Grappling with Climate Injustice in Cambodia

Photo by Allason Hsu, ISF Academy

Story by Anthony Zunino, Global Co-op

What words and images come to mind when we hear the term “climate change”?

Sea level rise, smog-choked skies, a polar bear stranded at sea. When discussing climate change, the narrative tends to focus on its geophysical effects, but across the world people are facing this phenomenon’s consequences head on. Most of these people are not even responsible for it.

In May of 2017, I travelled with a group of grade 9 and 10 students from Hong Kong’s Independent Schools Foundations (ISF) Academy to a small village in Baray District, Cambodia. As a teaching co-op, my role was to instruct and direct student research in the community and to assist with their service learning projects. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Cambodia is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most vulnerable nations to climate change, and I was eager to dig into why this was the case.

With rural populations dependent on agriculture for their income, frequent flooding and droughts caused by a changing climate have dismantled village economies in Cambodia. Farmers plant rice according to the rainy and dry seasons in southeast Asia, seasons which are affected by global temperature changes. What were once reliable patterns of rainfall have become unpredictable, and farmers can no longer look to their calendars for guidance. In general, Cambodian small holders no longer make a living through rice planting due to frequent crop failure. Of the 22 village households we surveyed during our time in Baray, 15 reported being food insecure.

When crops fail, farmers are left in debt from the seeds they purchased and are forced to sell their land to pay it back. Many villagers now have left their fields behind to find work in Thailand or Cambodia. Of the households we surveyed, fifty percent reported the need to migrate for income, creating an unsustainable village economy and a fragmented community. When independent farmers in Cambodia have to sell their land due to crop failure, oftentimes it is bought up and consolidated by foreign companies for use in growing cash crops like rubber and palm oil. Where there were once rice paddies and trees, heavy machinery is now reshaping the landscape. Investors from major greenhouse gas-producing nations are profiting off of the fact that climate change, a phenomenon to which they have contributed, has pushed out independent Cambodian farmers. These farmers bear little responsibility for a changing climate, yet they have to face the greatest consequences.

This theme of climate injustice is not exclusive to Cambodia, but watching backhoes roll across what were once lush and productive rice paddies brought home for me the human aspect of this global issue. After completing our household surveys, I spoke with some students about the shortcomings of quantitative data. I was happy to hear them reflect on the realization that reducing this village to a dataset does not tell the full story. Statistics could not convey the human experiences which made up Cambodian rural life, good or bad. They could not replace the sense of empathy felt from speaking to people in their own homes, and running around the schoolyard with second graders. Perhaps it is this sense of empathy that is missing from the world’s discussion of climate justice in Paris and Marrakech, where the United Nations Climate Change Conference took place in 2015 and 2016.  

Cambodia is a nation that has faced great historical challenges and atrocities which visitors like myself can only begin to understand. Less than forty years after the fall of Pol Pot’s brutally destructive Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has bounced back to become one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. Due to issues like climate injustice, not everyone enjoys the benefits of this development.

I look forward to seeing what Cambodia’s next Angkor Wat will be. For now, In Baray’s villages, it takes the shape of safe and welcoming elementary schools. Next year, it may be a community medical center. Initiatives like this cannot stop climate change, but they give people a reason to come back and try to make a living in their original homes. By strengthening rural communities in this way, their voices can become stronger as well. It will take a loud voice to achieve global climate justice, but by bringing human lives into the conversation, the fight against climate change becomes even more urgent. With so many discussions about the future effects of rising sea levels in Boston and Miami, we ought to also be paying attention to the current realities affecting places like Cambodia, whose realities are brought on by polluters like the United States.