The Cardamom Conundrum: Q&A with CI’s Tim Killeen

Later this month at Rio+20, world leaders will gather to discuss the future of our planet — a future that must account for the value of nature in order to achieve truly sustainable economic growth. In his new book,The Cardamom Conundrum: Reconciling Development and Conservation in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” scientist Dr. Tim Killeen provides an insightful new look at sustainable development opportunities in this resource-rich but poverty-stricken country. He recently took time to discuss his research with me.

deforestation in Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains

Deforestation in Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains. (© CI/Photo by David Emmett)

Q: What is the “Cardamom conundrum”?

A: The term “conundrum” describes a puzzle whose solution involves resolving a paradox. In Cambodia’s case, the paradox arises from two widely held and conflicting assumptions: that the pathway to a modern economy requires exploiting a country’s natural resources, versus the contrasting vision that the long-term prosperity of a nation depends on the conservation of those very same resources.

In the book, I attempt to show that the best economic options are also in line with priorities in the environmental and social dimensions. Development options that promote investment in a productive asset are good business, and applying that logic to the natural assets of a country or region also makes good business sense.

Q: Why is this region of Cambodia so important?

A: The Cardamom Mountains and surrounding regions — what I call the “Greater Cardamom Region” — makes up about one-third of Cambodia’s land area and has a combined population of more than a million people. The region’s watersheds extend to the Tonle Sap Lake in the north and the Gulf of Thailand in the south and provide freshwater resources of strategic importance to the country.

For example, the ongoing development of hydropower facilities in the region will provide Cambodia with affordable energy that is key to economic growth and development of the entire nation. More importantly, the region is a microcosm of the nation; the development strategies that make sense for the Cardamoms also make sense for the country as a whole.

Q: What was the focus of your research?

A: I focused on the potential “win-wins” that sustainable development can bring to economic decision-making. For example, most of Cambodia’s farmland lies dormant during the long dry season, but drip irrigation that exploits the subterranean aquifer of the Tonle Sap and Mekong River could revolutionize the livelihoods of the nation’s small farmers. Since the aquifer is replenished each year by the annual floods, this agricultural intensification strategy would be completely sustainable.

Likewise, investments in aquaculture could alleviate the stress to the nation’s natural fisheries — assuming, of course, that aquaculture is also practiced sustainably and protects surrounding freshwater and estuarine resources.

Tim Killeen inspecting confiscated timber near Central Cardamom Protected Forest

Tim Killeen inspecting timber beams confiscated by forest rangers and military police near the Central Cardamom Protected Forest in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Tim Killeen)

Q: How is climate change impacting the Mekong River basin?

A: The annual monsoon is a very stable climatic phenomenon, and this is good news for the region. However, some models show the monsoon will increase in intensity, with greater rainfall in the wet season and a more severe dry season. Climate change may also lead to an increase in the periodic droughts that are associated with the El Ñino phenomenon of the Pacific Ocean. That will increase the risk to farmers and the ability of hydropower facilities to meet energy demand.

Q: What were some of the major findings of your research?

A: Cambodia can build a green economy by focusing on four pillars of its existing and future economy:

  1. Conserving and managing forests by emphasizing community forestry (which can be subsidized by international carbon markets).
  2. Diversifying agriculture by intensifying production on the rice plain through drip irrigation, but also by introducing new crops on upland landscapes, particularly perennial woody species such as rubber and silk.
  3. Ensuring the productivity of the country’s existing natural fisheries, while using technology to promote innovation and sustainability in aquaculture.
  4. Promoting the concepts of sustainable tourism by improving land-use planning and zoning, energy efficiency and design in tourist facilities.

Q: Did any of these findings surprise you?

A: Not really … most of these concepts and ideas have been promoted for years by the development community. What has changed is the realization that climate change and a globalized economy dictate that business models embrace the concepts of sustainability. Cambodia has the opportunity to be a leader in developing a green economy — in part, because the country doesn’t have the legacy of a fossil fuel dependent economy, but also because by embracing the concepts of sustainability, the goods and services they produce will be more competitive in global markets that are increasingly demanding sustainable products.

Q: How much research went into this book?

A: I am not a Cambodian expert, and have spent most of my career working on environmental and development issues in the Amazon. CI sent me to Cambodia in 2008 to help our program understand development issues, particularly those related to hydropower infrastructure and regional integration.

The book grew out of that experience, and reflects the information and knowledge produced by hundreds of researchers and development experts who have been working in Cambodia over the past two decades. It is much more a compilation and synthesis of information, rather than original research.

Q: What will be the outcome of this research? What should the next steps be?

A: The book has been translated into Khmer, and we hope that it will be read by Cambodia’s decision-makers. We are confident that it will be a “must read” book that will impact the youth of Cambodia. The book conveys a positive message, and we hope that message will influence the national debate on Cambodia’s future.

Tim Killeen is the senior technical advisor for global change and ecosystem services in CI’s Science and Knowledge division.

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