There appears to be a consensus within donor, NGO and even academic circles that human induced climate change is one of the biggest environmental crises facing the Kingdom of Cambodia. Technical working groups have been established, a Climate Change Office has been created, donor driven government policies have been put in place and NGOs from the north to south of the Kingdom are increasingly including “climate change adaption” in their programming. Yet something fundamental here is missing; namely the link between human induced climate change and the actual changes in climatic patterns and rural livelihoods.
Before proceeding it is important to note this is not at attempt at human induced climate change denial. Human induced climate change is a very real phenomena and supported by a body of scientific evidence. Furthermore it is an urgent and pressing issue which requires wholesale economic restructuring. However just because something is established as being a scientifically supported phenomena at the global scale does not then mean it can be casually suggested, without proper scientific investigation, as being the sole cause of a host of problems at the local scale. Yet that is the logic that the Cambodian development industry works on. It is not argued here that human induced climate change is not an issue warranting concern in the context of Cambodia, but that it is an issue low on the concerns of rural farmers and has received disproportionate focus and resource allocation in comparison to much more well documented and pressing local concerns.
Within literature addressing the climate change issues, the basic formula that the development industry in Cambodia uses is X + Y = Z where X (vague reference to the fact that human induced climate change exists at a global scale) + y (anecdotal accounts of farmers stating that their climate is changing) = Z (all Cambodian rural farmers are suffering from climate change). For instance, in an article from March this year on Cambodian rural farmers perceptions of climate change, the beginning paragraph states: “The rains were kind to Cambodian farmer Tep Van last year, when the monsoon season doused his land with enough water to soak his fields and grow his precious rice crop. But he’s not sure he can count on the same luck this year”. In actual fact, rain has so far sporadically come earlier this year in comparison to last year.
Within a short documentary created by one of the most active NGOs working in the field of climate change adaption in Cambodia, the story of Sre is told – a female farmer struggling to feed her family in an unidentified lowland province. After moving to new rice paddies, we are told that Sre struggles to feed her family as the new rice paddies are less productive than in the past and we are left with the suggestion that there is a strong link between human induced climate change and the fact that Sre now has to sell rice cakes at the market for only half a dollar a day. Of course decreasing yields due to over use of fertilizers, lack of irrigation, changes in rural labor, decreasing land size holdings and changed hydrological regimes play no part in this story – even though all these things are quite well documented in a Cambodian context.
How is it that the development industry can so adamantly and systematically misrepresent rural agricultural problems as primarily being caused by human induced climate change when other causes of rural agricultural failure are so well documented and conspicuous? Is it a case of what Ferguson found in his classic ethnography of the development apparatus in Lesotho – systematic misrepresentation of rural life in order to facilitate the ‘success’ of technical development interventions ? Or possibly another donor driven consensus, much like what political economist Caroline Hughes has documented, which can be tested and expanded across a country dependent on foreign money and development knowledge.
Within Ratanakiri province a single Vietnamese dam has fundamentally changed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers dependent on the Sesan river’s waters. At the same time the rapid clear felling of tens of thousands of hectares of evergreen and secondary forest for rubber plantations is having a severe impact on ground water levels and stream regimes (not to mention land alienation) . In the lowlands in Kampong Chnang province, repatriation of Khmer Rouge era irrigation systems is suddenly preventing downstream farmers from gaining access to the seasonal flood waters that rice paddy farming is dependent on. Most obvious of all, land contestation and an agricultural trading system built around patrimonialism is systematically preventing small rural farmers from increasing productivity and significant livelihood gains. In fact in a recent economic history of Cambodia, Slocomb has suggested that the one enduring tendency of the Cambodia rural economy over the last five hundred years has been for agricultural profits and gains to flow upwards hierarchically providing little incentive for rural farmers to make investments to increase productivity. Yet from Ratanakiri to Kompong Chnang, NGOs and state departments are increasingly speaking about Climate change as if it was the only problem which rural farmers face. In fact Cambodia wide there has almost been a fetish amongst NGOs and donors to explore and delve into every aspect of climate change and create an endless suite of interventions. These range from; Youth in a changing environment (an intervention aimed at counseling youth so they can deal with the livelihood changes associated human induced climate change) to special interventions aimed at promoting the participation of women in households and village level discussions and adaptations to climate change. Last year marked the second national environment day – celebrated as a ‘festival’ in Phnom Penh complete with a range of stalls set up by; donors, NGOs, private business and one or two government departments (all predominantly focusing on issues surrounding climate change). Apart from a speech given by the minister of Environment on the need for everyone to work together (and continue giving funding for) climate change adaption – which busloads of school students had to compulsory attend and give periodic yells of ‘hoorah for Cambodia!’, there were also numerous exhibitions of initiatives on climate change adaption. At the EU stall was ‘a green energy’ exhibition which amongst other things included a small air-conditioning device which was supposedly run on minimal power and used to keep those manning the stall cool in the 40c heat. The absurdity of development industry accounts of climate change and proposed interventions is nicely captured in the photo above of the mentioned stall. Note the mini air-conditioning unit.
Yet in light of the millions of dollars that donors are now annually pouring into the “climate change adaption” industry, what actual evidence is there that human induced climate change is negatively impacting on rural Cambodian farmers? The answer to this is very little. Within the Cambodia UNDP climate change website, which offers probably the most extensive resources on the issue within Cambodia , there is only a single report (released last month) which uses extensive nation-wide, primary data. Furthermore this is report is on perceptions towards climate change as opposed to a physical sciences study on the impacts of climate change. In other words, amongst the various sub sections on ‘climate change and gender’ and ‘climate change and youth’, there is a systematic lack of evidence to show that human induced Climate change is an actual crisis Cambodian farmers are experiencing. As global climate change is after all a global problem the actual process of scientifically establishing a connection between changing agricultural conditions and human induced climate change has largely been left up to global level institutions such as the IPCC who are best placed to conduct such studies. Yet this hasn’t stopped donors, NGOs, government officials at all levels, and even rural farmers themselves, from constantly suggesting that interventions are needed to be made in Cambodian village life to minimise the impeding crisis.
In the afore mentioned study “understanding public perceptions of climate change in Cambodia”, the major conclusion is that although the majority of people do not understand the climate change phenomena, it is still an important concern. The report noted that almost all respondents have extreme difficulties in making connections between local changes in rainfall and human induced climate change – with a tendency “for a lot of misunderstanding” where “many respondents believed climate change to be a local issue caused by deforestation, as opposed to a global problem”. Yet rather than admit that a long bow was being drawn by trying to make causal connections between changing rural agriculture and human induced climate change, the overall conclusion of the report was that ‘capacity development’ exercises need to be stepped up so that Cambodian farmers can properly understand what is changing their agricultural systems. Are there any similarities here to Ferguson’s description of the way the Lesotho development industry increasingly tried to cover up the flawed assumptions of its interventions by simply creating more development knowledge with justified the ‘need’ for more interventions?
But what is distinct about the Cambodian situation is the canniness and opportunism of local actors who can skilfully negotiate donor driven discourses. State actors have long understood the need to at least publically adhere to the concerns of the international development industry – which partially explains why the contemporary Cambodian state has the largest number of departments of any bureaucracy in the world – a new concern – a new department. Millions of dollars have flowed into the state budget for climate change adaption and the UN endorsed carbon trading program (REDD) is set to channel significant amounts of foreign capital directly into the state budget. Yet it is not just capital that state actors are after – climate change adaption is a means of avoiding the tricky political questions over land and corruption. It is a way to engage with the international development industry and gain legitimacy without touching on the tricky political issues which plague contemporary Cambodia. Although there is strong evidence to show, that excluding a handful of the highest officials, state actors, like Cambodian farmers, have little understanding of what the human induced climate change phenomena actually is, they have been quick to adopt the discourse into their political agendas. Back in Ratanakairi province, government circulars have been produced which make specific linkages between climate change and the need to relocate indigenous swidden farmers closer to the national road where they will be trained to conduct distinctly Khmer forms of sedentary farming.
Of course the large areas of swidden farmland and secondary forest that they technically have legal tenure over will be used to ‘mitigate climate change’ (grow rubber plantations). At the local level, recipients of NGO programming have also showed an ability to quickly adapt to new donor concerns. Just as other well know ethnographies of development have shown, Cambodian farmers are not the passive recipients of NGO handouts oblivious to outsider agendas. Farmers are acutely aware of the need to articulate their problems in line with donor concerns in order to capture the dregs of development aid. After all, farmers also read, listen to the radio and watch television – as opposed to living in caves.
Yet while the state and local farmers skilfully manipulate the donor driven discourse for their own agenda’s, there is a disturbing trend whereby large NGOs appear to actually believe in the concern and are increasingly conducting an almost endless amount of trainings and workshops in order to convince of the need for more ‘capacity development’ around climate change. As an example of the backwardness of local farmers conceptions of the climate change phenomena, the previously mentioned report patronisingly cited the common reply of farmers to the question ‘what could be done to reduce climate change impacts on local livelihoods’ as ‘get air conditioning’. Where would they get such an absurd idea? Surely they too didn’t attend the EU’s stall on national environment day?