that inscription on the back of a vintage Zippo of that era which will bolster courage even in these modern times. Buddhism can modulate such bravado and bring a proper balance to everything. You might know the guy on the left with his Abercrombie & Fitch hat purchased in New York before leaving for parts unknown. The grandeur of an ancient teak forest is apparent. Ultimately, you reach a point where you cannot see the sun above the canopy jungle which causes great difficulty finding your way home. The rule is “do not enter the rain forest without a compass.” Sadly, that is a rule from the past given logging for the past fifty years.
The exploitation of natural resources expanded to focus on human resources to manufacture the famous brands the western world consumes. That demand created an exponential growth in power demand which is the current problem facing the former Khmer Rouge officer and subsequent leader for life of Cambodia, Hun Sen. Hordes of workers are bussed to sweat shops in Cambodia to make the fashionable brands that are purchased around the world. As you can see below, the Covid pandemic had little impact on packing workers into buses to make the expensive products the elite purchase elsewhere.
The flaw in the business model is power to run these factories and keep the lights on elsewhere in the country. Recently, Nikkei Asia published an article entitled Cambodia Counts the Cost of Its Push to Expand Coal-Fired Power. Clearly the massive increase in manufacturing of designer products given the cheap labor has caused the demand for electricity to increase exponentially. Accordingly, the addition of power lines to buildings requires a large team and a lot of “lines in the sky” as shown below.
In 2003, the Cambodian government believed that dams built on their rivers would enable them to achieve energy independence for power generation. However, large power projects met resistance from communities displaced by reservoirs. Furthermore, climate change has exacerbated the impact caused by natural droughts and competition for hydropower to the north in Laos. The extreme drought in 2019, as shown below, strengthened the argument that hydro was not going to be the silver bullet for the future. It is unlikely Cambodia will ever be able to repay the China hydropower loans but China basically owns Cambodia already.
Strangely, coal-fired power plants became the direction for Cambodia’s future to the obvious exclusion of environmentally friendly solar and wind farms. The Cambodian Director General of the Ministry of Mines and Energy’s Department of Energy, defended the fast-tracking of fossil fuel projects stating the authorities aimed to achieve “balance” between “green” and “the economy.” Maybe “green” just means “greenbacks.”
Major companies such as clothing giants H&M, Adidas, Puma and Gap have informed the government to the effect that countries that view coal as a viable source of energy for the long-term “will lose out.” If the Cambodian government is pursuing a certain energy policy, one can rest assured it has the full support of Hun Sen. As a former Khmer Rouge officer, he was complicit in the deaths of his fair share of two million fellow Cambodians during their troubles so why bother about a bit of pollution? However, we as consumers, can look at the product source tags of the clothing we purchase to see if we want to support this policy.
Take a look at these discarded cement bags which have been re-purposed into bags, wallets and purses by Cambodian craftsmen. They are tough and long-lasting!